Hillwalking - Moonlight Buttress, key to today’s ascent

On ledge route
On ledge route

When I read recently that Ben Nevis sees as many as 110,000 visitors annually, I was sceptical; that’s a lot of people! I changed my mind on Sunday; the hill was mobbed!

We had started as late as 10 o’clock, from Achintee, already there was a long queue of tourists and more serious walkers wending along the path. More were coming up from the Youth Hostel, further along the glen.

As we climbed the gently ascending path around the southern flank of Meall an t-Suidhe, we met scores of walkers sitting to early breakfasts or simply struggling to catch their breath; we were glad to leave the ‘Tourist’s Path’, at Lochan Meall an t-Suidhe. We gathered from logos on shirts and vests that many folk were up here raising money for various charities, indeed we met many people actually running down, presumably having been to the summit in aid of their own particular cause.

The once squelchy path has been restored, making life very much easier for the hoards who come this way to stand on Britain’s highest peak. It didn’t take long to drop down into the confines of Nevis’ cliff girt corries; it was wonderful, on such a glorious day, to be back in the Coire Leis and in the cooling shade of Castle Buttress.

Situated at the foot of Coire na Ciste, staring up at those awesome buttresses and numbered gulleys, nestles the C.I.C. Hut; there can be few better places to stop for breakfast.

Ledge Route provides one of the easier ways through the labyrinth of cliffs and onto the plateau. There are two ways up onto the ridge itself, Number Five Gulley being one, and Moonlight Buttress, the other. In front of the hut, beyond a vast apron of slabs, rises Moonlight Buttress; the longer of the two and more scenic, this was the key to today’s ascent.

Fed and watered, we clambered up onto the slab and made our way across to where an obvious path points up into the Coire. The path led us alongside a stream for a while and a deep cut rocky gorge. A tedious boulder filled depression came next after which the ground began to steepen.

Moonlight Buttress rises in two tiers, very obvious from below. Dividing these tiers is a little grassy ramp, a marvellous place to pause for breath and look back down and across the great corrie backed by the huge red whaleback of the Deargs Ridge beyond. Or for a gaze back down into Coire na Ciste, from where its little blue lochans glinted as the sun’s rays probed the high coire floor.

The upper section of Moonlight Buttress guards the base of Trident Buttress, it was time to climb again.

A feint path, quite exposed, led us around the waist of Gulley Number Five. We were in shadow now; hundreds of feet below us the C.I.C. hut was bathed in blinding sunshine! Across the gulley a huge sloping terrace led us back into the sunshine, and the foot of Ledge Route’s juicy bits. Around the corner from an obvious balanced pedestal of rock sits a perched boulder; here, half way up Carn Dearg Buttress and above drops of Cyclopean proportions, there’s boulder littered grass and another spot to rest and drink the views.

There were a good many folk across on the Deargs, these en route, no doubt for the pleasures to be had on The Carn Mor Dearg Arete. Across the vast corrie we’d climbed out of, from Tower Ridge, we heard climbers shouting to each other as they enjoyed themselves on that superb ascent. The top of The Douglas Boulder was bathed in sunlight; in that pool of light three climbers sat to lunch.

This is where the scrambling starts. It’s very easy, mostly over huge boulders and blocks; but the situation is simply breathtaking. Almost at once we found ourselves balancing along the top of a huge wall,, the drops to our left were long and utterly sheer.

Scrambles of this nature, even when technically easy, are thoroughly absorbing; before you know it you are at the top. And so it was with us. Panting and puffing from our exertions we suddenly popped up at the cairn that marks the end, yet not quite the top of Carn Dearg. Soaking wet with sweat, glad of the drying sunshine and very ready for our lunch, we took a break.

The summit plateau isn’t far away; we could see the hoards, like long lines of brightly coloured ants, “marching up to the top of the hill and then marching down again”.

We walked slowly around the cliff rim, stopping at the top of every gulley for our photographs. At one such stance we watched a pair of climbers crossing the ‘Gap’ on Tower Ridge. Twenty minutes later we welcomed those climbers onto the summit plateau. Tower Ridge gives probably the finest hard scramble in Britain; these two men where roped and both wore helmets.

There was quite a wind blowing around the summit, yet still the air was almost one of carnival. Hundreds of people milled around the cairns, photographing or having their photos taken. Earlier in the day we’d seen two lassies coming down in bright pink tutus! (Obviously for charity). Now we were walking around in a vast fashion parade. There were girls up there in mini-skirts!

Seldom have I seen the Mamores look so good from Nevis, green still and dwarfed below the Ben’s own stature. The Grey Corries too, draped in their pale grey livery of shattered quartz, I’ve never seen so well.

We took our photographs and joined the throngs. There’s something almost Lunar about the first few hundred feet of descent, so shattered is the landscape of Britain’s highest place. Gradually the stones gave way to grass. Where the new path crosses the Red Burn, just below its falls, dozens of people congregated for their well earned breathers; we joined them.

‘Half Way Lochan’ came into view and with it a view along the path back down to Achintee, in Glen Nevis. The path was every colour beneath the sun, so many people choked it. It was four o’clock and yet many people were still on their way up! Lower down it was often difficult to get past little knots of straggling folk, many obviously tired and aching from their long day out.

For us it had been an eight hour day, an eight hour romp that will live in our memories long. Our hostel at Achintee sits right on the start of the normal route; it was thus with some amusement that, at ten o’clock and under a beautiful starlit sky, we watched numerous head torch lamps still bobbing along the track, some still well above and with an hour yet to go, or even more. By ten fifteen I was in my bed and snoring…