Address: Lochaber, Highlands, Scotland

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Ben Nevis History

The first known ascent of Ben Nevis was by botanist James Robertson in 1771 and obviously at this time there was no path. The path came over 100 years later, in 1883, and was the work of Clement Wragge.

Wragge was a meteorologist who had walked to the summit every day from 1st June to 14th October 1881. At the summit he collected weather information. Wragge repeated this feat the next year.  In 1883 a path was built to the summit and an observatory was built on the summit too. A toll was charged on the route and this was 1 shilling (5 pence) for walkers and 3 shillings for horse riders.

In 1884, with the help of horses up the path, an office, two bedrooms and a visitor centre were built on the summit. A 30ft tower was also built, this to rise above the snow line in winter. A phone connection was installed and between 1889 and 1904 this weather station was permanently manned.

Regular supplies of fresh food were taken up in the summer, whilst tinned food was taken up at the end of the summer to last for a nine month period.

A wooden hotel was erected and this was called the Temperance Hotel. It gave summer accommodation and had four bedrooms. The hotel closed in 1916 and then fell into disrepair.

There are a number of routes to the summit. By a very long way, the most popular is the path from the Glen Nevis visitor centre. This is sometimes called the Pony Track or the Ben Track. More modern times have seen it called the Tourist Track, but authorities have frowned on this name as it gives an easy impression of what can be a very dangerous mountain. The authorities promote the name ‘Mountain Track’, but I think it’ll be known for a long time as the Pony Track/Trail or Tourist Route.

Another popular route is from the North Face car park in Torlundy.  This path takes you through a small forest, up a fairly high mountain and then along a ridge. The ridge (Arete) veers clockwise and you end up climbing the final bit of Ben Nevis from the other side of the mountain from the car park you started from.

The highest mountain in the UK, with steep, near vertical climbs on the north side is bound to attract serious climbers. There are thus many classic climbing routes of varying degrees of difficulty. Climbing books and mountaineering websites outline these routes in detail.

Such a famous mountain is bound to attract a lot of attention and ascents have come in many forms. Fancy dress is a popular one, as is the ‘3 Peak Challenge’ , with Ben Nevis being climbed along with Scafell Pike and Snowdon in 24 hours. There is the annual Ben Nevis running race every September and at least three times, cars have been driven to the summit.

It’s a very popular mountain, exposed and dangerous in winter and it’s climbed by about 150,000 people a year.

 

Ben Nevis Visit

You stand at the base and you know it’s the highest mountain in the UK, so are ready for the three or four hour climb to the top. Like most mountains though, it may have its vertical faces to test the serious mountaineers, but it also has paths that give you the luxury of only needing to use your hands to get the drink out of your bag. It’s just a steady walk up and the gradients aren’t severe if you stick to the Tourist Route.

The most popular route is from the Glen Nevis Visitor Centre, a place that boasts a large car park and well equipped shop. There’s also a great campsite a short distance away, so if you’re into outdoor adventure, the place is made for you. The nearest town is Fort William and it’s only a short drive away.

The general guidelines are four hours up and three hours down, but if you were fit and really went for it, you could possibly halve these times.

It’s important not to overlook the most important factor though, and that’s safety. This place is dangerous, certainly in winter. Generally speaking, in the summer, you can go up in tee shirt and shorts and not need the additional clothing that you carry up with you, but in the winter, your carry bag can become a life saver. The small trickle of water that you tiptoe over in the summer, or bend down to cool yourself can become a sheet of ice in winter. Beautiful views of the sun reflecting off the slopes on one day can become a distant memory the next as visibility can become so limited that you can’t see the guy in front of you, you may not know what direction you should be going and there are vertical drops of hundreds of feet around. Give the place respect!

It’s a journey made by around 150,000 climbers and walkers a year, with most using the Pony Track from the Glen Nevis Visitor Centre. Between 1883 and 1904 there was a permanently staffed observatory on the summit and the Pony Track was needed to enable the ponies to carry up building materials and general supplies. For this reason, it doesn’t exceed a gradient of one in five, so is therefore the most popular route for tourists, and thus has the alternative name of the ‘Tourist Route’. 

Being the highest mountain in the UK, there are a number of things that need to be remembered. Firstly, it’s a long way up both in terms of distance and height, so is physically hard. It’s location, in the Scottish Highlands, makes for harsh weather conditions at the wrong time of the year, and its altitude makes it much colder than the nearby lowlands. These reasons make it a dangerous place for experienced climbers, but for inexperienced climbers it can prove fatal if precautions are not taken. One of the main problems is the poor visibility, certainly in winter.

