The ascent of Ben Nevis (1343M 4412Ft) is on the bucket list of many hillwalkers and tourists and attracts thousands of visitors Lochaber every year. It is also a magnet for rock climbers in the summer and a formidable testing ground for winter mountaineering with long classic climbs and some of the worlds hardest and most technical ice routes.
The ‘Tourist route’ Ben Nevis is a relatively straightforward ascent on a path that has been much improved over recent years. This path leaves from Glen Nevis and climbs steadily up the side of glen before turning into the gully of the Allt na h-Urchaire (Red Burn) and continuing steeply up the dog leg to pop out on the flatter ground above Lochan Meall an t-Suidhe, sometimes called the Halfway Lochan – Even though it’s not quite half way up the hill!
The flatter ground is short-lived however as the path soon starts the ascent up the Ben proper, following a rising traverse to the south and then a long series of zig-zags which can be a bit of a grind but which is also rewarded with ever expanding views on clear days.
Eventually, the angle eases a little as the path reaches the boulder desert of the upper hill. Steep ground falls away to the south and the high near vertical cliffs of the north face command respect to the left. The path in summer winds its way through the moonscape past the cleft of Gardyloo Gully to the summit with its cairn, ugly emergency shelter and jumble of ruins from the old hotel and observatory. The views on a clear day are spectacular.
Its probably best to retrace your steps back along the upward route, taking great care with the first section around the top of the gullies and particularly to avoid straying left onto the dangerous ground above Five Finger Gully in Coire Ghaimhnean which has claimed more than its share of unwary walkers in bad weather.
Once on the zig-zags, the going is better and although care must be taken on the steep path, the descent can be made at a good pace to eventually reach the valley floor in Glen Nevis.
Fitness, determination, the weather and personal preference can all alter the time an ascent of Ben Nevis can take. As a ball park guide 3-4 hours up and 2-3 hours for descent is average. It's quite a big day out for less experienced walkers but a wonderful challenge and well worth the effort.
A word about Weather
The Ben is big, really big and it has its own weather system. The summit is very often shrouded in cloud and it's pretty much permanently winter on the summit with summer snow falls not unusual. The wind is also a near constant companion and a light breeze in the glen can be a howling gale on the tops. Having said that, clear days are stunning – although you do have to be careful of sunburn!
What do I need to climb Ben Nevis?
I have seen some sights on the Ben path, families in t-shirts and shorts, flip flops, wicker picnic baskets, convoys of far eastern visitors all wearing bin bags and on one occasion an impeccably dressed woman who was cheerfully and unrepentantly lost in deteriorating weather.
Firstly you will need a pair of strong walking boots or shoes, boots are best as they protect the ankle and give more support to the lower leg. The boots should be broken in before hand to reduce the risk of blisters.
Good socks are important too, well-fitting and wrinkly free socks reduce the chance of blisters.
Waterproofs – It might be dry and sunny in Fort William and wet, wild and windy on the summit so good waterproofs like a jacket and trousers are vital. Waterproof trousers are also required as they help retain heat as well as keeping off the wind and rain.
Clothing – A layering system is best as you can take layers off as you heat up and put them back on if cold. Modern wicking fabric base layers are excellent and when combined with a lightweight fleece top or jacket can be very effective and comfortable. Modern walking trousers are also made of lightweight, quick drying materials are also excellent. A hat and gloves are required all year round. Avoid jeans and cotton as they hold moisture and can be cold when wet. Heavy wool jumpers can be a pain as they are bulky and awkward to carry.
Navigation – A map and the ability to read it and use a compass is a must before tackling a trip like this. The most common cause of death or serious accident on the Ben is people getting lost and wandering into difficult terrain. Learn to use a map and compass properly and the skill will always be with you and will make all future walking trips more fun and safer. Courses are readily available and well priced. You will never regret it!
Food and Drink
Surprising as it might seem to some people – there is no Café or helipad on the summit of the Ben and water can be in short supply higher up. Take a packed lunch but also carry spare food for when you are flagging. Sugary sweet are good, boiled sweets, Jelly Babies, Wine Gums etc as they give you a quick burst of energy and can be good for morale. Fruit, particularly bananas, cereal bars, nuts etc all good as long as it's something that you like. My personal secret weapon is homemade flapjack, full of syrup, cereal, fruit and nuts.
For drinks – Water is best, a flask with tea, coffee or hot chocolate is a good option in cold weather. Fizzy drinks and alcohol are best avoided. Make sure you carry plenty of fluids with you, a 500ml bottle will not be enough.
Whatever you take, please make sure you take the rubbish home, a banana peel stuffed in a summit cairn will still be there five years later.
A comfortable rucksack to carry your load, Walking poles are an option to aid balance and propulsion, A headtorch, a small first aid kit and a plastic survival bag in case of accident or benightment. The humble survival bag was described as ‘The best fiver you will ever spend’ by the Leader of the Cairngorm Mountain Rescue Team after a couple and their dog survived an unplanned benightment a few years ago.
Also – Don’t forget the midge repellent for lower down or the sunscreen for higher up in the summer. Toilet paper is also useful to have.
Lastly - Don’t forget your camera and especially don’t forget to fully charge your phone before you go.
Have fun, take your time and enjoy the day. If the weather is very poor, come back again, the Ben is millions of years old and is likely to be around a while longer if you are patient.