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The mountains of the Scottish Highlands are legendary; they have been the training ground for the many, many British mountaineers who've made a name for themselves conquering the highest and the most difficult mountains in the world.
I've been waiting all winter for ideal snow conditions to check out the famous Scottish arete that connects Carn Mor Dearg and Ben Nevis, but to my discontent (and a lot of others climbers), winter 1998 came and went without making much of an impression on the British Isles.
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Ben Nevis, at 4,409 ft., is the highest mountain in the UK. What this mountain lacks in height (as big mountains go), it makes up for in its fickle weather temperament. Hiking and climbing parties have perished in the past from disorientation brought about by a quick change in the weather. My trip was originally scheduled for the week before Easter, but an unusually strong storm, packing gale-force winds and a lot of moisture (causing rivers in the English Midlands to overflow) battered the UK that week, forcing me to re-schedule. But the storm did not bring significant new snow on the mountains.
I took the 21:35 "sleeper" train from London's Euston station to Fort William. The train goes through Edinburgh (which, I found out previously, doesn't rhyme with "Pittsburgh"; it's pronounced "Edinburrah", but only Scots seem to be able to generate the right sound from their throats). In the middle of the night, the train splits into 2 (I found this out in a Kafka-esque fashion when I woke up the next morning and realized that the train's food lounge from the night before had vanished), one half continuing north towards Aberdeen, the other for the Western Highland town of Fort William. The sleeping berths are quite comfortable, but may be too short for someone taller than 5'10" or too narrow for those weighing in north of 180 lbs. The journey took 13 hours, but it felt considerably shorter since the train departed late at night and passengers sleep for most of the journey. In fact the 21:35 departure time is perfect--by 8AM the following day, we were deep in the Scottish Highlands heading northwest. As I walked into the lounge to drink coffee, I noticed that most passengers were having their breakfast quite contentedly, looking out their windows, watching the picturesque Highland scenery of glacially carved valleys, lochs, rugged mountains, streams, waterfalls, gorges, sheep and wildlife. It was a very relaxing journey.
I exited the station into the glorious sunshine of a pleasant mid-spring morning and looked around me. Fort William would probably have been just another settlement if it weren't for Ben Nevis. The town originated from a fort built in 1649-1660 to control the generally lawless Highlanders and reconstructed during the reign of William III (1689-1702). A brochure in my hotel room had a condensed violent history of the Highlands: basically, the Gaels of Ireland (called "Scotti" by the Romans), the Vikings of Scandinavia, and the English took turns invading Scotland. Oh, and the Scots were also engaged in continual warfare amongst themselves. All this over land that is not very productive to begin with. In fact, the land's poverty is greatly responsible for Scottish immigration to Canada and the United States. As I understand it, wealthy landowners forced sheep-herding families into the unproductive Highlands when the landowners realized they can get higher returns from their more-fertile and more desirable southern properties by renting them to wealthy cattle and sheep farmers. Most families chose to try their luck elsewhere than starve. But I digress...
Frankly, there isn't much to do in Fort William, despite the obvious attempts to broaden the area's tourist appeal by closing the main street to motorized traffic, opening tacky Fisherman's-Wharf-type museums, and having Sunday afternoon parade by...you guessed it...bagpipe-playing Scotsmen in kilts. As it was, the town center was Polartec central: besides the locals, there were the ubiquitous Norwegian and Dutch hikers in their Helly Hansens carrying huge backpacks with nary a worry in the world, English hillwalkers proudly displaying their Karrimor jackets and Timberland boots and carrying their Ordinance Survey 1:25,000 maps in waterproof plastic pouches; there were the occasional American visitors wearing baseball caps, Jansport packs over their shoulders, generally talking louder than anyone else. The Scottish climbers tend to wear wool sweaters (or "jumpers" as the British call them) and over-the-knee style knicker pants with elastic bands over really long, thick woolen socks. Nonetheless, the people were very friendly, although one gets the feeling that the majority of people there are tourists (no fewer than 4 outdoor-wear shops carrying top-brand hiking boots and parkas on the main street confirms this).
