Tips for climbing Ben Nevis
I love trying to tick things off my never-ending bucket list - for those that know me I am always looking for a new challenge or adventure to take part in. This year I turned 30 and it had been a dream of mine to run the London Marathon this year. I managed to get a charity place and was more than half way through my training and £800 in with fundraising when it was cancelled. I was extremely disappointed and sorry that this year I probably wouldn't be able to take part in that or any other sporting challenge.
My partner and I decided to get away on a 'staycation' for August bank holiday, since the lockdown measures have been lifted slightly and local travel is becoming safer. He had always wanted to go to the Scottish highlands - something that never really appealed to me, but I discovered that it was near Ben Nevis - the highest mountain in the UK - I became a lot more interested in driving the 7 hour journey up to Fort William. Unfortunately for me, when teaching rebounding at Juicy Oasis a few weeks earlier, I managed to tear the ligament in my ankle and thought that the climb was off limits. Arriving in Fort William (which is a lovely town with lots of bars, tourist shops, restaurants and mountain apparel shops!) I started to get serious FOMO and wondered if I would be able to make it up there, since my injury was three weeks into recovery and walking wasn't a problem anymore...
I thought it would have been useful to see a step-by-step (excuse the pun!) guide to climbing Ben Nevis, as I did take a gamble going up with a recovering ankle and not knowing the terrain or what to expect. So if you're planning on climbing, I hope this helps!
The walk will take an average of around 7 hours in total. Around 3-4 hours to the top, then 2-3 hours for the descent, but can be done faster or slower depending on your fitness level. The total distance up and down is 16.7KM (approx 10 miles). I enjoy walking and have done a lot of it over the last few years, this has definitely been the hardest I've done (so far) and would probably rate it a 7 out of 10 for difficulty.
Before You Leave
It is the highest mountain in the UK - with an elevation of 1,345 metres. So you need to make sure that you're prepared, it's not something you should really do spontaneously, make sure you go up with the correct kit and clothing. You will be climbing way past up into the clouds, to the summit's 'micro climate' - so I went up on a warm August afternoon, however, at the top it was foggy, cold, (around 1-2 degrees) and raining! So make sure that you have layers, warm clothes and waterproofs. Gloves are also useful as you'll find you're grabbing rocks on the way up and your hands might get cold near the top too! Make sure you take a backpack to store extra clothes/layers and take some water and snacks like energy bars or fruit - you will need them.
Hiking boots are also recommended - the climb is NOT a simple gravel path up; it begins like this, but soon changes to uneven rocks, gravel, large stones and crossing a few small waterfalls/brooks - so make sure you have boots and they have been broken in and comfortable to wear for the whole day.
If you have nordic walking poles, definitely take them with you. If you don't have them, don't worry. I didn't use them and managed fine, but did sometimes worry about my balance on the way down and had to go very steady whilst holding on to rocks and walls to get down.
Many other websites will advise you to take a compass and a map - I'll be honest, I have no idea how to read a compass or map - but I used my Strava app which is a good way of seeing where you've been and following the path back if you get lost. If you are walking at the weekend or public holiday, there will be lots of people on the paths, so it's highly unlikely that you'll get lost, just be safe and aware of your surroundings and walk in the daylight. Oh, and make sure your phone is fully charged or you have a spare way of communication if you need it.
A good level of fitness is also recommended - the climb upwards just keeps on coming, every corner you turn you think you've got pretty high, but then you turn a corner and it looks even higher! So make sure you have spent a few weeks getting used to long-distanced walking and hill walking. You will be walking for around 6-9 hours and up to 40,000 steps - so if you're not used to doing this, I'd definitely recommend some training beforehand.
Ben Nevis is a mountain that is part of the famous 'three peaks' of the UK (the others being Scafell Pike in the Lake District, and Snowdon in Wales) and the nearest town to stay in is at Fort William. You can walk from the town centre, but it will probably take you around 45 minutes and you will be VERY tired once you've reached the bottom and will want to get back in the car and relax - so would recommend driving over to the Glen Nevis visitor centre (PH33 6ST) however, parking is EXTREMELY limited - we spent almost 40 minutes trying to get a space and driving round the car park/roads 4-5 times. Many people tend to park on the grass verges as you approach the car parks, so if you see a spot, grab it! Parking for the day is £6 and if the machines aren't working, you can go and pay for your parking at the visitor centre.
The start of the ascent is over a wooden bridge to the left of the visitor centre. Cross the bridge and follow the gravel path, you'll see the mountains to the left of you, and that's the direction you'll be heading! This first part looks like you're taking a leisurely hill walk, you'll cross a couple of stiles and see a pub on your left (the post-climb pint can be your motivation!) but don't let this initial path lead you into a false sense of security!
You'll head towards the right and up the base of the mountain. It begins to get quite steep with large stone steps, however this quickly pays off, as the spectacular views begin pretty early on.
At this point, the path is quite easy and pleasant to follow, and the steps are quite obvious. Do be aware of gaps in the path for the brooks to travel down - these are quite easy to spot, but always keep an eye on your feet and foot placement, try to stop and take in the views rather than walking with your eyes in the sky.
Around an hour in, you'll reach a small bridge crossing a very sweet waterfall. This is a lovely spot to catch your breath and take in the view before climbing a little higher and turning the corner..! The steps do start to become a little more challenging here, and you will need to take your time when heading up them, especially if you have others coming down the mountain, so do be courteous and let others pass you if the odd spot looks tricky or difficult to navigate.
