We are set solid in a digital age where google searches effortlessly find answers for every conceivable question. There are constant advances in technology, such as self-drive cars. These are now almost accepted with an air of expectation followed by a shrug of the shoulders rather than full of wonder.
It is all so readily available, immediate and convenient. Along with access to the world wide web it means everything of any note has been logged and has a trip advisor or Google review attached to it. Even Ben Nevis.
Nothing escapes a ranking
At 1,345m high, Ben Nevis is the highest mountain in the United Kingdom and is situated in the
Glen Nevis range just to the East of Fort William in the West Highlands. It might just be me, but I was curious to learn that Ben Nevis had its own page on Trip Advisor and it had never really occurred to me that mountains would be included. So I thought I’d take a look…
As with everything beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and with a solid rating of 4.7* obviously the majority of people think that Ben Nevis is well worth its ‘Best thing to do in Fort William’ status, but some visitors weren’t so happy. Scattered amongst the posts giving 5* ratings were other posts such as “it’s a hill… a big hill 2* ”, “it’s a slog, no toilet”, and my favourite “Half was an over glorified staircase, the other half was a pile of gravel 1* ”.
Now what’s interesting to me is that all of those complaints are absolutely correct! – yes it’s a huge hill – the biggest hill in the United Kingdom, I also agree it is a loooong slog. Yep, you do have to cross your legs or hope it’s quiet enough on the trail to use a fantastically socially distant compliant ’loo with a view’. Even the last comment regarding a staircase and gravel is actually a pretty accurate representation of what you find.
BUT, I would never dream of finding anything less and all of these points mentioned were fully expected. I hadn’t made the decision to climb the mountain because they served amazing coffee. It doesn’t really matter what it looks like or what views we would see, we chose to climb it because it is the highest in the UK – that’s it.
A serious step up
At around 8km from the start point to the summit (which unless you intend to spend the night up there also serves as the halfway point of the walk) this mountain is a long walk. Not only is the distance itself hard going, but the walk starts at a sole contour line above sea level (15m) so the full elevation of the mountain is there to be beaten.
Excuse the pun but it is a definite step up for those that have done Snowdon. When you take on Snowdon’s most popular path the walk to the summit is around 3km shorter and 600m less elevation to climb. This is thanks to a combination of a 1,085m peak and a starting point positioned a lot higher up the mountain to begin with. Not only are their differences in distance but the feel of the mountain is very different, it feels more angry, bleaker and wild. It’s no real great surprise that one of the translations of Ben Nevis from Gaelic to English is ‘Venomous Mountain”!
Take it on one stage at a time
At the start, parking was readily available at the Glen Nevis Visitor Centre and with £6 coins in the machine (card not available) your car is covered for 24 hours. From there you cross the iconic bridge that signifies an adventure and a just a little bit of pain is on its way. Then after a leisurely climb over a stile and up past the Ben Nevis Inn and Bunkhouse you hit the main trail upwards. In general, the walk up Ben Nevis has some fairly defined stages, which I actually found quite helpful to break up the challenge.
As with any climb, everyone knows that control of your body temperature is paramount and you should dress for the second kilometre, but being honest, I hardly ever get it right first time and this walk was no different with us all having to stop and recalibrate layers to suit. Thanks to the changeable weather this was a common theme throughout the day in trying to remain a little on the cool-side rather than too hot.
Slowly you contour up the slopes and past the turning for the Youth Hostel below, which for those wanting a slightly shorter walk combined with a far steeper start is perfect. I was quite happy with the smoother start.
After a couple of kilometres at only 200 metres up the tree line begins to disappear as you start to head round the flanks of Meall an t-Suidhe and begin to get a better view of what is to come. As you go up, the rocky steps are continuous going up and up with every step, some steps specifically set in place and other rocks remain as they are found. Looking up the mountain can sometimes be demoralising as you can see the route ahead. But also ensuring you look back down the path can fill you with satisfaction as you quickly get higher and higher.
In general the path all the way up is nice and wide and feels very safe although open to the elements and in high winds or bad weather this could feel very different and would get slippy quickly with heavy rain.
On the walk there is a noticeable halfway landmark which is a Loch set in between the peaks of Meall an t-Suidhe and Ben Nevis itself. At this point however, the halfway aspect only relates to the distance walked (4km) as it is only 570 metres above sea level. If you are blessed with good weather on the day of your climb it is very clear to see the difference in features for the second half of the hike. Gone are the green, mossy walls which are replaced by grey stone as far up as you can see.
Shortly after the rise up from the Loch you cross a small waterfall / stream which for me signifies the next stage of the walk… the switchbacks!
The prime purpose of zig zags or switchbacks, whatever you choose to call them, is to help you walk up a steeper slope. It flattens out the elevation making the slope more gradual but even the angle these were on are pretty unforgiving, and there is no way you could walk straight up.
One bonus mentally for addressing this section is that you know how many zigs (or zags) there are to come. In this stage the direction you walk in changes eight times as you make your way up the steep stone West face of the mountain. This means simply counting up or down the number of zig or zags you have completed helps to motivate and prove to yourself you are indeed getting somewhere.