Popular mistakes are not taking enough kit with you, this often on a day that starts out as a perfect sunny day at the base, but changes dramatically near the summit. Another mistake is assuming that as you have all the kit (GPS etc) you’ll be fine, despite the fact that you have no mountain experience and may not be sure how to read a map etc. Whilst in the summer you should be fine if sticking to the paths and following the crowds, at other times of the year an experienced guide is a good idea. Minimal kit can be OK in the summer, but additional kit is always a good idea, just in case.

The observatory, when operating, recorded weather facts that showed the severity of conditions on the summit. The average annual temperature was below freezing and the average winter temperature was -5 degrees C. There were an average of 261 gales per year and an annual rainfall of 171 inches, compared to 81 inches at nearby Fort William. Inverness had about 24 inches.

Snow on the summit stays until the summer, and on occasions remains in places through the summer and into the next winter.

Whilst there are the classic climbs of the north face and a few minor routes, Ben Nevis is known to have two main routes up – the ‘Tourist route’ which is the walk up from Glen Nevis, and the ‘Arete route’ (pronounced ‘Arrette’) which is the ridge route that circles around to the summit in a clockwise direction.

The difficulty of these main routes, changes with the weather and on a perfect day a child could do them whilst there are days when nobody would be foolish enough to go up. These changes in weather make the same route a different challenge in a way that’s hard to imagine, and the irony here is that the changes in weather can often occur on the same day and when halfway up. To me, the one essential element in climbing this type of mountain is to get a good up-to-date weather forecast and it’s always good to pay a visit to the Glen Nevis visitor centre at the base of the mountain (from where probably at least 95% of the people who climb Ben Nevis start from) and talk to the staff who will advise you accordingly.

 

Pony Track, Tourist Route or Mountain Track

This is the only ‘path’ up Ben Nevis and starts from the Glen Nevis visitor centre. Strangely, in the car park, you start off by walking away from mountain, but this is only down the river to cross the bridge.

Once over the river, you turn right, walk along the riverbank, looking over the river to the car park that you’ve just parked in. A few hundred yards later, you turn 90 degrees left and start heading up the mountain. After about an hour of steady walking uphill and zig-zagging, you come to a lake. At this point you take a sharp (90 degrees) right turn up another path.

If you hadn’t turned right, and had carried straight on, you’d have walked towards the north face climbing routes and the Arete route.

After a few hundred yards, you come to a waterfall and the path bends at the foot of this. You then carry on zig-zagging up for 45 minutes or so (if fit) and then come to a stone cairn (a pile of rocks). This is the first cairn of maybe a couple of dozen and if you follow these cairns (which are in a straight line), you’ll end up at the summit.

Care when approaching the top. The almost vertical North Face mountaineering faces are on your left and near in places. Dangerous if visibility is poor. But if fine, it’s an easy walk on this final bit to the summit.

 

Arete Route

I’m a fairly experienced scrambler but wouldn’t attempt the Arete route in strong winds – firstly for obvious reasons, secondly because I wouldn’t find it enjoyable. For me it’s one to do on a fine day with little wind, ideally in the summer. But I accept some love the challenge in other conditions.

My trip started with an overnight stay about an hour away from the mountain. I’d done research and knew, as best as I could, the place to park and the route up, so that morning I left at around 5.45am and travelled through Glencoe to Fort William and on to Torlundy where the ‘North Face car park’ is situated. I’d meant to travel up during the summer, but forecasts in Fort William often show rain and it was only after looking at the forecast in the middle of October by chance and finding an incredibly clear, sunny, calm couple of days coming up that I decided to travel up at the last minute and do the ridge.

From Fort William you stay on the A82 towards Inverness for about 3 miles until you get to the turn off, passing the Fort William golf course about half way along this three mile route. You see a sign on your left ‘North Face car park’ and turn right at this point. Past a few houses and commercial yards, after a couple of minutes you come to a single lane bridge crossing with traffic lights and immediately over that you turn right. A couple of hundred yards later you’re in the car park, which is free and has ample parking, this at the edge of the Leanachan Forest. It’s very easy to get to. Another way of doing the Arete is from the main Glen Nevis visitor centre and carry straight ahead at the half way lake (instead of turning right and carrying on up the tourist route), but the visitor centre advised me to use the North Face car park.

