Scottish ski touring: Aonach Mor and Aonach Beag
The last time I attempted to ski back country from Nevis Range Mountain Resort things did not go too well. A few years later and thanks to improved confidence and skill, as well as a great season of Scottish snow, I thoroughly enjoyed a return outing to Aonach Mor and Aonach Beag.
What happened back then?
I had only recently bought my Cham 97 touring skis a few years ago – and I was relatively new to skiing – when G persuaded me to join him back country at Aonach Mor. The icy conditions, my nerves and the cold made for a disastrous outing that ended in a huge argument.
I became totally hysterical at the top of a steep descent into an icy gully and then G lost my phone from his pocket (never to be found again). You can imagine the rest…
Consequently, I have never been too keen to return to the same place. But I am a much better skier now and with good snow and blue skies forecast I decided to try again. I am so pleased that G persuaded me to do so.
Great back country skiing from Nevis Range
G and I took the gondola and then several lifts to the highest point on Nevis Range Mountain, near Fort William.
The Summit Tow deposits you close to Aonach Mor summit at 1221m.
There is a lot of back country skiing (off piste) that can be accessed from the Summit Tow top around Aonach Mor and Aonach Beag and some 2.5kms of high plateau skiing in between.
If you fancy a gentle introduction to ski touring you could ski from the Summit Tow to Aonach Mor and across to the lower slopes of Aonach Beag.
For more committing ideas see Scottish Off-Piste Skiing and Snowboarding: Nevis Range.
We had a couple of descents off Aonach Beag in our sights.
While the plateau can be icy, yesterday it was covered in mostly lovely snow. We enjoyed a gentle ascent on skis with skins attached (skins are fabric that give grip for going uphill) to Aonach Mor summit.
The views across to snowy Ben Nevis on our right and the Grey Corries on our left were spectacular. As far as the eye could see where snow-capped mountains and we oohed and ahhed at the magnificent winter-spring panorama.
From Aonach Mor summit we skied on another gentle downhill to reach the base of a much steep uphill slope towards Aonach Beag summit.
Climbing the steep slope to Aonach Beag
At the base of the steeper ascent to Beag we took off our skis, added crampons to our ski boots and attached the skis to our Osprey ski packs. The route was deep in snow and meandered around big rocks. Eyeing a large area of cornicing to our left, we made sure to climb well over to the right. Cornices make me very nervous, as they should, but also because a friend died many years ago after falling through a cornice.
This was not an easy climb on a steep gradient with heavy and awkward packs so we took our time, stopping frequently to catch our breath and look back at the fabulous views.
Finally, the slope levelled a little towards the summit area. I say “summit area” because there was so much snow that it was difficult to see the true top.
We enjoyed a short break for a bite to eat and to chat to a couple of walkers/climbers from Sheffield. Earlier that morning we had also chatted with a couple, Sammy and Richard from London. They had booked a trip to the Scottish Highlands, arriving by plane into Edinburgh and then hiring a car, to try ice climbing at Kinlochleven. They were amazed to discover they could go skiing on the Easter weekend.
Sammy said: “We never expected to be skiing this weekend and in sunshine.” Michael added: “We will definitely be coming back to Scotland again because we have enjoyed this weekend so much.”
While the resort was busy, we were surprised to be out on such a glorious day without seeing many back country skiers. However, we weren’t complaining as we had the slopes all to ourselves.
It was time to “transition” again, this time swapping boots and crampons for skis.
Off piste on Aonach Beag south face
From the top of Aonach Beag there is apparently around 1km of downhill, heading towards Glen Nevis. I had never experienced such good quality off-piste snow in Scotland.
It was not what I would call proper powder snow as it was a little heavy for that but there was a good covering of light-ish snow on a solid base. This allowed for easy skiing on a wide slope.
As we whooshed downhill, I smiled to myself and wondered why I had not been on a ski tour like this before.
We didn’t do the full kilometre because we knew there was a long “skin” uphill to come and we had plans to ski a gully on the other side of Beag.
Yet another transition..
There is a lot of stopping and starting again on a ski tour. This time we took off our skis, added skins, adjusted our boots and ski bindings to walk mode and set off to ski uphill.
The slope was surprisingly steep (it hadn’t felt like this on the descent) and several times we slipped backwards. G decided we should add our ski crampons. I had never used these before and I now wonder why not.
The crampons fit to the middle of the skis and prevent backwards slipping. They do make the skis heavier but we felt a lot safer as we zig-zagged slowly uphill. By now the sun was very warm and we stripped off outer layers as we worked hard on the skin up.
Aonach Beag summit once more
This time we took off our skis and added crampons to our boots again to descend back to the bealach of Beag and Mor. It would have been possible to ski back down the steep slope but it is fairly narrow.
G was worried about how I would cope with the threat of a large cornice at the side and we decided to be cautious.
Descending a steep slope in crampons and carrying a bag laden with long skis is not the easiest but we reckoned it was the safest in the situation.
At the top of Cul Choire Col
Back on the plateau area between Beag and Mor we found ourselves at the top of the gully where I had freaked out on a previous trip. It is a col (east), down to the valley floor (An Cul-Choire). The book describes it as Cul Choire Col.