(Left): Fort William on a rare, warm, sunny spring day. To the left of the church is the Alexandra Hotel where I stayed during my visit. The statue in kilt honors a Scottish statesman, the other statue is a memorial to local soldiers who died in WWI and its sequel. The ScotRail station is just across the street from the park. The inscriptions suggest that the area is home to the Camerons,the Campbells, the Morrisons, and the Stewarts.
I had planned to climb Ben Nevis tomorrow, and have today's entire afternoon free. Since the weather was unusually warm, I contented myself with sitting on a bench facing Loch Linnhe overlooking the pier, watching a tiny spider spin its web, only to change its mind and roll it all up, spin again, and so on. From the looks of it, neither the spider nor I felt like doing anything more taxing than just soaking in the rays. I turned my head to look over my shoulder for a peek at the barely visible summit of Ben Nevis; it was an absolutely perfect day to go up the mountain: no wind, a few wispy clouds, temperature in the mid-60's. Was I wasting a rare perfect day just sitting there vegetating? I started humming Otis Redding's "Dock of the Bay" and pretended I was back in Sausalito...The mountain would be there tomorrow, I thought, as I put my feet up on the railing in front of me...
(Right): Loch Linnhe, which borders Fort William on the west. On Sunday afternoon I took a "cruise" on the Loch while killing time before my train's 19:20 departure back to London. The highlight of the cruise was for the ship to come up close and disturb a colony of seals basking on a small island further south on the lake. Part of the lake is also being used for salmon farming.
Early Saturday morning saw me
heading out of Fort William towards the distillery by Lochy
Bridge, where the trail for the route I'm taking begins. Clouds
above and behind me, clouds near and far; clouds on the
horizon...today's weather won't be as nice as yesterday's. Oh
well, better to experience "the Ben" under conditions
more typical of the area, I thought. To my right, the mountain is
wearing its customary mantle of clouds; it's as if Ben Nevis is
trying to do penance for having basked in the sunshine and the
good weather of yesterday.
I picked up the trail behind the distillery, crossing a railroad track, generally following a dry stream bed, negotiated my way through a boggy, almost swampy and muddy plateau until the terrain started sloping upwards into a treeless, open, glen of ankle-high grass and mid-size granite blocks. A little higher up, there were a few sheeps eyeing me suspiciously. Behind me, the bird's eyeview of Fort William set against serene lochs, foreboding grey skies, and silhouetted mountains is continually improving. Ahead of me are my destinations, the two major peaks of Ben Nevis and Carn Mor Dearg, which are set in a horseshoe formation facing the northwest. The mountains of Scotland were apparently part of a prehistoric mountain range that once comprised mountains that are in present-day Scandinavia and the eastern part of North America. My plan is to climb Ben Nevis from the northeast, first following the Allt a' Mhuillinn stream in the glen in the southeasterly direction, then turning east first chance I get to go up Carn Bearg Dearg (Gaelic, little red hill, elev. 1,010m), Carn Dearg Meadhonach (1,179m), then Carn Mor Dearg (big red hill, 1,220m), before traversing the famous Carn Mor Dearg Arete and up the wall to the summit of Ben Nevis.
(Right): View from Carn Bearg Dearg, looking northwest.
The climb to Carn Bearg Dearg, which provided the first opportunity to gain elevation on the climb, was a rather tedious slog on a moderately steep slope. The intermittent patches of snow tend to break up the monotony. But, as I got high enough the awesome view of Ben Nevis' imposing north-eastern cliffs opened up. At this point one can almost make out the various gullies which supposedly provide exhilarating winter-climbing opportunities. I can't see the summit and the cloud cover appears to have stagnated.
(Left): Approaching the summit of Carn Mor Dearg. The arete is also visible.
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