Once you've taken in the views from the bridge, keep going - you'll head a little higher and round the corner to enter the large valley with the waterfall. We found this section quite tough - quite a step and narrow climb with the vertigo-inducing (but very beautiful!) view of the large valley. There are quite a few sheep chilling out here on the mountain, so say hello to them if you see them.
The steps aren't really steps anymore at this point - more like small rock paths that you can quite easily navigate up (see photo below), just be careful and watch your step, some may be shallow, others you may need to push up towards a little more. This is also the first part of the climb you'll experience your first 'zig zag' and you'll see a lot of other climbers above you - looking very small across the valley! Don't be put off - keep going, you'll be there soon.
When you reach the top of this side of the valley, after a zig-zag or two, the path returns to a kind gravel path which is easy to walk on, with a little incline here. As you get a little higher, you'll notice a large lake on the left of you. This is a nice place to stop and have a quick drink and a snack. (Also a nice place to decide on turning back if you feel you've worked hard enough or feeling tired - for my partner, this was his limit and he'd had enough!)
Follow this gravel path upwards - you will see a path that heads off to the left - but follow the other climbers to the right which is going higher. As you cross this path you'll find yourself on the other side of the valley which you saw before - and the waterfall that you could see will be coming up. This is lovely to cross with stepping stones - just watch your step - and some beautiful views where you can really start to see how high you've climbed already.
After crossing the waterfall - you're blessed with some more gravel path (and a few more stone steps) and some incredible views. You can see how tiny the people are from the earlier zig-zag path and get a fantastic view of the lake that you passed earlier. Enjoy this while you have it - you're about half way up and the path is going to start to get a little more challenging now..!
The famous 'zig-zags' will become apparent here, you'll find that the path starts to get a little more rocky and steeper - I was surprised as quite a lot of this zig-zag climb also requires a little bit of rock scrambling, so watch your step. Do try and stay away from the edges, the rocks are sometimes not always secure and look a little loose by the edge - so stay mountainside when you can and keep watching that foot placement.
The views start to become even more spectacular as you get higher - as you start to see the clouds coming closer to you, you're around an hour and a half from the summit, so do keep going! This was the part I felt the most challenging, and when I overheard others saying there was another 90 minutes of climbing to go, I almost considered turning around. As you reach the clouds, it also does start to become a little chillier, so keep your extra layers at bay.
Looking up starts to become a little more difficult here - as seeing any more mountain can be covered in cloud. I found this hard as I thought I could see the top, then I'd reach 'the top' and see even more mountain in the clouds even higher! However, the path has returned slightly, and it is a little gravely and slate based here. You are still 'zig-zagging' but the path is still quite obvious to follow.
You are not far off when you start to see the rock pillar tower things (see photo below) - visibility is quite tricky here but if you follow these pillars, they should lead you back towards the path. When you see the first pillar you're about 20/30 minutes from the summit.
For me, this was the hardest part of the climb. The path becomes very rocky, and there is a very steep scramble as you head to the summit. There are large uneven rocks with no clear path, so try to follow other climbers, and keep an eye on the stone towers, if in doubt, just keep climbing higher!
The path will return, and you'll pass two very steep crevice type things, with lots of green moss around them. Go and have a look and see how steep they are, just be careful of getting too close. Once you've passed them both, you're pretty much at the summit, just another tricky stony path to cross and you've made it!
You should start to be able to see a few crowds/groups of people from here, as well as the podium and the old observatory ruins. Again, there is no path up here, just uneven, large rocks so walk across these with caution.
Make sure you get a photo at the top, there are a few things to look at, a small plinth with stones on, the podium and the observatory ruins with a small metal shed-like thing on the top that you can crawl inside (I didn't but a few others did!) and enjoy being temporarily the tallest person in the UK!
Congratulations! You made it to the top of the highest mountain in the UK! At this point, it was drizzling pretty heavily, and it was almost freezing, so I wasn't going to hang around for too long. I had a quick snack and some water, and began heading back down again.
This was the only part of the climb that felt a little bit disoriented - it was around 5.30pm when I headed back down and was a lot quieter, as most people seem to walk in the morning, so it was a little foggy, slightly eerie and I was unsure of the direction I was going - this is where your map/Strava would come in useful if you needed it, however, I passed the two steep crevices again, so knew I was going the right way, and followed the stone towers.
Again - watch your step as you come back through the uneven rocks. It still remains foggy and cloudy here (unless you're one of the lucky ones that got a clear day, apparently only 14 days out of 365 are clear!) and be careful as you scramble back down again to the zig-zag paths. Your descent will be a lot quicker, and a lot easier. I'm not very good at going down hills, I'd rather climb a hill any day over than going down a hill - so was quite nervous about this. But it was a lot easier than it looked when I was coming up. Just make sure you follow the path, take your time, and don't be tempted to take short cuts (many others do, but I'm just a 'better safe than sorry' sort of person).
Coming out of the clouds feels good - and boosts morale a little bit when you can finally see again! Although you can also see how far away from sea level you are too. Keep heading down steadily the exact same way you came.
It was a good experience coming down, and just at the right time, when I was about an hour away from the ground (just after I'd passed the lake) the sun was setting and I did get a gorgeous view of the sunset that I could see over the other side of the loch (hidden by more mountains) but the conditions were pretty perfect, and no rain below meant no slippy rocks on the way down which made things easier.
My partner was waiting for me at the bottom and managed to grab a photo of my happy little face as I walked to the end. I was knackered - my Fitbit had just hit 40,000 steps but I felt absolutely amazing for doing it.
Thanks for reading! I hope you found this helpful - if you did, let me know in the comments, or tag me on instagram in your Ben Nevis adventure @bek.mo - good luck and enjoy it!