Carn Dearg, Ben Nevis – Go The Other Way!

1 07 2015

Wed 10 June 2015
Originally, I’d been going to do the south-west Top of Ben Nevis, Carn Dearg – one of two peaks with the same name on The Ben – via the infamous Waterslide Route. The Waterslide route goes up the Allt Coire Eoghainn and has something of a reputation. Despite numerous enquiries, Googling and guide book studies however, I never managed to find out why! Irvine Butterfield, in his revered ‘The High Mountains of Britain and Ireland’ book says the route is ‘a steep, murderous flog of fully 4000 feet up slopes strewn with gullies and clifflets’. My friend Mark, who did it in snow and a winter gale with his mate, reckoned they had such an epic that day they were lucky to get back down in one piece – I re-read his report recently and it didn’t encourage me – nor did the photos!

Lots of photos for this one, click on them for full size/resolution – Richard’s photos are credited

In the end, I drove to the carpark at the foot of the Eoghainn a couple of times and gazed up at it – it looked fairly straightforward but the top section of the waterslide looked far too steep for mountain coward comfort, although I knew I’d probably be fine going up it and I could return over The Ben for the descent. As buses run up the glen as far as the Achriabhach carpark, about a mile from the Waterslide carpark, that would be very acceptable as a route. But a further factor putting me off, apart from the reputation, was that the route from the top of the waterslide up the peak looked horrifically steep. The rising ground going into the corrie above the waterslide and behind the peak looked encouraging but I couldn’t see what was around the corner and Mark’s report had suggested all was pretty steep and cliffy – he did have terrible visibility on his walk though…

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The Waterslide & Carn Dearg – R Wood

Irvine Butterfield suggested in his book that the best route goes over a shoulder of the summit plateau of The Ben and descends the ridge south-south-west to the Top and back. I started to think that, given a nice day with good visibility (otherwise it would be very hard to find the start of the ridge), that would make a lovely stroll. During my recent week at Roy Bridge, I managed to persuade Richard that he wanted to go up Ben Nevis a third time. Foolishly, he agreed and a superbly sunny, clear day was picked for the walk.

Now, the main tourist route up Ben Nevis has a deserved reputation for being quite a slog but The Ben is Britain’s highest mountain and very steep on all sides so you can’t really expect otherwise. We decided to park at the Achintee Farm carpark as they have very sensibly set up a pub at the start of the track – they must make a fortune as hot, tired and thirsty walkers descend to their door all day and most of the evening! We were grateful for this decision at the end of the day.

Sgurry Mhaim & Stob Ban
Sgurr a’ Mhaim & Stob Ban from start of ascent

We set off just after 10am in sunshine which was already quite hot. The first section ascends a fairly well-graded path along the side of Meall an t’Suidhe. Although it is well-graded, there are some stone-pitched sections with really huge steps up and also some very rocky sections – fine at the start of the day but we were dreading coming back down them with tired legs later. Our legs were still tired and sore after The Grey Corries on the Monday.

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Both photos R Wood
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Lots of younger people, many of them foreign visitors, flew past us but we noticed that we passed almost all of them again on the ascent. We kept up a very steady plod indeed all the way and didn’t stop for anything – others had to sit and rest and some fell foul of answering texts, phonecalls and other distractions.

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R Wood

There was one couple where the guy was carrying a young toddler on his back in a papoose – I’d have thought the weight was bad enough on such a hot day for such a strenuous walk but the kid kept yelling in his ear all the way up! We also saw on the descent they had an older child but it was probably only about 6 years old and I was surprised it had made it – as we didn’t see it on the way up, Richard suggested they may have tied it to a post until they came back down to the half-way lochan!

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both photos R Wood
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another of mine…
Ben Nevis - too steep and too high!

As we reached the col between Meall an t’Suidhe and The Ben at the halfway lochan it luckily cooled off a lot and the zig-zags which start from there are at a very easy angle.

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Both R Wood
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mine…
Meall an t'Suidhe & Halfway Lochan

My map said I had to leave the point of the 5th zig-zag to find my path along the edge of the plateau and three cairns mentioned in Butterfield’s guide which signalled the start of the SSW ridge to my Top.

