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The Big Routes: Lochaber Traverse

© Dan Bailey

Whether it's a must-do scramble or a multi-summit tick fest, every mountain hit list has its essential biggies. From thrilling ridges to testing challenge walks in the wilds, we all like to push the envelope once in a while. We'll be sharing a few of our ultimate big routes over the next few months, kicking off on a wintry Lochaber Traverse - the highest, and just possibly the greatest ridge walking journey in Scotland.

Epic, classic, stunning - it is hard to introduce the Lochaber Traverse without rattling off a list of superlatives. Treading the roof of the West Highlands along the length of the Grey Corries and over Aonachs Beag and Mor, to finish with a flourish on the CMD arete and Ben Nevis, this is the ultimate in high altitude hillwalking, Scottish style, and arguably the grandest big route in Britain available to the averagely fit and competent. With four four-thousand-footers, the highest point in the UK, some dramatic (if easy) scrambling and about 3000m ascent over roughly 25km of continuously memorable ridge walking, this trip really doesn't suit understatement.

It doesn't get much better on the summit of Ben Nevis  © Dan Bailey
It doesn't get much better on the summit of Ben Nevis
© Dan Bailey

Distance 32km as a linear route - considerably more if done as a loop

​Ascent 2800m

Time 15 hours at a steady walking pace - at most times of year, for most walkers, this is best considered a 2-day route

Maps OS Landranger (1:50000) 41; Harvey British Mountain Map (1:40000) Ben Nevis & Glen Coe

Guidebook Great Mountain Days in Scotland (Cicerone)

Terrain Rough ground throughout, with a remote feel on the Grey Corries in particular. Paths are easy to follow, except between Carn mor Dearg and the Aonachs, and on the eastern side of Aonach Beag. In summer conditions the grade 1 scramble of the CMD Arete is the chief difficulty on the standard route (the entirely optional start up Ledge Route is an easy grade 2).

Winter grade In winter conditions the Lochaber Traverse is a mountaineering route with plenty of exposed ridge-top ground, serious cornice hazard and some steep ascents and descents. Because of the many different slope aspects along the route the avalanche risk needs to be carefully considered. The optional start up Ledge Route is a grade II climb. The CMD Arete is grade I. Conditions depending, several other points of the route may also merit a grade I​: the East Ridge of Carn Mor Dearg; the western flank of Aonach Mor; the link from the grey Corries-Aonach Beag col onto Aonach Beag; and various short sections of the Grey Corries ridge.

Overnight options At the eastern foot of the Grey Corries, the Lairig Leacach bothy provides an optional high start to an east-west Traverse (NN282736). Roughly at the mid-way point, the col between the Grey Corries and Aonach Beag is the obvious place to camp.

Short cuts and escape routes The two low-level bealachs separating Ben Nevis from the Aonachs, and the Aonachs from the Grey Corries, provide the most obvious bad-weather escape options.

There's only one way I know to boost the already considerable credentials of the Lochaber Traverse: save it for winter, when the walk nudges a toe over the line into genuine mountaineering. Over the years I'd tried and failed, twice, to catch it in both winter nick and nice weather; would it be third time lucky? A flawless March forecast looked my best chance in months. To max out on commitment I went alone, and started big. Aesthetically it seems a little odd, but while a counter-intuitive west-to-east crossing opens the show with the grand climax before winding down all the way from this literal and metaphorical high point, it also permits a mountaineer's intro - a climb on The Ben to kick things off in style.

