It sounds tough and it is. A circle of high peaks dizzying above deep troughs. Threads of narrow, swooping ridge tying together no less than seven summits, all piercing through the 3000-foot contour. White, quartzite corries that resemble calderas. Tall waterfalls. And a walk in that starts and ends the circuit with a bang.
The Nevis Gorge is short, little more than half-a-mile in extent, yet it has been described, by W. H. Murray, and with considerable justification, as the finest half mile in Scotland. We parked the car at Polldubh, in Glen Nevis. The air was damp and heavy, and cloud covered the upper reaches of the hills. We were relying on the weather forecast, which predicted an improvement as the day wore on.
We followed the track through woods, beckoned by the increasing thunder of a rushing river. And suddenly, we were in the gorge. The water sliced its way through a Himalayan miniature. It cascaded into deep pools beneath crags that occluded much of the sky, then disappeared under huge boulders that bridged the chasm. Quiet-looking puddles on the tops of the boulders harboured stones that, during centuries of flood, had carved and hollowed small depressions into potholes.
Through a gap in the trees, we caught a glimpse of the Steall waterfall, before the gully closed in again. Then with an almost breathless suddenness, we stepped out into open meadow and a near silence through which the river could almost be said to stroll, with scarcely a ripple.
Across the meadow, the river was spanned by the strangest of bridges, constructed of three wire cables, one acting as a tightrope while the others served as handrails. The whole structure swayed unnervingly as we approached the middle.
Without a pause, the track now led steeply up the hillside, through sodden turf and deep, wet grass, until it levelled out on a ridge. We followed this over glacier-smoothed outcrops of rock among which we continually lost and found a variety of tracks.
The hillside steepened again as we rounded crags and scrambled up gullies, eventually emerging onto the quartzite rim of a corrie that had the appearance of a volcanic crater. A tiny, solitary figure slid down the white scree of the far wall, looking like an ant on a sugar pile.
The cloud had slowly risen during our ascent, and now, only a few wisps clung to the slopes above. Over the next few minutes, they also dispersed. The ascent now became much more pleasant, and we soon arrived at the bald summit of Sgurr a’Mhaim, the first and highest peak of the day.
A long look around the rim of the corrie revealed the peaks still to be climbed. It was clear that the hard work was now over and the real fun was to begin. There were some steep struggles ahead of us, but they were of the kind that mountaineers would come here to enjoy rather than endure.
The broad slope narrowed as we descended to the col and the start of what is known as the Devil’s Ridge. Stob Choire a’Mhail rose over us like a church spire, the track picking an intricate way up a small crag, then up sparse grass above. To right and left, the hillsides dropped away for a thousand feet to the corrie floors. This was pure exhilaration. Over the pointed top and down again, then finally a broadening of the path once more brought us to Sgor an Iubhair.
Prior to 1997, the number of 3000-foot peaks classed as Munros stood at 277. A further 240 were classified merely as tops, because the fall and rise between each and the next was not thought sufficient to give them separate mountain status. Then, in 1997, eight tops were re-classified as full Munros, and one demoted to being only a top. The single demoted peak was Sgor an Iubhair.
Why this was so, I don’t know. The drop to the next col was perhaps not great, and held no difficulties, but as we descended, it appeared deeper than some others we knew between peaks that still retained their status.
The col was broad and flat, and the ensuing rise, steady but not steep, brought us to Am Bodach. Across Glen Nevis, to our left, the remnants of the clouds were finally lifting, to uncover the peaks of the Grey Corries, Aonach Beag and Aonach Mor, Carn Mor Dearg and the Ben itself. And to the right stood the ragged ridge of Aonach Eagach and the hills above Glencoe.
The fall from Am Bodach was loose and quite vertiginous, and seemed to go on and on. It appeared to be taking us down almost to the valley floor. There would be no arguments over Munro status concerning this peak and Stob Choire a’Chairn. The rise to the latter was nearly as great, but of a gentler gradient. We concluded that the walk would have been much tougher had we tackled it in the opposite direction, as many others were doing that day.
From the summit of Stob Choire a’Chairn, we gazed across the final gap. An Garbhanach rose up on the far side, sharp and craggy. Despite growing fatigue, we felt its draw, for it promised to be the best part of the circuit.
This last section is the one that should have been called the Devil’s Ridge, for in its airyness and spectacle, it was far superior to any other part of the walk. And the exposed scramble along the knife-edge arête to An Gearanach, the ultimate Munro on the Ring of Steall, was the equal in all but length of the one between Carn Mor Dearg and Ben Nevis, that now stood as its backdrop.
The rest was downhill, but there was a lot of it. The track fell to a shoulder, then zigzagged in long sweeps down the steep, grassy hillside to Steall meadow and across the stream that flowed from the base of the waterfall.
The valley floor was very boggy and the last few hundred metres to the wire bridge proved quite tortuous. But then there was the retracing of our morning steps through the ‘best half mile in Scotland’ to end what is perhaps one of the most demanding, but certainly one of the finest circuits in the whole of the Highlands.