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R Wood

Carn Dearg SW from zig-zags
My top appears from the zig-zags

We counted the first three very long zig-zags and then the path hit the snowy area so we couldn’t really tell where the path was any more. We did see the odd bit of zig-zag sticking out but it was pretty hopeless to find where the point of the 5th one would be…

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Both photos R Wood
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Further up, as the rise to the summit came into view and the plateau flattened off quite a bit, I still hadn’t seen where I should be turning off and any path would have been under the snow. I took a back-bearing from the NW Carn Dearg Top – that showed I wasn’t yet far enough to head SSW. I knew I had to descend immediately after the top of the infamous Five Finger Gully and wandered along the western edge of the plateau peering down – I wasn’t keen on getting too near the edge on the snow though. Richard had picked a spot by a stone shelter to wait for my return.

Eventually I decided I was in around the right place and headed over an area of snowless boulders which had started to curve down in a southerly direction. Luckily, the ridge to SW Carn Dearg is quite long and I soon saw the grassy ridge stretching along to my Top.

Carn Dearg SW & Mamores from reascent

What I saw next though, I didn’t like at all! The boulders and scree steepened drastically until I was looking 700 feet almost straight down to the grassy ridge far below – I had to go down there – not my sort of thing! I’d worried about seeing a mention of ‘steep scree’ in Butterfield’s book the night before and it had kept me awake for quite a while – now here it was.

My onward progress was pathetic! I spent more time going from side to side on the ridge and advanced downwards a couple of feet at a time while clinging onto larger boulders above me and tentatively trying my feet on various rocks to see if they would stay put. All the while, I could see the grassy area far below out of the corner of my eye and found the steepness very offputting. It wasn’t getting any nearer either. I must have spent way over half an hour descending the slope and I could imagine people watching my progress and thinking how useless I was.

Eventually, after what seemed like hours, I reached a short snow slope and gratefully stomped down it to the grass – phew! From there it was a lovely walk to the top. There was a descent down the grass past a lovely mossy spring, then a path appeared for the pleasant walk along the broad grassy ridge and finally there was a short ascent to the well-made, pointy cairn of the Top.

Carn Dearg ridge

I’d been looking all around the slopes into the corrie as I descended the grass and saw that, if you didn’t tackle the nose of Carn Dearg direct (which Mark and his friend had done), there were some very easy slopes up from the corrie to the Top. I had to fight with myself not to descend that way – but of course, Richard was waiting on the plateau for me. I’d toyed with the idea of trying to ring him and telling him I wasn’t coming back up but he later told me he didn’t have his phone with him – it would have been unlikely to have been turned on if he had.

Looking down Coire Eoghainn

Having no choice but to head back up the steep boulders and scree for 700 feet, I decided to have a decent break on the Top’s summit first and sat for liquid sustenance and a shortcake biscuit in the sunshine. The views all around were awesome. The Mamores were strung out in a beautiful, snow-edged chain.

Sgurry Mhaim from Carn Dearg SW

An Gearanach & Binnein Mor from Carn Dearg SW

Then there was the back of Aonach Beag and the lovely pointy Sgurr a’ Bhuic (peak of the roe-buck). I was surprised you couldn’t see the Carn Mor Dearg arete from there but you couldn’t.

Aonach Beag from Carn Dearg SW

Caol from Carn Dearg SW
Fort William & Caol from the summit

Upper Glen Nevis and The Steall waterfall looked beautiful way below. I took a few photos, packed my bag back up and, sighing, left for the slog back up to The Ben.

An Gearanach and Steal Fall far below

Ben Nevis Horrid Slope
Now for the reascent…

Going back up the bouldery ridge was, as I suspected it might be, way easier than descending had been – things are nothing like as loose to ascend. I was back up the ridge in less than ten minutes but exceedingly tired. I eyed the main summit briefly but decided I was too tired, had done it before anyway, and had been long enough on my earlier over-cautious descent so plodded back across the snowfields to where Richard was sat. I easily saw where he was amongst the throng as, in addition to sitting well away from the crowds, he had his bright green t-shirt on his head against the sun and looked rather like a colourful Arab!

I staggered across to him and flopped down with a groan.

“How was it?” he asked

“Bloody awful” I replied.

