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Issue 26 - Scotland's peak district

Scotland Magazine Issue 26
April 2006

 

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Scotland's peak district

Ben Nevis and the surrounding area are the perfect stopping point on your journey up the West coast. Hannah Adcock reports

Ben Nevis, the highest peak in Britain at 4,409 feet, rises majestically above the Fort William area in the west of Scotland. Famous for its changeable weather, ‘The Ben’ magically attracts clouds even on the clearest of days. But when the weather co-operates, the views from the top are truly panoramic.

The main downside for a walker is that the aptly named ‘tourist route’ isn’t great: a rocky path that zigzags up the South Face. Anyone with an ounce of fitness and an okay head for heights should really try an ascent up the North Face: 1300 feet high, 6500 feet wide and offering a wide range of routes.

If you’re not a climber, and I’m certainly not, hiring a guide is by far the best.

We set out with Richard Bentley who runs Mountain Motion, an independent mountaineering company based in the shadow of the Ben. He loves climbing in Scotland and is a gold mine of information regarding the Munros, their geology, flora, fauna and folktales.

Probably owing to my non-committal answers to his two questions ‘Do you have a head for heights?” and “are you quite fit?” Richard decided to take us up Tower Ridge, a name that was embarrassingly unfamiliar, but is now solidly embedded in my mind.

Tower Ridge is famous for its topographical features, including the Little Tower, the Great Tower and the infamous Tower Gap – as well as for its exposure and sheer height. From start to finish you gain about 2000 feet.

Richard explained that we would be scrambling for the majority of the ascent, which is a pleasant cross between walking and climbing. Most of the scrambling would involve ‘moving together’ with a rope linking us. Then we would climb, with the help of a tight, fixed rope, over the more difficult bits. It all sounded so very simple.

To put the experience in context, I have never scrambled or climbed before – prior experience may give you confidence but it really isn’t necessary.

The Little Tower, predictably not quite so little when up close, provided some fun climbing on firm rock, before we reached the Eastern Traverse – in Richard’s words, “a little exposed.”

The traverse is basically a sheep’s path around the Great Tower, a huge hulk of igneous rock. The path is wide enough for comfort although the drop is substantial – or so I was told. By this stage in proceedings I had decided not to look down.

My courage was soon to be challenged further as Richard casually mentioned ‘The Gap’, which is 20 feet in depth, just over my arm span in width, and has spectacular drops either side.

Richard has jumped over it before, but for more timid souls – like me – he is thoroughly conscientious about rigging up a network of ropes and hand-holds. Everyone enjoys Tower Gap, but only after they have conquered it and are sitting in the pub with a much needed pint.

After the Gap we made haste for the summit, scattered with dark rock and tumbled down buildings. We had been blessed with unusually good weather for most of the climb, but the weather had turned and dark rain clouds were skudding in from the horizon. However, even rain and an embarrassing plastic mac could not detract from my jubilation. I had made it and I couldn’t quite quell a feeling of superiority.

Out of the many, many visitors on the top of the Ben only a handful had really experienced what the mountain could offer – or so it felt.

If you are unsure about your fitness or your head for heights Richard is happy to discuss possible routes in advance – including Ledge Route, which requires no climbing.

Getting down is much simpler, if a strain on the legs. Richard guided us down a portion of the tourist route before veering across moorland in the direction of the North Face and his car. The whole adventure, starting from the Ben Nevis ski centre in Richard’s well-used 4x4, had taken about eight hours – some of the most memorable of my life.

The next day we explored the Fort William area using as little physical effort as possible. Fort William is not always a critics’ favourite, because it is carved in two by a dual carriageway and has only one shopping street, which includes at least five outdoor shops.

But what the place lacks in town planning, it more than makes up for by its enviable location and we were determined to make the most of the area’s natural charms.

Our first stop was the Nevis Range, which is situated on the mountain of Aonach Mor, close to Ben Nevis. The Range boasts a mountain gondola system, the only one of its kind in Britain, which carries passengers from the Base Station at 300ft to the top station at 2150ft.

The six-seater gondola offered increasingly impressive views over the Great Glen and Loch Linnhe. On reaching the top station we took a short, well-marked footpath to the viewpoint at Sgurr Finnisg-aig. The serenity of the scene was only disturbed by our national plague: the midges.

We then headed to ‘Old’ Inverlochy castle, not to be confused with the chateau style Inverlochy Castle just down the road, which functions as an exclusive hotel.

For a ruin the castle was surprisingly intact, with 13th century walls rising high above our heads.

You can also enjoy the Crannog Seal Island cruise. Crannog West Highland Seafood was started in the early 1980s by a local fisherman who turned the bait store on Fort William’s town pier into a smoke house. More than 20 years later, Crannog has expanded to include a café, a Booker prize winning restaurant, cruises and an online store.

The 90 minute Seal Island cruises depart from the Crannog pier every couple of hours in high season and offer wonderful views of the south face of the Ben, as well as the chance to see a working salmon farm, a mussel farm and – the highlight – wild seals.

The seals were both noble and comic and our boat’s captain, Ian Dewar, gave us plenty of time to appreciate the spectacle.

However, sea animals are one thing and sea food quite another. With our wind blown faces, tired legs and vivid memories, the idea of a fish supper before heading home was looking very tempting. Here, again, Fort William offered very different options. Traditional chippies exist alongside the very best in Scottish sea food – which should we go for?