The exciting cruxy bit of Ledge Route  © Dan Bailey
The exciting cruxy bit of Ledge Route
© Dan Bailey

With work and kids to put to bed before an evening drive I was underway late. Barely a breeze ruffled the silence of the night time woods, and the warm air carried a leafy whiff of spring to come. Weighed down with gear I set no records for speed, and the looming bulk of The Ben grew only gradually larger in the night sky ahead, lit by a moon that almost negated the need for a torch. Below, Fort William's lights came and went behind the wisps of a vague cloud inversion. Later that night an extravagant aurora would blaze across the northern sky - but as ever I'd see it only in other people's photos. There'd been some thought of a moonlit Ledge Route and a summit bivvy in the early hours, but age must be dulling the ambition, and on reaching the CIC Hut near midnight I found I'd had enough. I slipped in among the hut's dozen or so snorers, and failed - as usual - to get much sleep.

Mini climber on the upper crest of Ledge Route  © Dan Bailey
Mini climber on the upper crest of Ledge Route
© Dan Bailey

​By dawn the inversion had become denser, a white soup poured into the low ground between The Ben and the snow dappled peaks out west. Above the clouds the air felt surprisingly close, almost humid. Ledge Route would be marginal as a winter ascent, so I made tracks (deep ones) before the sun got to work on it. With cornices sagging heavily far above, Number Five Gully didn't feel a good place to dawdle, and I waded up it as fast as a big pack and knee-deep porridge allowed. Mush sat damply on the shelving slabs of Ledge Route's initial ledges, making for a nervy traverse out over the implied void of the Carn Dearg Buttress. A slip here would not end well. As hoped things improved with height, the ridge crest above the ledges offering a classic springtime mix of firm snow and dry rock. Though it scores high marks for scale, exposure and atmosphere Ledge Route is technically a doddle, even with an overnight bag. I hung around to photograph a climber following on my heels up the scrambly 'crux', and then we played leapfrog to the plateau.

Looking out over the Mamoes from Ben Nevis  © Dan Bailey
Looking out over the Mamoes from Ben Nevis
© Dan Bailey

Day had barely begun, and what a day it promised to be. Valley mist and bright peaks beneath an empty blue sky; windless and practically T-shirt warm in the sun -  Ben Nevis summit experiences are rarely this carefree, and I felt no urge to hurry. But there was plenty yet to do, and all of it looked great. Down now to the CMD arete, that grand curving walkway hitched onto the flank of Ben Nevis. Part snow and part rock, its blocky crest proved as enjoyably airy as ever, while the fly-by view of The Ben's complex crags slowly unrolled across Coire Leis.

It's rare to get the CMD Arete to yourself on days like this  © Dan Bailey
It's rare to get the CMD Arete to yourself on days like this
© Dan Bailey

Up on  Carn Mor Dearg I left the trodden trail behind. Easier on paper than the CMD Arete, but today less straightforward on the ground, the narrow snow crest of the East Ridge had been turned to precarious slush by the mid day sun. It must be lovely when covered in neve - but at least I was going down. It's a morale sapping height loss to the col below the Aonachs, and an equally big and even more disheartening climb out the other side. By now I'd grown to resent the many redundant winter layers and multiple pairs of gloves that bulked out my pack. But when you're wearing shades and suncream in Scotland, in March, you can forgive a lot.

We're gonna need a bigger lens  © Dan Bailey
We're gonna need a bigger lens
© Dan Bailey

In such weather omitting  Aonach Mor, out on its limb, would have been a waste; a twenty minute stroll gained its deserted summit, a grassy playing field in striking green contrast to the rock and snow of surrounding peaks. Next up, the massive dome of  Aonach Beag. As I climbed a familiar brimmed hat descended over the brow towards me. Attached to it was UKH regular Alex Roddie, midway into his own east-west Traverse. Facebook being what it is, we were neither that surprised. He looked quietly ecstatic, blown away by the sheer perfection of this route, in these conditions. I'm sure my expression was identical, though a camera full of last night's aurora photos probably gave Alex the edge. With a last exchange of useful info on the tricky bits to come we crossed paths and set off in each other's footprints - for my part strangely cheered by this shared moment in a place so breathtakingly big.