I then clarified that, actually the Top itself was lovely but that the descent of the ridge was horrid. I said that I wished I’d ascended via The Waterslide after all – I’m sure there aren’t really any problems with it on a nice day in summer. I asked if he’d gone up to the summit – he had and he hadn’t had to wait more than half an hour for me as plodding up the snow to the summit had been hard, slow work. He said it had been great ploughing back down the snow though – it was at that stage of niceness where you just sink into it enough for grip but don’t slip much. It also made the summit area look spectacularly beautiful and I took a couple of photos.

Ben Nevis Summit from rest place

Carn Dearg SW from top of 5 Finger Gully
A view of my top far below across the top of Five Finger Gully

I was extremely impressed by some of his photos of the snowy northern cliffs from the summit area…

Richard’s summit trip photos
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Absolutely stunning – but in June?!

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I’d seen (and heard) a group of men and women in the nearby shelter but hadn’t taken much notice of them. Richard then mentioned that the two women had just had a pee in the shelter while their menfolk took photos of their bums – I was disgusted! Not so much about them flashing their backsides on a crowded summit plateau but more about them peeing in the shelter.

There was a very loud bird call nearby – at first I thought it was the group in the shelter with some silly ring-tone or something as it sounded unnaturally loud. In the end though, a lovely little black-and-white bird flipped past me and it was that making the noise – I’m pretty sure it was a snow-bunting. It followed us to around the edge of the snowfields of the summit plateau and then just remained behind on a rock calling. I was sad to leave it behind…

I’d had another coffee, water and biscuit while I chatted to Richard and then we’d set off for our gruelling re-descent of the mountain. The zig-zags weren’t too bad and I found I didn’t have to get my pole out as they’re so well-graded.

When we reached the Red Burn we sat for a break by the cooling spray. I drank several cupfuls of the lovely, clean and cold water as did many other passers-by. I also took the opportunity to take my boots and socks off and soak my feet in the cold water (downstream 😉 ) – very refreshing!

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R Wood

Another couple sparked our disapproval as they decided to ignore the diversion signs away from the old, knackered and regenerating path and set off down it. We noticed with grim satisfaction though that they had so much trouble with the eroded path it took them almost as long as the folks who were walking round the much longer route on the proper path. It must also have been much more tiring on the legs as it was far steeper and, being loose, would require far more muscle use.

Red Burn

When we passed the half-way lochan again, we started the steep descent of the harder path and re-entered the hot zone. By now it was late afternoon and much, much hotter. I knew the rest of the descent would be trying and unpleasant – it was absolutely gruelling. I got my walking pole out for this section although my legs didn’t seem to be suffering too much.

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Both photos R Wood
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It seemed much longer than on the way out and neither of us could wait to finish. Rather like when we finish a walk with a bakery or tea-shop at the end, one of us sped off ahead on the last half mile or so… and it wasn’t me this time! Richard had smelt the pub and there was nothing holding him back any more.

It was wonderful to sit in the shade (quite a change for me as I always sit in the sun) and drink our respective pints – mine of the super-refreshing lime-and-soda and Richard a real ale. We were truly glad it was all over and had no intention of doing anything the next day except lounge in the sun all day. And that’s what we did!

Stats: 11 miles, 5128 feet of ascent (Carn Dearg route), 8 hours (I think our previous time was a bit less than this but was horrified to see that ‘3 Peaks Challenge’ walkers are expected to do The Ben in 5 hours!) 😮

Postscripts:
I was a bit upset when I saw Richard’s photos that night of the summit area and saw that everything had gone from the summit apart from a new ‘pagoda’ arty-type building. No observatory, no summit shelter (the pagoda-thing was locked), no old hotel ruin etc. He said a guy in the pub had told him he was a member of the John Muir Trust and, apparently, they’d had a major tidy-up and helicoptered all the ruins off the summit. I was pretty affronted as, in my book, they’re all mountaineering history and had a rightful place at the summit. It sounds akin to removing an old ‘dun’ or something from a location because it was man-made and spoilt the wilderness feel or something!

And I had no idea until recently that mountains can be reviewed on Trip Advisor – there’s one hilarious opinion on The Ben here!

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24 responses

17 07 2015
fedup

Missed you by a week or so – I took a mate up the Ben via the tourist route on the 30th May – the snow had certainly receded in that time!
Cheers Simon

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18 07 2015
mountaincoward

This was after 30th May – I thought there was quite a bit of snow compared to normal. I couldn’t believe those ‘ice cliffs’ in one of Richard’s photos!

