Thursday 11th January 2018
Weather/Conditions: Almost perfect. Pre-dawn start into the Lairig Leacach under stars and a slender Moon. Over Stob Ban in the dark, sunrise on Claurigh, and across the hills in bright and sometimes warm sun. Sunset and some mist over CMD and Nevis, and down to Glen Nevis YH under stars again.
Distance/Ascent/Time: 33.6km / 3100m / 15h 50m
The hill day that starts on the Grey Corries and ends up on Ben Nevis, is one route I've crossed several times. It is also a day I've felt to be among the very best mountain trips in the Highlands. All my previous crossings took place in mid-summer, so this January day was a good opportunity to do the same again under snow.
It was bound to be a long day. The idea came from Helen, and I just couldn't resist - it sounded like an amazing idea, with a great forecast to go. Knowledge gained from my previous trips seemed to ease the mental burden somewhat, and I didn't especially worry at all about our planned day. In truth, if I had, I might have brought more than a litre of juice and a few packets of biscuits to fuel 16 hours on the go!
Helen and I met in Glen Nevis just before 4am. I hadn't had much sleep the night before. We took one car to Coirechoille, up the rough car-eating track to the entrance of the Lairig Leacach. The night was dark and starry, the mountains around were sensed more than seen. Occasionally I'd turn the torch off to get a sense of our position, and with the night bordering pitch black it seemed best to head for the bothy at the end of the glen, then turn off into the hills from a known point.
The Lairig bothy was empty when we arrived. Anyone sleeping in there might have got a shock at two walkers making a racket before six in the morning. We took five minutes here then set off in the direction of Stob Ban's east ridge. This mountain had a particularly alpine flavour with the calm cool air, starry sky and the crunch and sparkle of snow. An odd, slender Moon in the southern sky gave little illumination. The summit arrived in steady time: the pace couldn't be forced much more through the snow.
A steep descent, following existing footprints brought us down to the bealach, still dark with the ground choked with snow. White mountain walls surrounded, but getting a sense of definition and scale was not easy. We sunk into drifts across the saddle, then found that in a breaking dawn, the ridge to Stob Coire Claurigh was wonderfully wind-scoured. We climbed this flank, and in time ended up on the top – this, the highest point of the Grey Corries.
Dawn was muted as we headed westward into a wild view of jumbled mountains. As always, Nevis hung slyly in the back: our final goal, but still hours away. The Grey Corries crest was plastered in snow, though firm on one side so we could usually avoid disappearing into powder. We passed by Stob Coire an Laoigh's northern cliffs, then went over its summit. Out on our right, the North-west Highlands glowed in pink light of the new day, but for us the light remained muted with cloud banks in the east.
Sgurr Choinnich Mor might have been the most dramatic of the Grey Corries. The sky turned to deep blue in the late morning sun, and this pointed summit thrust sharply skyward. The snow was also hollow here, like a roof collapsing with every footfall on boulderfields. It's something I can't recall seeing before. There is also a large rock cleft on this ridge, which I didn't find this time but we did manage to avoid...
Sgurr Choinnich Beag is a Munro-height top that while a high in itself, gets so swallowed by the massive peaks around that it seems almost not to exist. Someone in the past once helpfully pointed out that it is the same height as Scafell Pike. Over this top, we wound down soft snow to the foot of Aonach Beag.
This mountain in some ways is the crux of the day, one of the largest climbs as well as being complicated topographically. Two summers ago, I descended a steep arete under Stob Coire Bhealaich that the runners call Spinks' Ridge. We decided to head this way today. Not only would it be a direct line onto the hill, but I reckoned that short of being impassable, it would be good fun on some steeper ground. But we climbed to a point just underneath the cornice, which was slumping and breaking in the sun. Below us, the ground steepened to a cliff, so any fall would have been a disaster. Hacking away at that cornice lip was not for today. We backtracked and found a hole in the cornice elsewhere by Sgurr a' Bhuic. The detour had swallowed some time, but then we had only a long plod to Aonach Beag's high and massive summit.
I started to notice my lack of food preparation here. Chocolate cookies just weren't going to satisfy my appetite now, but they were all I had, So I forced some down. We still had quite a few miles remaining! The afternoon was stunning, and the Aonachs had a social vibe of the walkers and skiers out for a day from the gondola. But the difficulty for us was notching up. We did Aonach Mor quickly, which transpired just to be an easy rise out-and-back from our dropped rucksacks at the saddle.
Descending Aonach Mor was hard work, on steep snow which called for constant care. We took a short break at the saddle below, then headed on up Carn Mor Dearg at a slow plod; steady and difficult. There is a fair amount of altitude packed in here, and I stopped multiple times for a break - shooting some pictures and film was my excuse.
Carn Mor Dearg's summit was in light mist, and night was drawing in. We chatted about options as the day had become pretty draining. But Ben Nevis was right in front of us; there was no way we couldn't finish off the lot: just get over that last summit!
But the Arete felt pretty easy, certainly easier than in summer because the blocks were all drifted over. We also took a more direct line in these snowed up conditions, whereas the paths in summer draw you away from the crest itself. We took ten minutes at the cairn at the foot of the NE Buttress, and now under stars and a dusky twilight on the western horizon, climbed the metres to the summit of Nevis. Out by the sea, some lights twinkled, the mountains were receding back to the darkness. I was perfectly happy here and knew the ground well from my work guiding on this hill.
Ben Nevis' summit was clagged in by mist, as usual, and we didn't pause before setting off for Glen Nevis. I was tired now. The ankles of my boots were rubbing to form rashes and I needed something substantial to eat. It's a long way into Glen Nevis, but the vast majority of the day was done and we had just to get back to a road.
The lights of Fort William appeared and we dropped altitude to join the tourist track, winding down into the glen below. The stars were out; a magnificent clear night. I found the final miles tedious, but we ground the miles out to arrive back at the car with eight Munros, 33km, and nearly 16 hours behind us. Not bad going for January! Certainly the first time I have ever done such a day at this time of year. Absolutely brilliant.
Stob Coire an Laoigh
Sgurr Choinnich Mor
Aonach Mor - Detail, 90° NW
(0.00) 4.35am Lairig Leacach parking
(1.15) 5.50am Lairig bothy
(2.30) 7.05am Stob Ban
(3.44) 8.19am Stob Choire Claurigh
(5.05) 9.40am Stob Coire an Laoigh
(6.15) 10.50am Sgurr Choinnich Mor
(9.03) 1.38pm Aonach Beag
(9.50) 2.25pm Aonach Mor
(11.55) 4.30pm Carn Mor Dearg
(13.37) 6.12pm Ben Nevis
(15.50) 8.25pm Glen Nevis YH