The Annapurna Circuit and the tours of Mont Blanc, the Matterhorn and Monte Rosa are just a few of the routes that journey around those high mountains and draw the adventurous traveller. Having been fortunate to have hiked those trails, Sean Benz couldn’t help wondering why the UK doesn’t have its own grand tour around its highest mountain.
The highest mountains in any country always attract walkers and climbers to ascend its slopes and Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in the British Isles, standing at 1344m, is no exception.
Annually, more than 100,000 people climb ‘the Ben’, as it is affectionately known, with the vast majority going up the ‘tourist track’. This means missing out on the real beauty of the mountain and the dramatic rock architecture of the north face. Did those hikers really know how imposing the mountain is and how wild the land is behind it?
As a director of North West Frontiers, I wanted to create a new walking adventure for the holiday programme. I also believed that the tour had value in being an attraction for adventurous walkers and had the attributes to make it a standout multi-day hike.
Knowing the area well after years of hiking and biking, it seemed an easy task to pull out Ordnance Survey Sheet 41 and start drawing the lines on the map to create a grand tour. I soon realised that it wasn’t going to be quite as easy as I thought. Fort William is already the start and finish point for many great walks and when I kept looking at the map, I was at risk of just linking existing routes and not creating something new. How was I going to make it different and achievable, while still giving it a real sense of adventure?
I wanted to keep the tour to less than a week, as it would not only fit with the tour program for North West Frontiers but had the potential to become a great walk in its own right. I knew the local area was well serviced with public transport, accommodation and luggage transfers. The question was whether I could connect all these things to make a light-weight hiking tour round Ben Nevis. On several Alpine long-distance hikes, you can connect with post bus services, use ski area summer uplifts and stay in a mountain refuge. The only way to find out if this was going to work was to get the boots on and see if it would work on the ground.
Over the course of 18 months, I hiked the different options multiple times until I found a route that I felt worked and delivered what I wanted. The result was a route that covered just over 100km with nearly 4500m of ascent, which included climbing Ben Nevis. It could be completed in five days, or six if an ascent of the Ben was made. Walking times varied from six to 10 hours and covered distances of up to 26km. Accommodation was available on each night and on most days there was always a plan B in case the weather turned for the worse. Luggage transfer services were available, including options to use public transport and the potential for one night in the wilderness without the need to camp.
Over five days the circuit climbs remote mountains, ventures into wild corries speckled with lochans that are home to golden eagles, deer, mountain hares and ptarmigans. The route explores much of the wonderfully remote hinterland using many of the historical paths and tracks that have shaped the history of the Highlands. It can be completed in either direction, although clockwise would be the preferred option. This enables the walker to ease themselves in, with the days becoming progressively harder on the final days back to Fort William. Spring through to autumn is the best time of year and, having hiked it in winter, it makes for a challenging expedition and one certainly not to be underestimated.
The route visits sights of historical interest including Highbridge, the location of the first action of the Jacobite rebellion in 1745; Inverlochy Castle, with its origins dating back to the late 13th century; the Blackwater Reservoir, built by the ‘navvies’ at the turn of the 1900s; and the most remote railway station in Scotland, made famous by the film Trainspotting!
Out of all the days on the route, the first is the most difficult to piece together. Initially, there seems to be only two options: the first is to utilise the Great Glen Way as far as Gairlochy then walk on a section of road to Spean Bridge. The other is to pick up the tracks through Leanachan Forest, passing Nevis Range and on to Spean Bridge, which is used by another long-distance walk, the East Highland Way. None of these options appeal as they followed existing walking routes and offered nothing new.
On closer inspection there is another route sandwiched between the two that I feel has greater merit and that would also use part of General Wade’s Military Road. The route passes Old Inverlochy Castle, visits Highbridge and provides the perfect panoramic skyline of the major mountains in the area. Not only will you see the north face of Ben Nevis, there will be Aonach Mor and Aonach Beag, along with the peaks of the Grey Corries. There is a short section on a quiet road from Highbridge into the Leanachan forest, but I feel the attributes of the route outweigh this section.
The first day results in 20km on a mix of paths and tracks that give a nice warm-up for what lies ahead. Spean Bridge provides plenty of accommodation options and there’s always the option to utilise the Great Glen luggage services to move bags from Fort William.
My initial thought had been to extend the route further east towards Laggan, but this would have made the route too long. It would also mean no accommodation except for camping, which is not part of my idea. It’s somewhat convenient that in the remote lands to the south, on the edge of Rannoch Moor, is Loch Ossian and Corrour Station. Here is a wonderfully remote Youth Hostel on the shores of the loch, which provides dormitory accommodation. Corrour Station also offers accommodation in the Station House and meals are available in the restaurant. Staying at either gives a real sense of isolation and a wonderful experience, especially given the ease of access with the Glasgow to Fort William railway.