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6 07 2015
Mark

Well that’s another of the awkward squad out of the way. Well done.

As it happens I’ve done that Carn Dearg twice. Once on a extended day when I Ledge Route and the other Carn Dearg. We went on to the Bens summit and CMD.

http://www.scottishhills.com/html/modules.php?name=Trip_Report&topicid=13890

When I did it in winter from the Waterslide it was pretty desperate.

http://www.scottishhills.com/html/modules.php?name=Forums&file=viewtopic&t=16767

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12 07 2015
mountaincoward

I really do wish I’d gone up the Waterslide and come back down over The Ben. It was an awkwardly-placed peak but, strangely, I kept forgetting about that one – like I thought it was insignificant or something. It certainly wasn’t insignificant on the day. It’s a nice top though, even if my route wasn’t a great one!

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6 07 2015
Rowena

I had no idea they had removed all the old buildings up there either. I slogged up the tourist path last year with some friends and their family and they were all still there. Am laughing at your description of the young folk falling foul of answering texts and phonecalls – it is so true and was also the case when I went up. Although the folk I was with were just as bad – we had to stop every 5 minutes so they could take a selfie with a Go-Pro and check into Facebook!
Am also completely disgusted at the ladies peeing in the shelter. Horrible 😦

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12 07 2015
mountaincoward

I can’t understand all this tech stuff on a walk – I just want to enjoy the experience and the scenery (if I’m lucky enough to have a day when the weather allows it). I can’t really understand it on nights out either – people ignoring each other and playing on their devices!

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4 07 2015
chrissiedixie

Fantastic looking day!

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12 07 2015
mountaincoward

It was superb weather but probably a bit hot for tackling The Ben!

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3 07 2015
Simon Howlett

The snow up there looks magnificent, Carol. Not impressed with the antics in the shelter … the women would’ve had more fun peeing in the snow instead! Enjoyed reading the review on Trip Advisor … couldn’t stop laughing!

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12 07 2015
mountaincoward

I almost howled with laughter when I read the Trip Advisor thing. The guys at work couldn’t understand why it was funny – but then, none of them are walkers…

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2 07 2015
tessapark1969

So that’s what Ben Nevis looks like. Saw nowt when we did it! Yuk re the peeing incident…

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12 07 2015
mountaincoward

I wouldn’t bother going up again on a good day though just for the views – it’s still an almighty slog and not that interesting a hill!

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2 07 2015
underswansea

Carol. Great post! A pub at the bottom of the mountain – I like that! I always have to keep my beer in a creek. You should have put the run on the youngsters pissing in the shelter – bare assed or not. Lovely photos of the mountains and the snow. It must have felt good to stand in it. Would have liked to chase after that snow bunting. Thanks for taking me along. Bob

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2 07 2015
mountaincoward

They weren’t youngsters – just what we would call ‘chavs’ – sort of rough/common folks – but they were probably in their 30s. We just watched with our mouths open and were too shocked to say anything!

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2 07 2015
underswansea

I’ve never heard the word ‘chavs’ before. I’d consider myself rough/common folk, however I am house broken. 😉

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12 07 2015
mountaincoward

Well I’m what we call ‘working class’ over here but I’m not common as such… LOL to the house-broken!

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1 07 2015
smackedpentax

Wow! That sounds like a slog. I don’t think I have ever been for a pee in a shelter…

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2 07 2015
mountaincoward

I definitely wouldn’t pee in a shelter considering it’s where people want to sit and eat their butties!

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1 07 2015
Paul Shorrock

The Ben certainly isn’t the place for lovers of solitude 🙂

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1 07 2015
mountaincoward

Not even overnight!

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1 07 2015
Blue Sky Scotland

Looks a hard day Carol. I have heard someone comment “the best thing about the Ben is that it keeps the crowds away from the better peaks.” Having said that the cornice and snow photos are amazing. I’ll bet the edges are collapsing now though in this heat. Wouldn’t want to be under that lot if it goes.

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1 07 2015
mountaincoward

that’s fair comment actually – I suppose it does!

Yeah, there’s a fair weight of snow on there this year. I wished I’d gone up to the summit and made Richard wait when I saw his photos…

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1 07 2015
Gaslight Crime

Absolutely wonderful pictures!

Liked by 1 person

1 07 2015
mountaincoward

Thank you 🙂 It did help having a superb day for a change though…

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