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At 1,345 metres (4,413 ft) the collapsed ancient volcano of Ben Nevis UK’s highest mountain, and towering over the Highland touring centre of Fort William on the shore of Loch Linnhe, it’s naturally something of a magnet for visitors who wish to ‘bag it’. Our account of an ascent concentrates on the Ben Nevis, tourist track, and assumes good weather. This is something you need to remember. The first thing people want to know is ‘can I climb it?’ the broad answer is yes, but there are some things we need to stress

Ben Nevis is shaped a bit like a giant whale. This means it has a steep face which is technically demanding and requires some scrambling/ climbing ability (the north) whilst approaches from the west are much more forgiving. Now you might look at the altitude and correctly deduce that in alpine terms at least, ‘the Ben’ is a worn-down stub and at one level it is. These are ancient Cambrian rocks and time has certainly drawn the worst of what they might have been able to throw at you. The climb begins pretty much at sea-level however, so the vertical gain isn’t to be sniffed at that lightly and if you don’t possess a decent level of fitness, you will struggle. With this in mind we tend to advise that you allow four and a half hours to complete the ascent, and we wouldn’t discourage anyone from thinking in terms of five hours for safety

The 1883 Pony Track (known as the Tourist track) remains the simplest and most popular route of ascent. It begins at Achintee on the east side of Glen Nevis about 2 km (1.2 miles) from Fort William town centre. Bridges from the Visitor Centre and the youth hostel now allow access from the west side of Glen Nevis. The path cuts across the lower reaches of the mountain and climbs deceivingly steeply towards a saddle that houses a mountain tarn Lochan Meall an t-Suidhe (colloquially known as the ‘Halfway Lake’). The path now becomes a series of zig-zags as it snakes it’s way up the stony west flank, before levelling off near to the summit where easier ground is gained.

Above halfway. The tarn is in view with the tourist track zig-zagging to the right of the picture

© Public Domain through Public Domain licensed under CC BY-SA 0.0 (George Hodan)
Terms of licence [CLICK].

The path is very well trodden, and apart from in very poor weather hard to miss. If you have no experience of walking in cloud it can be a bit daunting at first, but in truth it’s very similar to a foggy day. There are series of cairns (piles of stone) that help guide you through the final stages by walking from one to another point-to-point. You should be able to take some security however from the company around you. During the summer months Ben Nevis is busy. You will find yourself amongst other walkers – and the hill-walking fraternity are a notoriously friendly and helpful bunch.

The path is regularly maintained but running water, uneven rocks and loose scree make it hazardous and slippery in places. There are also a couple of waterfalls (well running water might be a better description) that cut across the path in places. These shouldn’t cause you any concerns. In dryish conditions you can normally hop from stone to stone anyway

The tourist track is well defined but running water can be a hazard

© Public Domain through Public Domain licensed under CC BY-SA 0.0 (George Hodan)
Terms of licence [CLICK].

Inexperienced walkers should be aware that the descent is relatively arduous and wearing on the knees, and upper-legs. Don’t be surprised if you find this more punishing physically. Perhaps the most important thing to do is to return using the same route that you’ve used to ascend. There are more direct ways are coming down Ben Nevis, and if you were required to perform a more rapid descent you’d do so, but the probability is that you’re more likely to incur an injury or muscular strain if you decide to attempt something on sight. It’s probably sensible to allow about three and a quarter hours for the descent

General Advice

Walking Boots – Perhaps the most important pieces of kit are walking boots. If you have your own pair that are worn in, then you’re familiar with them and comfortable. If you’re buying a new pair it’s always advisable to do a little bit with them first. If your hiring a pair, then it’s definitely worth taking the extra time to get a ‘great fit’. For the relatively inexpensive cost, you should really carry a small blister kit and travel scissors.

One thing novice hill-walkers always seem to want to know is whether they can use a sports shoe? Well in the first case most sports shoes are designed for fashion purposes these days, you could easily find you break them on this terrain! But even if you don’t, the general answer is ‘no’. We said ‘general answer’ though, leaving open the possibility that you could? Well … we’ve seen people ‘get away with it’ under particularly conducive summer conditions, and you’ll doubtless spot fell runners using a hybrid running shoe too. A sports shoes biggest draw back is the lack of ankle support, and inability to handle water, (don’t even consider it if there is any snow about!). We couldn’t advise you to use a sports shoe, but if you do, it’s worth taking a small towel in case you have to take them off and paddle. Getting a wet foot can become a real problem and if you succumb you should consider turning around

The upper boulder fields with Loch Eil in the background top

© photo by Ivan Hall/ Wikimedia Commons / licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 from Geograph UK
Terms of licence [CLICK].