We visited in early October and as we came towards the end of the switchbacks, we were greeted with a snow storm which began to cover the trig points, cairns and rocks underfoot. It is in these low visibility conditions that the last section of Ben Nevis can be the most difficult and dangerous and with the average clear days on the summit of Ben Nevis being only 14 days a year, bad visibility is a very likely occurrence. It is good to be prepared.
Summit Do’s and Don’ts
When you begin the final push to the summit the elevation gain thankfully levels off a little and there are strategically placed cairns marking the way to the summit, but having a compass, map or GPS device as a back-up are well worth taking up just for this part. I don’t mind telling you I checked my GPS plenty of times on this section.
The reason of being cautious is that near the summit there are a few areas to steer well clear. The danger is low visibility and if there is a build-up on snow that might build up across a gap in the stone making it look like solid ground when actually it is snow spanning a gap. There are particular areas near the summit that are particularly dangerous such as, Five Finger Gully which is at the end of the switchbacks on the South side of the path, then further up the path to the North face there are three gullies to avoid, No2 Gully, Tower Gully and Gardyloo Gully. The ground sharply drops away down these gullies and adds a level of drama to the walk but, if you fall down any of these it’s pretty much game over.
At the summit there is a raised cairn for the requisite photo opportunity and if the conditions permit, you will also see extensive views covering much of the Highlands. Nearby there is a small emergency shelter also raised by 2-3 metres which I am told regularly ends up being at ground level for some of the Winter as they have so much snow build up. Also on the summit are the remnants of a building that used to house a ‘Cloud Chamber’ which is way above my pay grade to explain so you can find out more about that HERE.
For me the summit on any mountain is not somewhere I tend to hang out for long. Especially when conditions are changeable. On this particular day it had continued to snow, temperatures had dropped considerably. Visibility was low but okay as we could make out each of the cairns one by one in the order we passed them earlier. After 4 hours of climbing we were all tired, but not wanting to tempt fate we took a few quick photos and agreed to drop back down off the summit and out of the ‘danger’ area before we had a break for lunch.
As it happens many of the problems are on the descent rather than the ascent the root cause being walkers taking the wrong direction from the summit which has resulted in many fatalities. A number of casualties occur from falling down Five Finger Gully to the South because hikers are trying to avoid falling down the afore mentioned gullies found on the North Face. So, when descending Ben Nevis and you have bad visibility there are known distances and bearings to use to guide you through this area. Initially from the summit cairn you take a bearing of 231 degrees for 150 metres, at which point you will see 3 stone cairns all in close proximity. This signifies a need to change your bearing to 281 degrees. Following these bearings will get you past the most dangerous section.
In bad conditions these bearings are obviously important to follow but there is another hidden danger, on any mountain, that is important to mention and why it’s worth delaying any celebration or dreams of a well-earned post-hike pint for a while longer. The hidden danger is when hikers relax in the belief that they have succeeded in climbing a mountain by reaching the summit. It is easy to be lulled into a false sense of security that the hard bit is done and the way down is easy.
Down doesn’t mean easy
Yes, you will generally be walking down hill most, if not all, of the way, but it is a long way to be constantly walking downhill on already tired legs. Going down the path that has uneven and often loose rocks for long sections means that each leg bears all of your weight again and again and again which is very hard going. Added to that when descending your momentum is heading downhill so one trip or bad placing of your foot or your boot catching a rock can mean some significant cuts and bruises, or worse. You never hear of someone falling ‘up’ a mountain but falling down one is very easy to do!
On this particular descent, towards the end, it does get monotonous and feels never ending but because of this, I was constantly trying to remind myself to concentrate and even said out loud a few times “don’t mess up now!”, the closer you get to the end the more your tend to relax. It is hard to concentrate for that length of time and to give you a rough idea it took our group 4 hours to summit and 3 and a half to get back to the car.
It was a long day, but I enjoyed the challenge, the walk and most of all sharing it with others who were also climbing it for the first time. Although we couldn’t see a view from the summit, it was great to have snow and because of that, it really felt more adventurous. On the way down however the clouds did clear where we had some amazing views that photos just don’t do justice. At times as quick as views appeared, they were again quickly sealed from view in the clouds. The clouds are actually my favourite part of a mountain walk, with the wind pushing the clouds across the summit and the way they follow up the slopes and drop down the other side, then suddenly splits apart to unveil what is hidden below.
The weather continued to improve on the descent giving warm and dry conditions for the final stretch meaning we had fully experienced four seasons in one day, from the cool misty foot hills, to wet autumnal showers, to snow conditions which felt like you were in an enclosed snow globe.
This mountain was made and remains in an analogue time, as always Trip Advisor reviews tend to give one side of the story and in my opinion are totally unnecessary, building the wrong type of expectation and rating something that is a natural wonder is just… well – wrong!
Most people that climb a mountain expect the conditions they find, with good weather and views being a huge bonus. They want it to be difficult otherwise there would be no challenge. All the 1* reviews were indeed correct, but all of these issues add to the experience not take away. It is these same shortcomings that are at the heart of thousands of 5* reviews.
But then again, don’t take my or Trip Advisors word for it, I guess you’ll have to switch off your ipad, find your map and get up there to see for yourself!