Quick Guide: Ben Nevis, Scotland
Updated: Apr 15, 2020
Ben Nevis (Beinn Nibheis, ‘Venomous Mountain’ in its native Gaelic) at 1345mts stands as the UK’s highest mountain. Set in the Lochaber region of the Scottish Highlands this is a mountain of two half’s. On one side a relatively easy but long pull to the summit via the mountain track and on the other its Northern side a haven for summer and winter climbing giving adventures of all grades. Its other two half's lie in its seasons in the summer it offers summer walking and rock climbing but in the winter even the simplest route to the summit becomes a winter mountaineering journey requiring the use of Ice axe and crampons and good knowledge on the implications of winter conditions and how to operate in them. Its name ‘Venomous’ does elude to its often turbulent weather systems passing through. Being situated on the wild West Coast of Scotland its prone to some pretty full on weather which can give the experienced and competent a full flavour Scottish day but to the uninitiated a frighting and possibly dangerous mountain experience. But for those with some experience and right equipment Ben Nevis can deliver hugely memorable experiences that last a lifetime. Its summer walks such the CMD arete and its huge views across the Highlands and West Coast, Skiing in its deep gullies, climbing its famous Tower Ridge or climbing one of the numerous famous ice climbs then it delivers adventure to the full. Just make sure you pick the right adventure for you.
When to go:
For those looking for a summer experience this tends to start late April/May when there is often some nice spring high pressures passing through but it can also have the remnants of the winter still on the ground. Its not unusual for there to be snow on Ben Nevis year round hidden in shady places. But certainly the last sections to the summit on those spring days will still have snow on the summit plateaux. That coupled with some weather and snow flurries on top often catches the unprepared out. June through to around September would be the summer months which can be wet at times and on the summit don't be surprised with the possibility of wet snow falling. September onwards is when the first snows tend to arrive and the autumnal storms pass through. Through the winter months all routes to the top require good winter mountaineering knowledge.
What Route to take:
The ‘Mountain Track’ is the easiest way to the summit presenting no technical difficulties with regards to technical climbing or scrambling just a long pull up. Its hazards which are often underestimated to peoples cost are the need to be properly equipped for the elements and the ability to navigate in poor weather using a map and compass. The Carn Mor Dearg arete is another option although not technical enough to require a rope its has some scrambling over easy steps but on an exposed ridge. This affords superb views across the North side of the mountain and combined with descending the Mountain Track gives a good day out with numerous views and perspectives on the mountain. These all change in the winter where a more serious mountaineering edge comes into play. The other climbs and scrambles are on the Northern side and too numerous to mention here but for a full listing the SMC climbing guides detail all the summer and winter climbs. Should skiing be your aim then there are some good days to be had on Ben Nevis its series of steep gullies offer something for those keen on steeper lines or on the Mountain Track the red burn gives a nice run, just beware to stop before the waterfall! There are no lifts on the mountain so expect a bit of a walk and perhaps some skinning to get to a good high point. The route you choose will of course depend on the season and also your ability and experience, but there is plenty on offer for all levels.
Getting to Ben Nevis:
Situated above the town of Fort William the second largest town in the highlands it has a wide variety of links to it. By road the A82 is picked up just beyond Glasgow and followed through the Highlands with the stunning part passing Glencoe to reach Fort William. Citylink and Mega bus offer budget buses and the train offer routes up from Glasgow, Edinburgh and the south. If you fancy taking the long route then the classic West Highland Way trek which takes about a week leaves Glasgow tracking up through the Highlands to end in Fort William. If coming from overseas then Glasgow, Edinburgh and Inverness all have airports with good transport links and plenty of options for car hire on arrival.
As a quick aside on Fort William here was a feature on UKclimbing.com about relocating to Fort William which I featured in some years ago.
