“The atmosphere was touchable, ice splintered from the towering crags above me, crashing down the mountain shattering into tiny fragments accompanied with loud nerve-jangling sounds ...”
To the north of the summit of Ben Nevis are the magnificent imposing cliffs, a sweep of around two miles and an altitude of nearly two thousand feet, it’s the most impressive mountain face in the British Isles. During a recent summer-time visit to the top of Ben Nevis, I had viewed the cliffs from above, pockets of snow lay all year round in the north facing sheltered recesses and the drop-off just takes your breath away, more than a thousand feet to the glen below.
The unfolding ruggedness and drama of this place had instilled in me a desire to climb from the north and view this immense and complex rocky wall that creates such an overpowering paradox of tension and beauty. It dominated my mind and caused a yearning, and now I could witness it in winter conditions, when this place will appear most dramatic. My guidebook reads “Walking up the glen of the Allt a’Mhuilinn, the first thing the climber will see on his right is Castle Ridge and it’s flanking North Wall. Beyond this and at a higher level is the recess of Castle Corrie ...”. Further up the glen, the cliffs below the summit of Ben Nevis have many famous classic routes, with names like Tower Ridge, Observatory Ridge and Observatory Gully, Douglas Boulder, Gardyloo Gully and Tower Gully, they all evoke a sense of adventure with epic proportions. Ascents of these routes can be the most hostile and difficult challenges to be found in Britain at any time. Just the thought of walking up the glen beneath the towering cliffs excited me, experiencing this landscape alone gave a unique and personal engagement with nature in this very special environment. And such excitement is governed by something far bigger than any individual. A mood is cast, you can engage with it, take it as it is and absorb the tension and feel your senses tighten. For it can be hostile or forgiving, but always intense.
I left my car at Achintee in Glen Nevis, the popular pony track up Ben Nevis starts here. The climbing starts immediately and after gaining height I reached the Lochan Meall an t-Suidhe, here the pony track veers to the right but I continued north traversing into Allt a’Mhuilinh beneath Castle Ridge. My surroundings suddenly changed, no longer was I enjoying open spaces and distant views, I had entered a shadowy valley with the imposing towering cliffs of Ben Nevis hovered over me. I looked up into Castle Coire flanked by the Great Buttress, I had never seen anything as vast as this, cliffs separated by deep snow-filled gullies with sheer walls created an atmosphere of intimidation, enticing me into a fairy-tale world. Further up the glen it was even more dramatic. Through photographs and books, I was sort of prepared for the visual impact of these huge cliffs split by snow filled gullies, of massif crags covered in runnels of snow and ice, but I was never prepared for the sounds, the noise of thawing ice tumbling down the mountain, like thunderous falling blocks of ice smashing over rocks into millions of pieces, this was very much a dynamic landscape. At times, all I could hear was my footsteps as my boots sank into the snow, on the inclines my breathing laboured then another boom, as more ice fell from above. The atmosphere was touchable, ice splintered from the towering crags above me, crashing down the mountain shattering into tiny fragments accompanied with loud nerve-jangling sounds of smashing glass. My senses were activated, it was like living in an adventurous dream where my survival relied upon my wits.