Ben Nevis attracts walkers and climbers from around the world, and with good reason. The highest mountain in the whole of the UK, it seems as if half of Scotland is spread before you when at the summit on a clear day – from the mountains of Skye in the northwest to the Cairngorms in the east.
The long reach of Loch Linnhe stretches away to Mull and beyond in the southwest (Pic. 1), while close by, iconic mountains of the Mamores and Glen Coe dominate (Pic. 2).
It is strongly recommended that your first ascent of Ben Nevis be attempted during the summer months (approximately May to September). The chances of reasonable weather over this period are much greater than at other times, and the longer days are definitely reassuring. However, high winds, heavy rain, snow, and poor visibility can and do occur during any month on the year on Ben Nevis, so always pay attention to a reliable mountain weather forecast such as those produced by the Met Office or the Mountain Weather Information Service. These give detailed information about expected conditions on the mountains as opposed to just a general forecast for conditions at sea level.
It is perfectly normal for there to be snow on the summit plateau of Ben Nevis until well into the summer (Pic. 3). It is worth bearing in mind that a covering of snow, particularly when accompanied by low cloud, can make route finding and navigation very challenging.
Choice of kit is very much influenced by the unpredictable nature of the weather, so the “layering system” is best applied to clothing, taking additional items to ensure your comfort and safety in varying conditions.
The walk up Ben Nevis begins at more or less sea level, finishing over a vertical kilometre higher. Conditions will be very different between these two extremes, so flexibility is key. “Be bold, start cold” is a good rule of thumb as you will generate heat whilst walking uphill. Sweating (getting wet) can cause problems higher up when the temperature drops, so starting cool helps prevent this. Check out our complete guide to what to wear hiking in Scotland.
It is essential that you take a map suitable for navigating in the mountains, a compass, and knowledge of how to use them. For maps, the Harvey Superwalker map “Ben Nevis” at 1:25,000 scale or the Harvey British Mountain Maps “Ben Nevis & Glen Coe” at 1:40,000 scale are highly recommended. A Silva Expedition 4 compass is recommended for mountain navigation. Other than this, other essentials include food and drink, and a headlamp with spare batteries. Walking poles are also highly recommended, helping to relieve pressure on the knees, particularly in descent. Additional items such as sunglasses and sun cream can be judged according to the weather forecast, and don’t forget any personal medication that you may require during the course of the day.
Some emergency kit should be carried in case you or a member of your party suffers an injury which, in the worst case scenario, may immobilise you. If you are on your own, carry a personal “survival bag”, a small First Aid kit, and a fully charged mobile phone. In addition to these items, if you are part of a larger party, a group shelter, large enough to accommodate all members of the party, should be carried. An extra warm layer or two available within the group, a spare hat or two, and perhaps an extra couple of pairs of gloves will be very welcome if you find yourselves having to stay put for any length of time.
The impressive and imposing cliffs of the North Face are famous amongst climbers worldwide (Pic. 4). However, for a walking route suitable for a first Ben Nevis ascent the mountain track is the route of choice.
The name of the mountain track itself provides interest in that many people refer to it as the tourist route. Its proper name is in fact the pony track (Pic. 5), as the approximate line of the modern path follows a line once used by those accessing a weather observatory which used to operate on the summit of Ben Nevis. The remains of the observatory are still visible today.
The mountain track can be accessed conveniently from three locations in Glen Nevis – either the Ben Nevis Visitor Centre (large pay and display car park, public toilets and information centre), the Ben Nevis Inn (limited free car parking, fabulous pub and bunkhouse accommodation), or the Glen Nevis Youth Hostel (very limited parking, excellent hostel accommodation). Whichever starting point is chosen, all lead on to the pony track which climbs steadily along the lower flanks of the hill Meall an t-Suidhe. This is the hill visible from the Ben Nevis Visitor Centre, often mistaken for Ben Nevis itself!
Just after a small bridge, the path turns sharply into the valley containing the Red Burn, climbing more steeply to Lochain Meall an t-Suidhe. This lochain is known as “the halfway lochain” (Pic. 6). It is not quite halfway, but the path does become easier for a time here, providing some welcome respite for the legs. Above here, the path turns sharply right, continuing until the Red Burn is crossed. This is the true halfway point, and makes a good spot to stop, have a bite to eat and a drink, and adjust clothing layers.
From here, the famous zig zags begin, with the path climbing steadily up the western flank of the mountain, right to the edge of the summit plateau at the top of the zig zags at a height of 1200 m. (Note the circular shelter and abrupt flattening). From here, the path crosses the summit plateau, up a couple of final inclines, to the corner of Gardyloo Gully (marked by three cairns). Take great care in this area as the path takes you very close to the edge of cliffs. The summit lies approximately 150 m northeast of here, and is unmistakable with its raised trig point, emergency shelter, and remains of the weather observatory. Return to the glen is made by reversing this route.