Clothing – Contrary to popular belief, hill-walking isn’t a wrap up warm competition. Instead the emphasis is on regulating your body temperature and this means observing ‘layering’. The idea is to avoid both hypothermia and over-heating by trying to maintain a uniform body temperature. What you do is add layers as you climb so don’t be alarmed if you see people starting off relatively lightly dressed, they’ll be adding fleece clothing and other layers as they ascend. If you’re climbing in very hot conditions it’s worth carrying at least one, and even two spare t-shirts. There is a danger that sweating can leave your body contact layer very damp which can lead to a rapid chilling at higher altitudes and especially in wind. A small hat is always an ally on a mountain like Ben Nevis. Remember this is the highest piece of land between here and the Arctic. A north wind bites, and cold is a very under-estimated problem

Water-proofs – Don’t confuse ‘water resistance’ with water-proofing. Membrane materials like gortex offer you excellent protection, although you can get lighter weight aqua-foil jackets which will get you through most conditions that a summer will throw at you. Bear in mind however that water ‘beads’ and runs off these materials. If you have a weakness in your water-proofing armour, rain tends to find it! With this in mind water-proof trousers can be equally vital, as are gaiters which will ensure that your socks and boots don’t become the weakest link

Map and Compass – Rather than buying an unwieldy map that gets blown about by the wind, you might find it more use to buy a ‘trail-card’. We should stress however that if you don’t know how to read a map and use a compass, then all you’ve done is generate a false sense of security by carrying them. If you have got lost, you might be better advised to wait for help or try and alert people to your whereabouts.

In truth, Ben Nevis is a busy mountain but the summit slopes do have a couple potentially dangerous points where a navigational error could prove fatal. The most important thing to NOT DO in or around the summit area is begin walking off to the north. Even walking off to the east can cause you a degree of jeopardy. Walking west is the only safe way, but even that carries a degree of danger if you aren’t concentrating due to some gullies that need to be avoided. It’s NOT a perfect straight-line compass bearing from the summit

The trig point on the summit

The steep cliffs near the summit can be fatal for a disorientated climber.
Note the appearance of a ‘Brocken Spectre’ in the image (left).
A rare mountain phenomena brought about by a climbers shadow
being cast onto a screen of mist


© Copyright image Steve Brown (left)
© Copyright Richard Webb (right)
Both images licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 Terms of licence [CLICK].

Rather than wandering around guessing it’s more sensible to sit tight and use a whistle, mag-light, or simply shout. Six consecutive blasts on a whistle is the distress signal. A search and rescue helicopter equipped with enhanced optical scanning can pick up the beam from a mag-light at four miles away. Don’t wave at a helicopter. If you need to draw yourself to ones attention as the point of contact stand with your arms aloft in a V-shape

Rucksack – It’s always advisable to put a waterproof liner in your bag. Carry enough liquid for the day, and if you find yourself running out on a hot day, turn around. Ben Nevis doesn’t have drinkable springs to replenish from. It’s always a good idea to carry a foil blanker or a bivvy bag. Remember it’s not just you, but other people who you might required to assist

Precautions – Check the weather forecast before setting out, and that means the ‘peak forecast’ not the generic television forecast. It’s also worth asking local people what the weather has been like for the week previous too as this can have a bearing on the conditions you’re likely to encounter, especially with regards to volumes of any running water. Know whereabouts you are the mountain at any time and how much day-light you have left. It’s always sensible to inform a third party where you’re going, what route you’re using, and what time you expect to be back. You can even leave a message on the dashboard of your car if parked in the usual assembly area. Remember to alert any individual you’ve entrusted this to however if you change your plan!

Weather Conditions – It’s often said that conditions are changeable, but this can’t be over-stated. They are. The temperature on the summit is likely to be close to freezing and even on a hot summers day it will only be in single figures. Although this piece has been written for the summer, we need to acknowledge that there are such things as bad summer days, just as there are good winter days. The season loads things in your favour, but it doesn’t guarantee you success. Your best ally on Ben Nevis however is the sheer number of people who climb it on any given day.

Summit Fever – Don’t be afraid of turning around

Finally, we need to stress that this is only an outline introductory guide and premised on dry summer conditions with good visibility. Anyone attempting Ben Nevis for the first time is always advised to read up in more detail before making a final decision