Andrew travels extensively, contributing articles to newspapers and online sites. Recent trips: Brazil, the Amazon, the Pantanal, Bulgaria.
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 in the highland region of Lochaber.
- Getting there is relatively simple by train or coach and a short taxi drive will take you right there.
- London to Fort William by train, for example, takes 9h 30mins.
- Glasgow to Fort William by bus takes roughly 3 hours.
- Only fit, experienced hillwalkers/mountaineers should attempt Ben Nevis. Better to be with a guide or a local walker who knows the mountain well.
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.
In This Article
- 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
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 crisscrossed 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, bypassing 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 kickback.
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
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 an 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!
Achintee House (above) is the starting point for the path up Ben Nevis, here seen with white to the right.
Fort William and Glen Nevis
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 a 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 the 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 Climbing 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 an emergency.
- Never underestimate a mountain no matter how 'tame' it appears at ground level.
How to Climb Ben Nevis
I set off at 10.45 am. 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. 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 that in 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 a 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.
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
Anna Sherret from Scotland, UK on April 22, 2013:
It's nice to read your story and see your photos. I really should go up Ben Nevis myself one day, although I'd be nervous of all the snow.
Just one thing - I think the law about marriage in Scotland is still the same - you can get married at 16 over the border, without your parent's permission.
topaz blue on June 08, 2012:
Your photographs are just fab!We visit this area regularly , but perhaps not to the very top! More like to the gondolas and the mountain top cafe.
Cheers Topaz Blue
Andrew Spacey (author) from Sheffield, UK on May 28, 2012:
Yes, vivid memories of that climb still and although a little chilly at the summit the journey to and up (and down!) was a great experience. Glen Nevis has all the features you'd expect of a classic Scottish glen - river of snow melt, a good mix of conifer and deciduous trees, peaks floating away into the distance, paths to wander.....I want to go back!
Thank you for visiting,appreciate the comment.
Kristin Trapp from Illinois on May 28, 2012:
What awesome photos and what an awesome journey. I'm glad to have come across this hub.
Andrew Spacey (author) from Sheffield, UK on May 10, 2012:
That's cool.The RAF is a top notch sevice. Some say we should bring it back and keep the young youth occupied! With so much youth unemployment in Europe at present it could be a good thing.
Tricia Mason from The English Midlands on May 10, 2012:
Ho again :)
My Dad did his National Service in the RAF, in the early 1950s.
Andrew Spacey (author) from Sheffield, UK on April 25, 2012:
Yes let's see.....the tropics of Wales? No I'd prefer Africa, not too far from civilisation!
bye for now.
Golfgal from McKinney, Texas on April 24, 2012:
Where should you go next you ask? Somewhere tropical...that would be my choice.
Andrew Spacey (author) from Sheffield, UK on April 24, 2012:
The RAF? A pilot or what? And yes those bagpipes - you either love em or hate em! I like them when I'm at a safe distance away,but they're very special. Hear the pipes and you instantly think of bonnie Scotland.
Thanks for the message.
Tricia Mason from The English Midlands on April 24, 2012:
Hi chef-de-jour :)
My Dad just had a yearning to go to Scotland ~ the Highlands and Islands. His best friend in the RAF had been Scottish and 'Jock' told my Dad that he was the only Englishman he had ever met, who loved the pipes :)
We used to go in May and September. That visit to Fort William was the only time that we experienced those awful midges.
Andrew Spacey (author) from Sheffield, UK on April 22, 2012:
Thanks Emma. I was really surprised by the contrasting weather conditions on the summit! Two different worlds.
This part of Scotland is so scenically splendid you can't help but take interesting photos!
I'm very glad you enjoyed the Ben.
Bye for now.
Emma Larkins from Manchester, MD on April 22, 2012:
Wow, this really is amazing! Love your photos.
Andrew Spacey (author) from Sheffield, UK on April 22, 2012:
Many thanks for the comment and I'm so glad to stir up happy memories. Were your visits to do with ancestry or just travel? Must have been exciting for you.
Scotland has some fantastic scenery as you know and the road to the isles offers some of the best.Plus you have those incredible scottish accents to listen to - nice and mild and lilty on the isles but sharp and challenging in cities like Glasgow.
I loved this trip - Spring time is just about right as you beat the midges - you experienced those dreadful wee mites! - yet get a hint of green and lots of snowmelt water.
Cheers again Trish.
Tricia Mason from The English Midlands on April 22, 2012:
You were brave and you got your reward!
The first time that I went to Scotland I was on holiday with my family. This was in May 1966 and we stayed at Fort William, on the shores of Loch Linnhe. It was wonderful ~ apart from the midges!
Dad drove us along the 'Road to the Isles' and we visited Mallaig and Morar and Skye.
Thereafter, throughout my childhood, and into my early twenties, we visited Scotland at least once per year, staying at various locations, all over the country ~ including Harris + Lewis.
You brought back some lovely memories!
Andrew Spacey (author) from Sheffield, UK on April 22, 2012:
Thanks Golfgal. 'As a younger person' - yes I can still remember those days!
I did feel wild going up the Ben, as they say, and on the summit wilder still. The day after I admit to being anything but wild! I relaxed 100%.
Cheers for the vote, very glad you enjoyed the tour.
Where shall I go next?
Golfgal from McKinney, Texas on April 21, 2012:
Wow, you are quite the adventurer. I used to love to ski as a younger person, today I just want to be in a warm place and read about all those outrageous people who climb unforgiving rocks in subzero climates. RT made me laugh when she spoke about wild animals...the only wild thing out there was YOU!!! Enjoy. Awesome tour. Voted you up.
RTalloni on April 21, 2012:
Very interesting--12th or 13th century! The wild cats must be fairly small. Would you like some wolves? Or coyotes? Or bears? Or panthers? ;)
Thanks for the response.
Andrew Spacey (author) from Sheffield, UK on April 21, 2012:
Many thanks RTalloni. Really enjoyed putting this together and no! there are no wild animals us humans have to fear in Scotland. Scotland has red deer, wild cat,eagle and fox but no large predators. I believe the last bear was killed in the 12th or 13th century! There is talk of reintroducing the wolf on a limited scale into a national park but nothing definite yet.
Cheers for the vote, really appreciated.
RTalloni on April 21, 2012:
What a great read--very enjoyable. Am listening to the video as I type this comment--delightful!
So well written from start to finish, and the photos are so well done that they take us right along with you. They really are amazing. I could almost hear your across-the-pond accent as I read through your journey. Enjoyed the bits of history along the way. I wondered about wild animals on the trail. Is that something a hiker there would have to consider?
Thanks for this trip from my southeastern USA home to Ben Nevis that made me smile!
Voted up and all the others.