The summit plateau of Ben Nevis (Pic. 7) is a very serious place, surrounded on almost all sides by very steep ground and cliffs. The Harvey maps recommended above include an enlargement of the summit of Ben Nevis, along with the bad visibility descent route – i.e. the compass bearings necessary to negotiate your way safely from the summit of Ben Nevis back to the zig zags. These are vitally important, particularly if the path is buried under snow, and it is worth familiarising yourself with these prior to your ascent.
Around 7 hours is a realistic target time to climb from Glen Nevis to the summit and return. This can be broken down into phases, allowing 4 hours to get to the summit and a further 3 hours to walk down. A useful guide is to time how long it takes to walk to where the path crosses the Red Burn. As the halfway point, you should be getting here within 2 hours. If the time it takes you to get here is much longer than this, consider the implications on the likely time taken to get to the summit and return safely. Also bear in mind that you will need to stop to eat, drink, adjust clothing layers and take photographs, all things which can rapidly eat time! Many people find walking down as tiring as going up, so be honest with yourself and the rest of your party, and make sure you have enough “left in the tank” to complete your journey without assistance.
Looking after yourself starts with good preparation. Firstly, your personal fitness is important, and the best preparation for climbing mountains is to climb mountains! Ideally, climb some lower hills to get used to both being out in the mountains and the effects of several hours of continuous walking up- and downhill. If you don’t live near the hills, or you are visiting Scotland on a tight time schedule, at least try to make sure you have a good basic level of fitness, best achieved by walking, running, cycling or swimming.
Secondly, just before your attempt, look up the weather forecast. This is crucial if attempting the mountain without a guide, but even if you are going with a guide, it does no harm to check the mountain weather forecast yourself so you have a good idea of what to expect on the day.
Thirdly, look after yourself whilst on the hill by taking regular breaks to eat and drink, adjust clothing layers etc. Walk at a pace that you can maintain comfortably. A good rule of thumb is that you should be able to hold a conversation whilst you are walking. If you are getting out of breath whilst talking, you are probably walking too fast! I often say to clients that you don’t need to be fast to climb Ben Nevis, but you do need to be efficient. So make the most of those rest breaks, keep them brief but purposeful, and keep moving at a steady pace.
If looking after a group, it is important to make sure that every member of the party is keeping as comfortable as possible. It is good practice to walk at the speed of the slowest member of the group. This not only maintains morale, but it keeps group members together and avoids faster group members having to stop (and possibly get cold) whilst waiting for slower group members to catch up.
If you are climbing Ben Nevis under your own steam, please pay attention to your safety at all times and never be afraid to turn back if conditions dictate. The mountain will always be there – the trick is to make sure you can come back should you wish to do so!
In the event that you require external assistance in an emergency, you should call 999 or 112 and ask for Police, Mountain Rescue. Mobile phone coverage on Ben Nevis is generally good. If you have poor phone signal, it may be possible to send an emergency message to 999 or 112, although your phone should be pre-registered in order to achieve this (see https://www.ngts.org.uk/how-to-use-ngt/contact-999-using-ngt.html# for further information).
Looking after the mountain environment is also incredibly important. Thousands of people climb Ben Nevis every year and, like it or not, all those pairs of boots have an impact on the mountain environment – even yours and mine! Considerable efforts go into maintaining and repairing the mountain track each year, often by volunteers working in some pretty tough conditions. Please stick to the route of the path and don’t be tempted to take shortcuts. This helps to maintain footfall on the path and avoids eroding other parts of the mountain.
Watch this beautiful video from charity John Muir Trust who manage the visitor impact and conserve the beauty of this area.
Anything you take up the mountain should come down with you. Please do not drop litter under any circumstances! This includes “biodegradable” waste such as bananas skins and apple cores. In the relatively cold mountain environment, decomposition of such things takes much longer than might be expected, leaving nothing but an unsightly mess for those who follow.
Also, upland soils are vulnerable to chemical changes caused by the decomposition of foreign items. The bottom line is, please take your litter home! Scotland is very fortunate to enjoy a right of responsible access to most land for non-motorised recreational purposes, including walking. The key word here is responsible, and we can all do our bit to help minimise our impact on Scotland’s wild places. Further information relating to access rights and responsibilities can be found at https://www.outdooraccess-scotland.scot/.
Treat yourself after a great achievement in the hills with a good dinner and maybe even a wee drink :)
The Ben Nevis Inn could hardly be more convenient for a post-walk celebratory meal or drink, situated right at the bottom of Ben Nevis at Achintee.
Glen Nevis Restaurant and Bar is another excellent choice, located in Glen Nevis between the Ben Nevis Visitor Centre and the Glen Nevis Youth Hostel.
Most importantly enjoy your time on the mountain and have a great day.