There are a whole host of different guides and maps on offer for Ben Nevis. The best guide would be the SMC’s Scottish munro book which details the various ways up all 282 Munros. Mapping is vital on the mountain and probably the main reason incidents occur is not having the ability to read a map and navigate. The standard Ordinance Survey maps or a Harveys map are essential items to have in the bag. Quite often its easy to look up from the bottom and think it looks like a clear run but the weather can whip in very quickly making the summit area especially disorientating. So it's vital when that happens your able to pull out the map and compass with competency. There are some hazards towards the top where deep gullies cut into the track which can be hard to see in poor weather and would lead to a long and fatal fall. In most guidebooks and often on the reverse of the maps there is a blown up section highlighting these points. The winter will greatly change the lay of the land with many useful features that help with navigation disappearing becoming blanketed under deep snow.
Fort William has a host of places to stay from camping to high end hotels. The best place to look for is Calluna Bunkhouse which sits above Fort William town giving nice self catering accommodation with plenty of advice on weather and mountain conditions to hand. Its also just a few minutes walk from the main street in fort William where there are plenty of bars and restaurants and a selection of outdoor shops. Glen Nevis has the nicest campsite which is situated just below the start of the mountain track on Ben Nevis, can be a little midgey in the summer months though so bring a net and cream.
For something a little more adventurous with regards to accommodation then its always nice to stay up high and there are a few nice places to wild camp on the mountain. Often referred to as the half way Lochan is one such spot or find a spot under the impressive North Side of the mountain to make the trip a two day journey and really soak up the atmosphere.
What to wear:
A lot quite often! The Ben often has lovely days in both summer and winter but also has plenty of wet pant days too. No matter the time of year you want to either have on clothes ready to deal with the weather or have them on your back ready.
The most important items at any point in the year is to have a good set of waterproofs which will keep you dry and the wind off. A sturdy pair of boots that are comfy for trekking in but during the winter boots which can take a crampon and have a good level of stiffness for kicking into the snow. A warm layer such as a thick fleece which can go over your wicking layer and fits under the waterproof. A good pair of gloves and warm hat and on a particularly unpleasant day it does no harm to have some extras to swap into when things get sodden. I also like to have a ‘belay jacket’ which is similar to a down jacket but is instead prima-loft or a synthetic down which survives much better than goose down which gets destroyed in the wet which and can just be thrown on over everything when it all gets too cold.
Other Essentials to bring:
A few other essentials which would make your trip safer and more comfortable would be.
A good day pack of around 30 litres and dry bags to keep different things dry inside, nothing worse than reaching for those dry gloves to find they are soaked. Rather than having one big dry bag with everything in it better to divide things up into smaller bags, if you're in and out of one big dry bag invariably that will run the risk of getting water in it.
Map and compass cant be stressed enough. During the winter months then ice axe and crampons are essential but just as essential is the ability to use them.
A small flask with some warm juice or tea can be welcome on the summit or when the cold is starting to take effect.
Plenty of food, better to take too much just in case.
An orange survival bag or foil blanket is good to have at the bottom of the bag for a worst case scenario where you need to wait for help which protects someone against the elements.
A sense of humour with regards to weather, as they say 'whatever the weather the weathers the weather whether you like it or not'. What ever the conditions on the mountain whether you make it to the top or not will undoubtably give you a good day out. This is by no means a definitive list and people have been known to take everything from a small teddy bear to a grand piano with them on Ben Nevis, best to take what you need but not weigh yourself down by taking too much .
If interested in guided ascents on a variety of routes on Ben Nevis then please get in touch directly.
Here are a few links for weather and mountain conditions.
SAIS The Scottish Avalanche Information service provides avalanche forecasts through the winter months. They also have a useful blog which shows some images daily of the conditions on the ground.
MWIS The Mountain Weather Information Service which provides a forecast which is written with a view to walkers and climbers and the effect the weather may have on their day.
MET The MET office weather forecast. The also offer a good mountain weather forecast.
NB: These are all as they suggest being forecast’s and may differ from what you find on the day so the best tactic is to take in as much information as possible and then keep your eyes open and be equipped for changes on the day.