Getting to and Climbing Ben Nevis, UK's Highest Mountain
Getting to And Climbing Ben Nevis
Ben Nevis, the highest peak in the UK at 1344m (4406 ft), lies a fair way up the western side of Scotland, about 130 miles north of the city of Glasgow. Fort William is the town you need to reach. Getting there is relatively simple by train or coach and a short taxi drive will take you right there.
I journeyed by car from the north of England which is a splendid way to appreciate the change in geography and language as northern English towns—Wetherby, Preston, Carlisle—surrounded by rich farmlands and undulating countryside give way to Scottish towns—Ecclefechan, Lockerbie, Dumfries—and the hilly border country.
Be aware that from September to March Ben Nevis is subject to extreme changes in weather, so before you set off, please make sure you are fully prepared, know what you're doing and have all the right gear.
To guarantee a safe and enjoyable climb follow the guidelines I've set out below. Climbing Ben Nevis and reaching the summit is only for those who are fully fit.
- How to Get To Ben Nevis
- The Gaelic Language
- Route and Maps
- Fort William
- Tips For Climbing Mountains
- The Ascent to the Summit
- Links on Travelling In Scotland
- Scottish Music Video
Ben Nevis, a True Mountain
If you live in England and want to climb mountains the choices do become rather limited. There aren't any. Well, there are large hills, including Scafell Pike in the northwest, which rises up to 978m (3,200ft) and is sometimes called a mountain, but when compared to real mountains doesn't really stack up.
The Lake District has some magnificent hills and the Yorkshire Dales spectacular scenery. Both offer great walking (hiking) opportunities and are criss-crossed with public footpaths and other trails. You'll encounter wild woods, trout streams, crags and cliffs, but no true mountains, that is, bodies of rock that rise up to at least 4,000 feet and quietly declare themselves to be 'MOUNTAIN'.
Scotland is the place to go for those who live in England! I wanted to have a shot at Ben Nevis, at 4,406 feet the highest peak in the British Isles. But I was warned against an attempt by a Scottish friend because of his fears about snow and freezing weather. In mid April! I decided to go ahead anyway and this is my account of how I got on.
We drove up from the north of England, by-passing the city of York, and turning left at Scotch Corner. The cultural aura of Scotland gradually emerges as soon as you cross the border. You begin to see Gaelic writing on the road signs, and on the radio BBC Gael magically appears,100% Gaelic speaking. If you ever want to hear real Gaelic music then this is the station to tune into. Haunting, melodic, rich, rhythmical, dreamlike - a whole ancient culture very much alive and starting to kick back.
Some Gaelic words are now common in the English language:
ceilidh - social gathering with music
galore - gu leor enough
pet - peata tame animal
slogan - sluagh-ghairm battle cry
trousers - triubhas
whisky - uisge-beatha water of life
To The Highlands
We reached Glasgow - Glasgae toon - mid afternoon. The road takes you right through or over parts of the city and you get an unusual view of the streets and buildings and people going about their business. Compared to Scotland's capital Edinburgh, on the east side of the country, some say Glasgow is ugly and industrial, without charm. That may well be. It certainly does not have anything to compare with Edinburgh's famous castle, Holyrood Palace and Royal Mile, all true historical gems. It may not have a world class Festival each year or be the seat of devolved political power, but what it does have is plenty of raw character, abundant humour and a School Of Art that is second to none. An interesting combination. Little wonder Glasgow churns out comedians, painters and football managers!
Once out of Glasgow, Loch Lomond and the Highlands are only a half hour away. The road winds beautifully alongside Loch Lomond through tiny communities and touristy villages, not too busy this time of year. In summer they'll be packed and the roads full of coaches and motorhomes and what have you. The 'population' trebles in the peak season which is a good thing for those making their living here but does bring with it obvious disadvantages.
For now though things are pretty clear, with both road and weather. The hills start to make your heart thump a bit as you progress north and all sorts of wonderful textures come out of the wild.
Rannoch is a little bit different. In any conditions it is no place to get lost on a Saturday night: a desolate area of treeless peaty bog, treacherous mud and inhospitable mire. It left a profound impression on poet T. S. Eliot.
Rannoch by Glencoe
Here the crow starves, here the patient stag
Breeds for the rifle. Between the soft moor
And the soft sky, scarcely room
To leap or soar. Substance crumbles, in the thin air
Moon cold or moon hot. The road winds in
Listlessness of ancient war,
Langour of broken steel,
Clamour of confused wrong, apt
In silence. Memory is strong
Beyond the bone. Pride snapped,
Shadow of pride is long, in the long pass
No concurrence of bone.
Through the Pass of Glencoe now, the Three Sisters one side, Meal Dearg the other. Fort William is less than hour away. On the map you'll see a large blue gash cutting through Scotland at almost 45 degrees, creating what could well be an island. This is the Firth of Lorn which becomes Loch Linnhe, which morphs into the beautifully named Loch Lochy and on up to famous Loch Ness and the city of Inverness.
The road abruptly turns right at Onich to follow the banks of Loch Linnhe the few miles up to Fort William. This is a wondrous entry into the outskirts, with the metallic blue-grey water stretching out to the horizon to the west, and the greeny brown textures of Bheinn Mheadhoin, Fuar Bheinn and Garbh Bheinn rising scenically to the north.