Ben Nevis and Carn Mor Dearg - the East Ridge is the obvious sunlit line  © Dan Bailey
Ben Nevis and Carn Mor Dearg - the East Ridge is the obvious sunlit line
© Dan Bailey

Though scary in foul weather the rounded summit scalp of Aonach Beag could hardly have been more benign today, with afternoon sunlight mellowing on its snow fields. Its high point, however, seemed to be a cornice running out into space above the mysteries of the east face; I stayed well back. The cliff edge led down onto the grassy little ridge of Stob Coire Bhealaich, overlooking the depths of the mountain's vast eastern corrie complex where blue shadows were brewing. All very scenic, but in the back of my mind were Alex's words about a grade I snow descent, with a big runout of avalanche debris to one side and a heavy cornice yet to fall on the other - the day's last mountaineering obstacle. Coming from above, with the cornice more hinted at than clearly obvious, I was glad to have his trail to show the way.

I was never a morning person  © Dan Bailey
I was never a morning person
© Dan Bailey
Nothing coffee and sunshine can't fix   © Dan Bailey
Nothing coffee and sunshine can't fix
© Dan Bailey

Even great days must end, and by the bealach below, the low point of the traverse, dinner and bed began to seem appealing. Mindful of the aurora possibilities, and with no danger of storms, a high point with open views to the north seemed a good plan. Just such a spot lay 200m above, the cute little summit of Sgurr Choinnich Beag. With the stove purring away merrily melting snow and the bivvy bag unrolled in the lee of someone's improvised stone windbreak I settled in for a long night as the afterglow of sunset faded on the peaks of the Mamores. Though superfluous by day, every stitch of spare clothing found its way into the bag with me overnight, and I could have used more. Moon and stars added an idyllic touch, and when I woke periodically to shiver I'm pretty sure the dull orange glow on the northern horizon could have been none other than the fabled aurora. Unless I dreamed it.

Dawn on the Mamores  © Dan Bailey
Dawn on the Mamores
© Dan Bailey

Another flawless morning was getting started on the crests of the Mamores, and coffee and porridge soon banished my dawn grumps. Then the sun cleared the hillside, and I could feel my fingers again. What more do you need? The next peak,  Sgurr Choinnich Mor, was a sunkissed arete and steep hard-frozen snow; T-shirt and crampons - a winning combination. The finish was very much in sight now, the snaking ridge line of the Grey Corries rising to its high eastern end point on the massive Stob Coire Claurigh. A succession of fine rocky tops linked by unexpectedly interesting little snow crests, glass-clear views under a cloudless sky, and no one else around to enjoy them until the end - that's about as close to hillwalking heaven as I've ever been. But by lunchtime it was all over. I sat quietly on my final summit, scanning back across the ground I'd covered and basking in the warm glow of a job well done. Or was it the warm glow of sunburn?

T-shirt and crampons - a pretty rare combo in Scotland  © Dan Bailey
T-shirt and crampons - a pretty rare combo in Scotland
© Dan Bailey

Lulled into complacency, it was here I made my dreadful mistake. The car sat waiting in the North Face car park at the far end of the huge sea of pines that laps the foot of the range. How bad could the woods be? I had daylight to spare, a map laced with promising tracks, and seemingly boundless enthusiasm. Turns out I needed all that, and more, for the Leanachan Forest. That's a few boring, blistering, navigationally challenged hours of life that I won't be getting back (UKH - we make the cockups so you don't have to). Even the dreaded forest couldn't come close to knocking the shine off the trip however. There can't be a bigger, better, more epic ridge walk in Scotland. But don't take my word for it - you owe yourself a Lochaber Traverse.

Looking back over the Grey Corries and Mamores to Ben Nevis  © Dan Bailey
Looking back over the Grey Corries and Mamores to Ben Nevis
© Dan Bailey

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13 Apr, 2016
I've walked the range twice end to end, in summer only and it's been unbelievable every time. You got the weather!
Sure did - all that weather forecast watching finally paid off

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