Between a rock and a hard place
I made it to the half-way Lochan Meall an ‘t Suidhe in good time and left the main route for a less travelled path towards the Northern side of the mountain. This eventually led me under the cliffs of Carn Dearg to a prominent landmark known as the Lunching Stone. This unmissable boulder is about the size of a small house and has been broken in two by the irresistible shattering action of freezing ice.
From here it was possible to get a flavour of the challenge ahead. The profile of the ridge looked deceptively easy with a couple of major steepenings about half way up and another awkward looking step near the top. The rock looked clean and rough, giving the promise of grip and traction for hands and feet. A faint track through the crowberry scrub led to a rightwards sloping ramp of black slabs which seemed to give way to a series of zig-zags amongst some large blocks.
[page] A quick look at the book showed this to be the “Voie Normale”, so I headed up to the top of the slabs.
The going got steeper and the rocks were wet and slimy. Eventually, I could not climb further. This made my situation a little tricky, because I had to find the route back down, then down-climb carefully till I got back to the base of the slippery slabs. I skirted left at the base of the cliff for about 30 paces, passing a small waterfall and spotted what looked like an acceptable route. This took the form of three parallel ribs, about three feet each apart with right-angled grooves between them; the whole of this laid back at a fairly steep angle.
With some good holds and a bit of reliance on friction I was able to get up onto the foot of Castle Ridge proper. From here the general run of the rocks was across my path creating a series of flat-topped steps of heights varying between a few inches and several feet. A large obstacle in the form of a twenty-five foot wall was overcome by an easy ramp-chimney with a chockstone at the top which was bypassed using a foot-jam in a small crack.
The next obstacle was not so easy. A cliff stretched across my path from one side of the ridge to the other. The only line of weakness was a crack, flared at the bottom where it took an easy angle from the ground, closing up to a narrow split as the cliff got steeper. There were plenty of good holds until about twenty feet up.
Then I had to jam a boot in a smooth section of crack and reach up to jam my left hand into a narrow slot above my head. The next move was a bit tricky. I kicked my right boot into a corner, pushed up against friction while taking some of my weight on the jammed hand. My right hand closed thankfully over a big jug which allowed me to haul up over this, the crux of the climb, to easier ground above.
I had passed the point of no return. There was no way to reverse those moves, so I was committed to solving whatever problems were still ahead. The slope was now a little easier for some distance. When the next barrier loomed, it took the form a a nearly vertical cliff broken into a series of ribs and chimneys. A couple of easy moves led to a platform on top of a large detached boulder.
[page] It looked impossible to step onto the chimney directly above, as it was undercut at its base, and the surface was smooth, with no holds to be seen. The regular route only became clear when I put my head around one of the ribs to the right. I stepped onto a small foothold on the next rib. With dizzying views down the cliff to the Lunching Stone about a thousand feet below, I climbed the rib for about thirty feet on surprisingly good holds and one or two strenuous fingery moves needing a bit of faith in my finger strength. After this I was breathing heavily.
The ridge narrowed to a knife edge and from here on there was no real choice of path. There were steep drops on either side. A small cliff still had to be tackled. Then I was faced with the most delightful problem of the day, a shoulder-width crack between the cliff and a detached block for about twenty feet. The crack narrowed in places, so I had to turn sideways to avoid the shoulders jamming. I had a scare when my pack caught on a projection, but I wriggled past this and on to the top.
The ridge now stretched before me, narrow and jagged for another few hundred paces. I enjoyed the exhilaration of scrambling along knife edges with drops to left and right, knowing that the major difficulties had been passed. It was time now to take in the view. In the clear weather I could see west, all the way to the end of Loch Linnhe. To the North, I could see along the Great Glen as far as Loch Long. Behind me I could see the summit of Ben Nevis beckoning in the sunlight. I decided to leave that for another day. I had been between a rock and a hard place, and I liked it!