Looking cautiously over the edge of the gullyI could see that there was an almost vertical descent into the top. The edge was raised up because of cornicing and I knew I’d have to take a very brave ski over that.
However, I could see that after the initial ski in and traverse that the slope looked to be a bit gentler. Still, I wasn’t at all sure I would cope with the entrance.
The high rock face of the North East Ridge of Aonach Beag above the gully made it seem very closed in and even more daunting. In addition, I was worried about what I couldn’t see further down the slope.
Committing to any new route in the back country is nerve wracking because you are never exactly sure what you will discover lower down the slope.
So I uhmmed and ahhed for a while at the top feeling very nervous and then nodded. Yes, I would do it, I decided.
Skiing that scary gully
G went first, making the whole entrance look too easy. I was left at the top with my skis pointing into a steep bowl and I could hardly breath. Last time I’d made it into the gully only to become hysterical because the slope was so steep.
But I had decided I would do it. I knew I was a better skier.
Before I could persuade myself not to, I pushed myself off and descended suddenly into a traverse across a very steep and slope. I knew then I would be fine. G said my face instantly lit up as I realised what I had achieved.
It felt brilliant to have been brave enough to overcome my fears – and to realise I had become a much better skier.
The next five to 10 minutes of downhill skiing were amazing. The snow was soft and untouched. It seemed incredible that no one else had skied this col and we enjoyed making fresh tracks.
G skis into the CC Chute
There is a section hallway down the bowl called the CC Chute. G took a look and decided that I should traverse around and enjoy a gentler descent. I didn’t argue. He knows my skill level and he didn’t tell me in a patronising way. He simply said the alternative would be better for me.
So as he went down the chute – he did the top half of this chute – I enjoyed more of the lovely soft white stuff to the side. The slope was wide and not too steep and the views across to the Grey Corries were superb.
The CC Chute was steeper and quite icy, according to G. No thanks!
We met at a junction and chatted about where to go next.
We knew we were reaching a place where we would have to start skiing back up and it all looked very steep and dramatic.
This is what I mean about being scared of committing to a back country route. It’s not until you reach the lower slopes and look up that you realise how fast you descend and how slow and arduous it is to recover the height.
Climbing back to the top
I admit I was daunted by what we would need to do next. We were now on the lower slopes of a huge glen surrounded by mountains including the Aonachs on one side and the Grey Corries on the other.
It was truly stunning yet also imposing. It really did feel like we were the only people in this snowy landscape for miles around. Possibly we were on that day because we saw no other tracks in the pristine snow – and as far as the eye could see.
It is incredible how easy it is to access these back country areas from Nevis Range resort yet how few people did so on a beautiful sunny day in Spring. Of course, you need the kit and the experience to be safe back country (we carried all kinds of safety and emergency equipment) but the possibilities in almost untouched snow are fantastic.
We basically headed north-west and upwards. The slopes were very steep and the snow had become quite slushy in the sunshine so after attempting to skin up on skis, with crampons attached, we swapped to bootpacking with boot crampons while carrying our skis.
With G ahead breaking track we slowly ascended. The steep gradient sent my calves into cramp and, at times, I worried about the weight of the skis and pack pulling me backwards. We took our time and a great deal of care, kicking the spikes of our crampons into the snow at every step.
I have no idea how long this section took except I needed to refuel on Snickers and cereal bars at least twice.
Heading back to Nevis Range
Our aim had been the Braveheart lift and as we reached a high point where we could again swap to skiing we were suddenly feeling hopeful of an easier descent back to the resort base.
Looking to our left we could see several other back country chutes fro the top of Aonach Mor. They whet our appetite to return another day but for now our goal was to get back to the gondola before it shut. If we missed this it would mean a long hike down the walking path carrying all of our kit.
We descended on skis and again the snow was mostly still good but on one short and very steep section there was a horrible lightweight covering of snow on ice. We both traversed this while swearing loudly.
I was, by this point, really tired. I am not used to carrying a heavy pack and my back had started to spasm painfully with almost every step.
And then, as we turned a corner we saw the Braveheart chairlift had stopped for the day. This was frustrating because it meant another long traverse, sometimes walking, sometimes skinning and sometimes skiing.
Thank you Hubby G!
At one point I’d slowed to a very painful pace and G said he would carry my pack, as well as his. I said that was madness but he insisted. He could see how sore my back was and he was worried we would not make it to the gondola in time.
I was very grateful for his assistance. I also had another quick snack, took on more water and found a painkiller in my pocket.
Thankfully, it wasn’t long before we could see the lifts and slopes of the main resort again. We made another small error when we skied too low and had to bootpack up another 50m to reach the ski slope back to the gondola. Al these things we have now learned and will aim to avoid the next time we ski back country here.
It was amazing to see how busy Nevis Range still was. It was around 4.30pm and the slopes were buzzing. There was a long queue to access the gondola.
While we had seen virtually no one for many hours while skiing the back country, yet so close to the resort, Nevis Range must have enjoyed one of their best Easter skiing days for many years.
How lucky we were to live just two-and-a-half hours or so from this fabulous outdoors playground.