WHEN someone describes their mountain day as atmospheric, it can be taken many ways, from constantly evolving thrills and sudden revelation to the mere consolation of having managed to snatch a brief glimpse in an ocean of misty disappointment.
The best day is one where the hope with which you start off is repaid incrementally, culminating in total perfection. We had a day like that on the Aonachs last weekend.
Aonach Mor is at the hub of Fort William’s outdoor capital of the world identity, with skiing and mountain biking facilities to compete with the best.
The unfortunate side effect of this is a rather depressing walking experience amongst the various apparatus on the trade route, and those who wish to see the better side of this mountain should head round to the deep eastern corries before ascending via Tom na Sroine.
This wasn’t an option for us as we already had a long day planned over the Nevis Range, so we set off from a car park packed with show tents, colour and loud rock music and teeming with excited bikers turning tricks in anticipation of a great day’s competition.
We followed a series of ploughed tracks under the line of the gondola to reach the upper station, then headed up into the sea of low cloud on a bed of damp grass and moss to reach the cairn which marks the highest point of this featureless plateau. So far, so bleh.
The walk over to Aonach Beag takes just half an hour, but the contrast is massive. From flatness and grass, you suddenly switch to a rocky, shattered ground. The contrast in the weather followed too. Now the cloud which had clung to the roof of Aonach Mor was swirling around giving glimpses into wild Coire an Eoin, huge tracts of snow still holding on in the cracks and creases of vertiginous cliffs.
We sat on the corrie edge having lunch as the cloud continued its dissipation at a rapid rate, Carn Mor Dearg, our next objective, now fully in view with Ben Nevis peeking up behind, while the Mamores had finally made an appearance.
It’s only when you look back from the drop down to Carn Mor Dearg that you begin to wonder at Aonach Mor and Aonach Beag being classed as separate Munros. Here are two 4000-ft plus mountains, separated by a high bealach that requires minimal drop and effort, yet although they share so much. They have vastly different identities, two distinct personalities.
Anyway, it doesn’t pay to spend too much time looking back when you are on the path which drops west from the fringe of Aonach Mor to the deep cut of the Allt Daim. This is outrageously steep, a near-vertical slash which is less a path, more like erosion which happens to be heading in the direction you want to go. It is loose, slippery and mined with wet slabs which need attention. The relief at getting down without a tumble is justified.
Again the contrast on the other side was stark. It’s a long push up the east connecting ridge, but it is a delight, a constant gain entirely on rock, and the views in every direction help take your mind off the climb.
The summit cairn sits right at the top of this soaring ascent, the hammock-shape of the CMD Arete bowing off to the left and its connection with The Ben swarming with tiny figures. The massed ranks of summiteers on our highest mountain looked from this viewpoint like that scene in Zulu when Michael Caine and Co first spot the enemy on the horizon.
We didn’t care. We had emerged from a dull day to witness Ben Nevis from its finest stance. The atmospherics had been perfect.