Day two uses the drove road through the Lairig Leacach and before heading through, the ‘Wee Minister’ wishes walkers and climbers good luck on their onward travels. This is a timely reminder as the route now heads into some very remote country that should not be underestimated. Corrour Station certainly makes for a welcome sight after 26km of walking.
There is the option of staying another night in Spean Bridge and taking the train back, although you’d need to allow some contingency time in case of any unforeseen delays as missing the train could make for a rough night without a tent! With some clever planning, baggage services can be used to shuttle bags from Spean Bridge to Kinlochleven, allowing lightweight travel on this section of the route.
From Corrour it is now a case of finding a route west towards Kinlochleven. There is an option to retrace the route to Loch Treig then head south west through Gleann lolairean on an old drove road that leads to a remote bothy on the shores of Loch Chiarain. As this is a low-level route it is better served as an alternative in the event of poor weather.
Standing on the platform of Corrour Station looking west rises an inviting ridge leading to the summit of Leum Uilleim. It seems a perfect fit to bag a peak and avoid the need to retrace the steps from the previous day. Although not a Munro, the summit provides stunning uninterrupted views of the Cairngorms, Glencoe and Ben Nevis and feels as if you really are in a great wilderness.
From the summit there is no track down to the bothy at Loch Chairian, but the slope provides little difficulty with the route soon picking up the path to the Blackwater Reservoir. From the reservoir the route continues down the Ciaran Path following the Blackwater River to Kinlochleven. This is a beautiful section of trail with lochans, waterfalls and the ever-rushing waters of the river for company. Day three provides 21km of fantastic walking in some very remote country.
There is ample accommodation in Kinlochleven and there’s also the option of catching the bus back to Fort William then returning to Kinlochleven the following morning. Bags can be shuttled as well using the West Highland Way luggage transfer services. Kinlochleven gets very busy with the West Highland Way so accommodation needs to be booked well in advance to ensure a bed for the night.
From Kinlochleven the obvious route is to pick up the last day of the West Highland Way to Fort William. Again, this doesn’t fit with the original idea, although it certainly provides a safe alternative in the event of bad weather. The peaks of the Mamores act as barrier between Kinlochleven and Glen Nevis, with few weaknesses in their armour. Fortunately, a number of good stalkers’ paths lead into the wild corries between the peaks and this seems to provide the perfect answer in giving a route over into Glen Nevis.
Looking at the options available there is a stalkers’ path that heads east from Kinlochleven, making a rising traverse around the steep southern slopes of Sgurr Eilde Beag and into Coire an Lochain. This allows the route to descend into the top of Glen Nevis, passing Steall waterfall and down through the gorge. This will be the toughest day of the entire route and one certainly not to be underestimated. This high section of the route is wild and magical, with the peaks of Sgor Eilde Beag and Sgurr Eilde reflected in the shimmering waters of the lochan.
From the lochan between Binnein Mor and Binnein Beag, there’s a descent of approximately 400m into Glen Nevis. The stalkers’ path ends at the lochan. Although the descent is not overly steep it does require some navigation to avoid several small rock slabs while aiming for the junction of the Water of Nevis and the Allt Coire na Gabhalach. At low water levels it’s an easy crossing, otherwise it’s best to stay on the south side of the river until a wire bridge. The bridge is not for the faint hearted but makes for a great photo opportunity.
Easy walking leads down through Glen Nevis, passing Steall waterfall and on through the beautiful gorge to the road end. There’s a short section of road before crossing back over the river again and on to the car park at Polldubh. At this point, 17km of walking has been completed and there’s another 9km until Fort William. There’s an option to continue or take the bus back and complete the last section the following day.
After the exertions of day four, the last section gives easy walking along the River Nevis back into Fort William, making for a short day. It’s a case of taking the bus back up Glen Nevis and following the path on the river down to the Youth Hostel. This is a much-overlooked path and is certainly not as busy as the Steall waterfall path. There’s still plenty of interest as it passes the original graveyard of the Cameron Clan of Glen Nevis. On reaching the youth hostel things will get busier, with the combination of West Highland Way and Ben Nevis walkers on the final section into Fort William and the completion of the Tour of Ben Nevis.
There is only one more thing to do to finish the tour and that is to ascend the summit of the mountain that the tour had been circumnavigating. Out of the two main routes the only option is via Carn Mor Dearg arete and then onto Ben. This is the route that really showcases the scale and rugged beauty of the mountain and provides the perfect perch to survey the wild lands that the tour has travelled.