As the name would suggest, this is the place that climbers climbing the north face start from and it’s the simplest of routes to follow. You head out from the car park, crossing a concrete bridge after about 50 yards and turn right after about another 50 yards. This turning is well signposted, but don’t miss it. You then basically just follow the modern, constructed path winding uphill through the forest for about half a mile until you come out of the forest and reach a stile. You look ahead and there it is in front of you – the whole Ben Nevis Arete route. It forms a ‘U’ shape and to do the Arete route you need to go straight ahead up the mountain to the slight left, climbing the hill to gain height. You then walk along the elevated mountain that’s fairly level on top, around the curved ridge on the far side and then you come back on yourself climbing up a steep section to the Ben Nevis summit from the rear. From there, rather than coming back on the same Arete route, it’s a lot easier to walk down the tourist route to the half way lake and (bearing right) back to the car park from there.

For my trip, I got to the car park at 7.00am, but it was still dark so I popped back to the petrol station down the road for a coffee and started off at 7.45am. Whilst the walk up through the forest (following a couple of obvious direction posts) isn’t ridiculously hard, it’s certainly a test and you gain a fair amount of height quickly. When coming out of the forest and seeing the route ahead I was a little disappointed, I thought ‘is that all it is?’ it looked as though I could get up in an hour or two, back in an hour and it’s done. How wrong I was! You essentially walk up the valley and have about three peaks on your left and with Ben Nevis and Carn Mor Dearg (Scottish pronunciation Carne More Jerrig) on your right. You basically need to climb up one of the hills on your left hand side and whilst some may choose to walk further up the valley and then do a sharp left up to the top of the mountain plateau and the start of the Arete ridge, I thought it was best to climb the first hill straight away and this is ideal as it may be less steep and you have the added bonus of walking along fairly flat, elevated peaks with stunning views. This policy may change in windy conditions when it may be better to walk further up the sheltered valley before climbing up.

If you want to climb up the first mountain you can’t miss it, it’s just there in front of you! But there does seem to be a place where a worn track veers off left and it’s good to look out for this. I’m reasonably fit, but can’t emphasise how hard this hill is. It’s remorseless and the worn path up doesn’t zigzag. It possibly took me two and a half hours to reach the top of this first peak from the car park and it was one in which the peak didn’t appear to get any closer as I went up. It’s beautiful, the views are unbelievably stunning, but boy is it hard! I think that this is where you have to be clever. The Arete ridge route involves a lot of big rock cubes, stepping up, stepping down and around and I’ll be honest, my legs had a slight ‘jelly’ feeling about them when up there. Doing the Arete next time I’d take my time up, even zigzagging, ensuring that my legs are relatively fresh doing the ridge. With tired legs it’s easy to catch your trailing leg on a rock when climbing over and you could find it hard to regain balance.

As mentioned previously, once at the top of the first mountain, it’s a relatively flat walk over the next two peaks which allows you to get some life back in your legs and enjoy the views. There’s a valley to your left which is picture perfect and what looks like ski facilities on the mountain the other side, and the valley to your right has the perfect view of the north face of Ben Nevis and all the climbing routes up. You go over the next couple of peaks which seem to take about fifteen minutes each to get to and then you find yourself at the start of the Arete ridge. The ridge isn’t a sharp ridge of shaped rock, but seems to be like a series of building blocks. It’s a bit like if a kid had a few thousand pieces of Lego and made them into a ridge – it’s like clambering over the top of that kind of shape.

Exposure-wise, I’ve been over Crib Goch in Snowdon and that’s a bit of a knife edge in one place, being steep on your left and almost straight down on your right, but this Arete route didn’t seem as daunting. It’s certainly not as hard as the Aonach Eagach route in Glencoe. It’s obviously a very dangerous place due to its height and exposure, but in many places a fall left or right looked to be just a drop down onto the slope, but I may be wrong and am sure there are places where you could fall a lot further, maybe all the way down. This is an exposed place though and I was blessed to go over with hardly a breath of wind. It wouldn’t be a great place in gale force winds.

The Arete ridge seemed to go on and on. Up a rock cube, step down onto the next, step up, over, slightly around, down a few small blocks, up and over, dropping down onto a path for a few yards, then climbing up… this went on and on and on. I didn’t feel in any danger whatsover (on this calm day) but this block climbing went on a little bit too long for me. I eventually got around to the top of the ‘U’ and at this point there becomes a bit of a path in between sporadic climbs.

