Some time ago we had the idea of going on a hike in the Scottish Highlands. Our first daughter was just a little more than one year old and her mom was pregnant again. Obviously it was high time to start on some trekking tour again! People told us about the great nature of the Scottish Highlands, about the friendly people, about alpine adventures and about the possibility to put up your tent wherever you wanted. We liked what we heard and so we planned a long distance hiking trip there with our little family for two weeks in April.
The Hike to Ben Nevis
Our starting point was quite classically at Loch Ness, the big lake with the legendary monster in it. The transport there went quite unspectacular by plane, train and bus. Our goal from there on was to be as much in nature as possible and as little in civilization as possible. So we went on a meandering path southwestwards along the hills just south of Great Glen (the great divide splitting Scotland into two parts) for several days. The general direction was Fort William and, foremost, Ben Nevis.
Of Ben Nevis we had learned that it is the highest in all of nowadays Great Britain (1345 m). And that some quite interesting paths lead up there, even some sounding interestingly mountaineering-like. But we did not know if it is possible to climb one of those paths without climbing equipment and with a little baby girl around. So here are our experiences with magnificent Ben Nevis in family hiking mode.
We approached the mountain from the Northeast (“North Face Car Park”). There is a lake some way up the mountain (called Lochan Meall an t-Suidhe) on whose idyllic shoreline we pitched our tent. This way we were already nearly half up the mountain altitude wise (570 m, starting from near sea level) without even having begun the real climb. From here on the normal route leads uphill. This one is also called the “pony track” because it was used for supplying the observatory and a hotel on top of the mountain in former times. Even though the hotel project is long gone and the observatory abandoned the pony track still looked rather impressive to us. And rather too much like civilization for our taste.
But fortunately we already had found out at home that from the same starting point one can continue on to a beautiful round along an elegant ridge to the top. That one is called “Carn Mor Dearg Arête” and the description at walkhighlands sounded quite appealing to us: “For experienced, fit mountain walkers who do not mind easy scrambling but are not climbers, this is the finest way to climb Ben Nevis. This is a truly spectacular route incorporating two Munros. It will live long in the memory and does true justice to the mountain.” (Munros are the hills higher than 3000 feet, 914 m).
So in the evening we tried out how to best get there. Surprisingly our little girl used this possibility to try her first steps on quite uneven ground. Her parents were anxious and proud at the same time, always seeing her stumbling and falling right at the next corner. But she did not fall (well, not very often) and instead seemed quite pleased with her adventure. Maybe a good sign for our planned climbing adventure?
Up we go: Child Carrier Scrambling
Next morning, we put our little girl into her baby carrier (arguably the hip belt of this one is a bit flimsy?!) and began our hike along the foot of the mountain. It made for pleasurable walking, just the child and a little day pack on our backs. Below us, there were some clouds, above us the sunshine, this did look promising indeed!
We only had to walk a few minutes until reaching the beginning of the CMD Arête route. From there on began a steep climb up the side of the ridge. Quite probably there also is a trodden path somewhere nearby but we didn’t find it and fortunately also did not need it. The girl in the backpack did like the hike (while mostly sleeping) as did the pregnant mother and carrier animal (not so much today since the tent remained back at the lake) father.
Some way up the mountain site two things happened. First the pregnant mother needed a break for finding a little more energy. And as we succeeded at this task we were met by some fellow mountaineers. A couple just having completed the West Highland Way with their mountain guide, as it turned out. They were impressively well equipped and the guide just explained to them how to best use crampons and ice axes. We quietly hoped that we won’t be going to need such stuff since we only had some feeble excuses of crampons (“grödel”) with us that seemed not very trustworthy really.
On the Ridge of CMD Arête
But soon we forgot about this gloomy consideration. In particular when we reached the edge of the ridge with breathtaking views at the highland’s landscape on the opposite side. There we decided to have our first long break. Which indeed had been requested by the carried girl already some time before now (being calmed by little bits of cereal bar). Since apparently now our girl hat begun to like walking in the mountains we secured her with her children’s climbing harness and let her walk around where she liked. And she really seemed to like this mountain.
