6 Scottish routes to prepare you for high mountain treks

By Sean McBride
6 minute read

In terms of terrain, the Scottish mountains are a fantastic training ground when planning a trek or a climb overseas, says Sean McBride

Wandering down the bustling main road through the small mountain town of Lukla, the world was full of colour, movement and excitement. Sherpas strode past teetering under impossible loads mounted on their backs and strapped to their foreheads. Lines of heavily laden yaks and mules trotted past, the bells around their necks clanging as they went.

On the way to the mountains, we passed an Irish pub, a Scottish pub and a million souvenir shops. As we made our first steep, rocky descent onto the trail leading out of town towards Everest Base Camp, I realised how valuable my training in the Scottish Mountains had been. I smiled and thought: “I can do this!”

Since first deciding to climb mountains to improve my fitness in 2014, I have summited 55 Munros in Scotland and used these as a training ground for mountain treks further afield.

I have also completed three Himalayan Treks including Poon Hill, Everest Base Camp and an attempt at Mera Peak. In Africa I have attempted Kilimanjaro, reaching Stella Point on the rim of the volcano, and summited Mount Toubkal, the highest of the Atlas Mountains in North Africa.

What has become increasingly apparent is that, in terms of terrain, the Scottish Mountains are a fantastic training ground when planning a trek or a climb overseas.

Hinku Valley showing Nepali Flat
Hinku Valley showing Nepali Flat

Safety first

Before continuing, I need to add a vital note of caution. Scottish mountains are a treacherous and deadly environment that require a range of skills and equipment to safely negotiate. Only experienced mountaineers with excellent navigation skills, full winter equipment and all the training on how to use it should venture onto the Scottish mountains in winter.

Even in summer, plummeting temperatures, near-zero visibility and high winds can strike with very little warning and create significant and deadly problems for unprepared or inexperienced climbers. Please plan appropriately before attempting any of the routes described in this post.

Now we understand the dangers, let's discuss the similarities.

Nepali Flat

Anyone visiting the spectacular routes through the Nepalese part of the Himalayas (covered in the Cicerone guide Everest: A Trekker’s Guide) may well come across the term Nepali Flat.

This describes the endless ups and downs you are likely to encounter in the early days of some of the treks as you climb the steep sides to emerge from one valley and then descent the equally steep sides into the next.

Following the Meall a Behuachaille Circuit past the Glenmore Lodge near Aviemore you will soon find yourself ascending and descending frequently before making a drop of a few hundred feet through the trees to a small lochan called An Lochan Uaine and then climbing back up to Ryvoan bothy.

All this just to get to the foot of the mountain. This route is a great introduction to Nepali Flat.

For those who want to experience a much more extreme version of Nepali Flat in Scotland, another option would be to head to the Arrochar Alps. Here, the fitter and more experienced mountaineers have the option of climbing Ben Vane and Ben Vorlich on the same day.

It should be noted that this feat involves a long, arduous day over very steep and rocky terrain with some scrambling. It is not for the inexperienced or faint-hearted and skills such as good navigation with a map and compass are essential.

Ben Vane
Final scramble at the top of Ben Vane

Kilimanjaro

When it comes to climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, featured in the Cicerone Guide Kilimanjaro. I would say that there are two routes in Scotland that can help you prepare for the terrain you will encounter.

Shira Plateau Mt Kilimanjaro
Shira Plateau, Mt Kilimanjaro

For those taking on the Shira or Lemosho Route on Kilimanjaro, a summer walk around the circuit taking in Ben Macduie and Cairngorm from the Ski Centre above Aviemore can be good training for the ascent to the Shira Plateau on Kilimanjaro. Note that a summer ascent is mentioned here. In winter, the Cairngorm Plateau is a deadly environment with a far closer resemblance to the North Pole than the Shira Plateau.

Meall a Behuachaille, the Cairngorm Plateau, Cairngorm Summit, and Ben Macduie ore all featured in the Cicerone Guide Walking in the Cairngorms.

Cairngorm Plateau
Approaching the Cairngorm Plateau in summer

For those thinking of heading to Kilimanjaro via the Machame, Shira, Umbwe or Lemosho Route, I would recommend a summer ascent of Ben Vane. With its steep rocky path and requirement for scrambling, it is a great training route to prepare for the Barranco Wall, a 300m steep rocky ascent encountered 4 or 5 days into the Kilimanjaro trek depending on which route you take.

Summit night

Having made summit attempts on Mera Peak, Kilimanjaro and Mount Toubkal (Mount Toubkal is one of the 48 routes featured in the Cicerone Guide  The High Atlas), I would recommend a night ascent of Ben Nevis via the Mountain Path as good training for any of them.

The reason for recommending the night ascent is that the summit bids on the other mountains tend to start any time from midnight on to allow maximum time for reaching the summit and descending to safety. It is beneficial therefore to get used to climbing in the dark.

You may also get to see a billion stars and then a breathtaking sunrise. The ascent of Ben Nevis is similar in vertical height to that from Barafu Camp to Uhuru Peak on Kilimanjaro. Also, for a lot of the year, especially in winter, you will need winter climbing equipment such as crampons and an ice axe and the skills to use them to reach the summit of Ben Nevis. This will help prepare you for the ascent of the Mera Glacier or a winter ascent of Mount Toubkal.

Ben Nevis just before dawn
On Ben Nevis just before dawn

The Cicerone Guide  Walking The Munros Vol 1 – Southern, Central and Western Highlands features several routes to the summit of Ben Nevis as well as featuring Ben Vane and Ben Vorlich (Loch Lomond).

The mountains of Scotland offer breathtaking routes with spectacular views and every type of walking and climbing you can imagine. This is what makes them an excellent training ground for trekking and climbing elsewhere in the world.

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