When rounding the ‘U’, to my right I heard loud rock or scree sliding and made out two lots of climbers who must have scrambled down the steepish edge of the mountain (presumably experienced and knowing what they were doing) and who were going quickly down to the head of the valley before simply walking down the water course back to the car park.

Carrying on the Arete, you eventually finish the ridge and see the summit towering above you and it’s a straight route up. It’s all up medium sized rocks, with not a blade of grass in sight. On this terrain, you need to watch your footing. The views aren’t great left, right or ahead, but look behind and wow! On a clear day they are incredible. Up these rocks you clamber on and on and just when I felt it was never ending I spotted a pole which I assumed was the summit. It wasn’t and then I noticed that it was simply one of a series of poles leading up in a straight line to the summit from the south side. Luckily it was possibly the last one because all of a sudden I was at the top. It was a wonderful bonus as it came suddenly into view. The summit is a large flat area with various structures and being on top of the highest peak in the UK is special.

If I had to change a couple of things up there one would be to level the surface. When walking around you find yourself walking over thousands of rocks that seem to each be around two feet by one foot by one foot and it can be quite a chore keeping your footing and it would be wonderful to walk around on level ground simply enjoying the views and not worrying about stumbling. There’s continuing path construction on the way up the tourist route and it would be good if the summit was put on the agenda. Food, drink and a change out of a sweaty tee shirt and sweaty top ensured that I was warm and ready for the return journey.

Going down, as previously mentioned, whilst you can go back down the Arete (or do that slidey scree route!) it’s not a bad idea to continue in a clockwise direction and head down the Tourist Path back to the lake. From the top be careful, unless experienced. All’s fine on a clear day, but bad weather could reduce visibility down to a couple of yards, if not. It’s essential to prepare for such conditions or get a very good weather forecast that assures you that all will be clear. Experienced climbers will have a compass and know the co ordinates and distances to cover. A certain distance in a certain direction and then a further distance in a different direction and so on, but much care is needed on the bad days as the steep north face is very close to the tourist path down. Often visibility gets better as you go lower, but don’t count on it. Good also to have a charged phone and rescue number. There are stone cairns that provide a guiding line up and down from the summit and a good idea, if out of your comfort zone, is to wait for someone suitably experienced who you could follow down.

If going down the Tourist Path, the path zigzags a number of times as it passes cairns nearer the summit and then goes sidehill a number of times before it eventually does a sharp left at a waterfall and then goes down to the point where it hits a junction, this fairly near the big lake (or lochan). This point is about halfway down the Tourist Path. At this junction turn left to go down the valley to Glen Nevis (almost all do) or turn right. To get back to the North Face car park you take the right turn and the path continues in a clockwise route and actually follows the path that you’d take if you did the Arete route from Glen Nevis. The sensible route back to the North Face car park appears to be to follow this stone path until it meets the path coming up from the car park. But looking at the map I decided to skirt the edge of the lake and take the direct route, aiming for a line in the forest for which the stile is next to.

This wasn’t a good idea in autumn. It was very wet, very boggy and very slow and I found myself slipping, sliding and falling. But as long as you head for the forest and stile area for which you can see a long way out as a light brown area, you’d be on the right line. I think this direct route is reasonable in summer, but awkward at any other time.

I got back to the car park at 2.45pm, taking exactly seven hours to do the Arete route. It was fairly brisk and I had two stops – about 15 minutes on the first mountain and about 20-25 minutes on the summit. In a group, or going slower it could take a lot longer. Two guys I talked to at the visitor centre the previous year (Oct 2nd) told me that they started in the dark and finished in the dark and I can understand it. If not fully fit it could be a very long route. Timewise with stops, I’d say armed services walking 6 hours, fit 7 hours, fit in a group 8 hours, and then you stretch it out accordingly. If unfit I wouldn’t try it, or if I did I’d do it at the height of summer with maximum daylight, great weather and plenty of rest stops. I reached the top of the first hill at about 10.15am and the summit at 12.05pm, this just gives an idea of what’s possible, but the last thing it is, is a race. Smart people take their time – it’s safer, less physical and you can enjoy the views. I think doing it an hour longer than your fastest time would be the ideal pace.

To reiterate, this is a wonderful route and could be the best experience of your life, but in poor weather, driving rain, gale force wind etc it could be extremely unpleasant. It’s good to wait for a good day.