It had been the perfect bivvy. Perfect isn't a word I use often. Sometimes I think to use it but I mostly stop short. There always seems to be something, some small detail, that lowers the score. Right now, no matter how hard I try, I just have to award full marks. The contrast with the night before couldn't be starker. Wet had been swapped for dry, cold for warm, lumpy for plush and, best of all, oppressive view obscuring mist for moonlit long views over tiers of mountain. Mountains rendered in monochrome, majestic and unworldly. Breathtaking. Everybody should see this at least once. Nights like these, though few, are the hard earned payback for every bitter second of the wet cold discomfort that bivvying so often brings. On nights like these tents and tarps, shelters in whatever format, are more than just superfluous, they kill the joy. Yes, I've heard all of the arguments, tents doors can be left open so on and so forth, but a three-sixty view, a front row seat in the theatre of the heavens, the feel of the breeze across your face, the smell of the earth, a sense of what we are; apes in pants, just can't be got any other way. I do this to be out and no matter how you look at it a night in a tent, or even a tarp is, albeit in a small measure, a night in.
I'd spent the first part of the night just lying and looking around. Warm and comfortable. Drinking it all in. The moon full, round and gleaming silver, had tried her best to get me out of my bag taking photo's but I'd resisted. This was the ultimate in me time. The clutter of 21st century technology wasn't welcome. Then came the pondering: how much of Scotland is now above me? Are we now the highest people in the whole of the British isles? Aonach Beag is the seventh highest surely the odds are good..... I can't say how long this lasted but at some stage sleep must have clubbed me from behind. Ultra awareness had been replaced by a deep black nothing and the next thing I knew it was early morning and I was awake. All at once fully awake.
The morning brought mist. Gone were the views and back was an awareness of the task in hand. Over the Aonachs on to Carn Mor Dearg and then the Ben. Would we be able to find that problematic descent to Coire Giubhsachan in mist? Is my compass work and pace counting good enough to get us past five finger gully in bad visibility? Sweet muesli, strong coffee, pack up, one last glance at what might be the finest bivvy in all Scotland and then we're off to find out.
The day starts with a climb, up the last few metres of Stob Coire Bhealaich. Then, instead of following the North East Edge we walk on autopilot, following a use track, allowing it to pull us South of where we really want to be. Then comes the realisation, a few moments effort to relocate and finally a long gradual climb to the ramshackle cairn on the summit of today's first Aonach and back onto the planned route. If this is the only error we make today I'll be a happy man.
Some more down, in places scrambly, is followed by a wide saddle and then a shallow climb up onto the shoulder of Aonach number two. En route we pass tiny remnants of Scotland's permanent snow. Once on the top there's a temptation to keep on over the wide grassy plateau and bag another summit but at worst I'm a bagger in denial and in any case I want to avoid any potential view of the ironmongery of the ski centre. Instead, I take a rough bearing and head off in search of the little cairn marking the way off. We head too far North of West but as we walk we see a figure heading our way. A lone walker, travelling with a day pack and odds are he's doing our route in reverse. We stop to chat. The way off is steep but doable, the jumping off point is more that way than that, our new found friend has been over the Ben and CMD and later in the day intends to cycle over to Aviemore in his pursuit of all the four thousanders.
Luck wished we follow the welcome redirect, pass the little cairn then step off exposing ourselves in an instant to the forty three degree slope that will keep us occupied to the next bealach. There's a path of sorts but it's heavily eroded and diffuse in parts where, to avoid the worst of the looseness underfoot, alternatives have been sought. All points of contact, hands feet and arse cheeks are put to use. In places resorting to a summer glissade over short stretches with neither foot, hand nor arse holds, short on style but long on effect. Down we must and down we go.
The steepness is relentless and holds right down to the bealach but once at the bottom we're in another world. Grassy, sheltered, marked by mans hand. Who would come here to build a wall? This would've made an excellent camp had we had the steam to carry us over the Aonachs the evening before. As promised by Townsend, it's pleasant here and there's a water source to boot. Right now though, as we sit down to refuel, soaking up the first rays of sun to bake through the drifting mist, we agree that it would've been a poor substitute for last nights room with a view.
After a brief pause we turn our faces to the toe of Carn Mor Deargs lovely East Ridge. The bit in front of us is steep and scrambly. We decide to go through the back door and walk a little way North before attacking a shallower line up the Northern side. Shallower but still steep. All things are relative. Hands and feet carry us from boulder to boulder, block to block until at last we can turn west and follow the line of the ridge. Our timing is one again just right and we are rewarded with views.
The ridge is a fne one providing a sense of exposure but nowhere scary. Walkable stretches are seperated by easy scrambles and the whole is technical enough to keep you occupied and strenuous enough to excuse a pause to catch breath and take in the view. We pause often. The view back across to Aonach Mor catches my eye more than once. From nowhere on the ridge does the line we followed off the top look doable.
As we climb the whole curving length of the CMD arette comes gradually into view. It's awesome. Inviting and intimidating all at the same time. Then comes the Cairn and another excuse for a break. We sit next to the little pile of red stones atop the big red pile of stones break out the stove, brew up and just sit gawping open mouthed over Coire Leis, at the huge East face of Ben Nevis. I've never thought Ben Nevis a befitting mountain to hold the title of Britains highest but then I've never seen it from this side before. This is a special place indeed and at once I feel genuine shame for having doubted the pedigree of this mountain.
For the most part, on this trip, our timing has been uncannily good. Now though, we've reverted to form. It's now two in the afternoon and instead of having the arrette to ouselves, as would have been the case had we started the day at the foot of Carn Mor Dearg, we're passed by a string of walkers heading up form Coire Leis, all intent on invading our ridge. Nothings ever free. Our perfect bivvy is now costing us dear.
Now to make the last decision of the whole trip and one I never thought I'd hesitate to make. Start out on the ridge and there's only one way off; over the Ben. The conditions are great. Close to perfect. A kilometre and half of what may be the most beautifully situated ridge in all of the UK stands before us and a hundred and fifty metres of down followed by just shy of three hundred back up will put us on the Ben. But do we want to stand in the queue? I'm not sure. The pull of the arette is strong but, to my surprise, great surprise even, I wonder if I should save it for another day. Start out early and get it for myself? Do it fresh heading out the other way? I never relished the idea of thirteen hundred metres of knee beating down over the tourist track but that was always just going to be the price to pay. Iain doesn't like the idea of the three hundred metres back up onto the Ben on tiered legs. We take a moment more to talk through the alternatives pack up one last time and turn North. North not South.
The rest of the afternoon is spent shambling over Carn Dearg Meadhonach and Carn Beag Dearg looking left over Coire Leis and right over the endless West face of Aonach Mor, then picking our way down over rough ground to the Allt a' Mhuilinn. We then pick up the track around the back to Loachan Meall an t-Suidhe and slump down the half Ben. The path down very nearly takes all the fun out of our last hour on the hill. Nearly but not quite; the promise of beer hot food and a bed at the bottom does much to make good.