Ben Nevis is in our minds, not yet in our sights!
Fort William and Glen Nevis
Achintee House (above) is the starting point for the path up Ben Nevis, here seen with white to the right.
Fort William - An Gearasdan , the Garrison, in Gaelic - is the town nearest Ben Nevis. It sits on a sea loch, Linnhe, and was once the military garrison where English troops were based during the Jacobite troubles of the mid 18th century. That's another story altogether! Suffice to say it has to do with the long and colourful history between England and Scotland - just think of the movie Braveheart, then Rob Roy and the anthem 'Flower of Scotland' - and you'll get the picture. Nowadays we're friends, more or less.
The Road to the Isles starts here, one of the most scenic routes in Europe that will take you on to Mallaig and the western isles, including Harris, Skye and Lewis. These are the traditional centres of cloth making where the famous woollen tweeds are made.
Accommodation for us was Shepherd's Cottage, an 18th century stone delight with small chimneys at either end, one bedroom, one sitting room with built in kitchen. Perfect. Log fires at night, an inn close by to pop into if we got too thirsty, plus a panoply of stars for the late hours - no light pollution to ruin the skies.
Originally for the shepherd of Achintee Farm, the cottage was within walking distance of the River Nevis and the West Highland Way, the former running through the unspoilt Glen Nevis, the latter winding around the Nevis Range before heading south down to the outskirts of Glasgow.
A solid night's sleep in a silence only mountains can produce was the perfect tonic after a long day driving. Time to eat breakfast, peruse a map and prepare for the ascent.
Tips for Going up Mountains
- Always read local literature on the mountain you want to go up.
- Make sure you are fit and well before even thinking about going up.
- Ask local climbers, hikers and walkers for advice and inside knowledge.
- Make the ascent with someone knowledgeable and fit.
- Check local weather forecasts.
- Double check local weather forecasts.
- Decide to make the ascent.
- Double check and triple check times, routes and guides.
- If you are uncertain about any aspect of your ascent get someone with local know how.
- Wild animals on the mountain? On the trails leading up? Find out.
- Stock up with enough food and drink. Energy drinks are excellent as are hot sugary drinks. A dehydrated person can make weak judgements and be unable to think clearly.
- Take extra clothes with you if weather conditions are changeable. A tent or sleeping bag could make an unscheduled night on a mountain survivable.
- Make sure you inform someone of where you are going and at what time.
- Write down your intended route and times and leave it with a responsible person.
- Never change your itinerary - only in emergency.
- Never underestimate a mountain no matter how 'tame' it appears at ground level.
Warning - Tell Someone Before the Ascent
I can't emphasise enough the need to let someone know just where you intend to climb, and your estimated time of return. Leave a note with your contact phone number(s) and stick to your intended route.
Never leave the track unless accompanied by an experienced climber.
Every year some poor soul dies on Ben Nevis.
How To Climb Ben Nevis
I set off at 10.45am. The average time for up and down was 7-8 hours so I would have sufficient space in which to rest should the need occur. I'd done all my research and packing, making sure I had plenty of fluids and energy food and enough warm clothing for the certain cold to come. All the books I'd read emphasised the absolute need to keep to the regular paths and not stray at all from them. Steep slopes and cliffs either side the paths on the summit guarantee deep trouble for those unwary enough to stop or turn back. Unfortunately there are some people who do not return from Ben Nevis as they would wish—each year there are injuries and yes, fatalities. The Ben is unforgiving at times.
The Zig Zag
To reach the summit of Ben Nevis you have to negotiate a series of diminishing zigzag paths thatin the summer months are relatively easy on the feet and joints. When snow is on the ground and up to a foot and half deep, the final hour (from 3,500 feet up approximately) becomes that much more challenging.
With snow falling and mist thickening I had to rely on nearly covered footprints and cairns (tall stone mounds) to find my way up to the top. My partner on the climb had already turned back so I was reassured that she was safe and that she also knew I was on my way up to the summit, just in case she had to inform the authorities! I was quite surprised at the change in temperature at around 4,000 feet. I estimated it went down to freezing point or just below. A wind got up that was pretty mean. It didn't shift the mist at all but drove sleety snow right into me. My eyebrows began to freeze up! I had to plod on, head down, following the stones as best I could.
Shoulder of Ben Nevis
At one of the summit cairns I met a couple who were deep in conversation, face to face. As I was about to trudge past one of them asked me if I had been to the top of Ben Nevis before! They were wanting to go on but had uncertainties because of the low visibility and cold. What could I say? I only knew to follow the cairns (which were difficult to see in the mist and snow) then the summit would be reached after about 45 minutes or so.
We decided to party up and work our way together, sometimes knee deep in snow, other times on icy rock, but we all made it. To celebrate we climbed into the refuge and drank hot sugary tea.
Cheers to Ben Nevis. That mountain deserves a lot of respect- and an extra layer or two if you're thinking about an ascent in the deceptive month of April.
The Environmentally Friendly Way to Scotland
- Caledonian Sleeper trains, sleeper train London to Scotland – ScotRail - ScotRail
Buy train travel tickets for the ScotRail Caledonian Sleeper Trains, overnight train services operating between London Euston and Scotland.
Images on Ben Nevis
All photographs by chef-de-jour unless otherwise stated.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2012 Andrew Spacey