Now there was to come the more interesting and maybe even a little bit challenging part of the ridge. We were happy and excited. On images and video clips from action cams this part sometimes looked quite narrow and steep. But, well, those cameras tend to exaggerate a bit when it comes to exciting views due to their fish eye perspective on the world. Still, this felt like a very nice and pleasant alpine walk with great scenic views and not too much taste of adrenaline. Which felt quite fitting considering that we had a little girl in a child carrier (now again, and once more quite content) with us. And, arguably, there were one or two places where it seemed advantageous to touch the warm rock with one’s hands. Which felt great.
Interestingly, there was still plenty of snow left on the northern slopes everywhere around in mid April. But the ridge itself – as nice ridges are supposed to – already was entirely free of snow.
To the Top
Snow we met in earnest at the foot of the last steep ascent up the Ben Nevis mountain itself. There it was where the other group stopped and put on their crampons. We, too, stopped and had a break, with food and drink and views for girl and parents again. Surprisingly, it still was quite warm up here with near to no wind. So the place made for one more quite cosy picnic area on todays family scrambling tour.
The first few meters up this final hill went quite well, with magnificient view over the surrounding mountain ridges. To the south we could see the valley we would decide on crossing some days later on. Quite nice!
On the way further uphill we then again made two discoveries. First, fortunately crampons were not needed here. It was easy enough to put good steps into the snow.
And second, it started to get cloudy. Meaning, we really started being in the middle of a cloud. Which seemed quite fitting for the top of that mountain since it is said that this mountain is in clouds really most of the time. Luckily, by now we already had seen lots of the gorgeous view on the way up. So we were not overly disappointed about our cloud when finally arriving at the top of Great Britain.
Top of the Clouds
There were also several advantages to this setting. This way the mountaintop with the old observatory and hotel did look quite enchanted and so very natural and impressive. And we did not see most of the other tourists up with us on the mountaintop. So we had our very private spot of flat snow with a range of vision of about 50 meters in the middle of nowhere at Ben Nevis mountaintop. We enjoyed another extensive picnic up there while our little girl more liked to explore the snow and try out her newly found cross-country mobility.
For about one hour we stayed on the top of Ben Nevis. Despite the clouds it still was neither cold nor windy up there. Or, at least wearing our warm down jackets it feeled quite comfortable. And we even got some little windows of sight here and there to see spots of mountain landscape here and there.
Down we go
Finally, we started the descent over the pony track. With the effect of the clouds almost immediately going away. Again our girl had quite some walking meters down the path. It was there that we first learned how persistent this child of us can be in walking. She really showed a will to walk, slide, jump down this mountain on herself. And she did it, almost up to our tent (still quite far away at the far end of the lake in the snow-gliding picture). And it was no problem to her, that the path was as boring as could be expected of something called pony trail. She seemed just happy with her new found capabilities. Besides, we parents were happy, too, and went out there walking with her time and again (e.g. in Norway on the Fjordruta, just a little over one year later, she already walked really impressively long distances on her own).
Of course there was another comfortable break before we arrived at our tent. There our girl discovered that with a trekking pole you really can do the funniest of things. She even did some posing for picturesque spear throwing. Maybe another Highlander, some day? Be that as it may, some time later we safely arrived back (home) at our tent. What a great family adventure experience!
On goes the Trekking
After a good nights sleep at the lake we continued to Fort William and our next camping site. After resupplying in the “big city” we walked a little bit along the famous West Highland Way. Then we had some more very nice days hiking along an alternative path to the West Highland Way southwards (Glen Nevis, where Highlander, Braveheart and Harry Potter have been filmed!). It has been a very good idea to come to Scotland for our family hiking trip!
One word about Nature
The Scottish countryside and particularly the Highlands are great and magnificent. But they are by no means untouched. In times long gone, there has been forest on all those hills. Where there is forest now it to the most part is heavily cultivated (event though the Scottish try to change this as of late, encouragingly). And the tundra-like Grassland that covers these high lands now is just the result of centuries of logging (building mostly ships with the wood, it is said). Even though, these hills can be gorgeous. And those sheep that roam the lower hills, while being called curse of the land by some, are really rather cute to watch (see e.g. the picture here on the top).
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