My walk to the top of the UK's highest peak, Ben Nevis.

Iím a weekend walker and get out in to the Peak District and occasionally the Lake District as often as possible and whilst I enjoy these jaunts, sometimes they lack a certain something. Thereís no doubt a walk is always improved when a hill is climbed and a view enjoyed and after doing this a few times I felt it was time to tackle something a little more significant. A few years ago I walked up Snowdon which was a fabulous dayís hiking. Having enjoyed that so much, my thoughts turned to the challenge of the highest peak in the UK, Ben Nevis.
a view from the top of ben nevis Most walkers will know, hiking isnít to be taken lightly and certainly walking up Ben Nevis frequently leads to loss of life so I was very keen to not become a new statistic for the local Mountain Rescue Team. This meant doing a lot of Googling to find out about the trail and what it takes to walk up and down in relative safety. I also had to find out how to get there and where to stay, as when compared to Ben Nevisís location, Iím a resident of the very down-south Midlands.

In my write-up Iím going to cover as much as I can about the important stuff and hope not to miss out anything significant but if youíre planning on doing this walk yourself, please do your own research too to ensure a safe and enjoyable day out.

The first bit of research was to find out when is the safest time of year to do this. Not surprisingly, that turned out to be Summer. There arenít though many weeks in the year when there isnít snow on the ground and it quickly became clear that the snow can hide the trail to the peak and veering off the path can lead to vertical drops and certain death. Walkers do climb in winter but it should be done only with competent map-reading and compass skills, the right clothing and footwear. Maybe crampons too.

base of ben nevis If you check the weather for Fort William, more often than not itís raining so being prepared for bad weather is critical. The weather is very changeable and starting in glorious sunshine is no guarantee of reaching the top in the same conditions. I prepared for the worst and put on strong boots, took insulating layers and waterproof top layers in my kit.

I watched the weather for a few weeks and found a spell of decent weather in the most summery month I could find, August. Having climbed in Summer Iíd quite like to do the same walk in Winter but I think I would join a guide with experience of climbing the route in those kinds of conditions.

So I had worked out when to go, next I needed to find the best route for the first-time BN ascender. This turns out to be the tourist path which starts on the west side of BN at the tourist centre and is about 16km long to the top and back.

From my Googling research Iíd found that thereís a lot of places to stay around Fort William as you might expect because the draw of walking up that mountain is very popular. Hotels and B&Bís are many but I chose to camp and stayed at the Glen Nevis campsite situated very conveniently at the bottom of BN and right next to a path joining the tourist route.

The trip starts in the car heading for the Benís nearest large conurbation, Fort William, from where Ben Nevis can easily be seen. This meant driving for about 8 hours, including breaks, up the A1, across the A66 and on to the M6, M74 and A82. Google Maps says itís about 390 miles each way. The journeyís mainly motorway and dual-carriageway and itís not until passing Glasgow that the road becomes single-carriageway. For your passengers this part should be a delight as from here the views become just a little bit stunning. The scenery is enchanting and even from my journey up the road I knew I would have to go back to see more. Iíd only planned on staying long enough to walk up BN so further opportunities to enjoy the gorgeous Highlands were off the cards. Take a look at the image of Glen Coe, this was taken from the side of the road. Really beautiful. I travelled the day before I planned to walk so I could get a decent nightís sleep and make an early start.

cairn on the ben nevis path and fort william in the distance.
If you like this image you can buy it as a print, canvas or card by clicking here.

I started the climb at 7:00am with a backpack containing a map, compass, emergency whistle, head-torch, hand torch, waterproofs, orange emergency survival plastic bag, lots of tuna mayo rolls, snacky stuff, banana and about 3 litres of water. The beauty of the tourist path is it begins on the west side so an early start means a lot of shade from BN until the Sun is quite high in the sky. The cool shade and breeze was bliss making for a very reasonable early trek. From the beginning the path tried to put me off by being steep. Itís a sign of things to come and I soon realised thereís no easy bits to this ascent. I couldnít fault the quality of the path given this is a quite hostile place for much of the time but to call it a path is a little misleading. Mostly it feels like uneven stairs, made of randomly-sized stones and rocks. Be prepared for taking a lot of well-thought-out steps as one wrong one could lead to a twisted ankle or at times a nasty fall off a steep drop. There are a few places where the path is reasonable to walk on but mostly I was glad to be wearing a sturdy boot with a good sole to deal with that uneven surface.

By starting at 7:00am I was fortunate to find myself alone during a lot of the early stages and this was almost magical, enjoying the walk and the scenery without being disturbed by other walkers. I was taking it at a steady pace and was passed by a few walkers who were a lot quicker than I. There is no point rushing though. There are no medals for getting there first so finding a pace that suited me was important.

At not-quite half-way a small body of water will be encountered, called Loch Meall an t-Suidhe which sits atop the part of BN that can be seen from my campsite. This is where the path begins to zig-zag up the hill and at this point is perhaps the easiest walking. Very soon after a waterfall is reached and this is considered to be the genuine half-way point. This can only be crossed by walking over the stones in the stream so at times the water could be a little tricky to cross.

Climbing further sees a change to the landscape. Whilst the trees were left long behind, up to this point there was grass covering the mountain but that disappears to become almost entirely grey from the natural rock of the hill and the stone deposited on the path for maintenance.

As the top becomes closer, cairns mark the route and whilst in Summer they are nice to see, in Winter they are critical to identify the path when itís lost under thick snow.

the loch on ben nevis Climbing in the middle of August on a day when there was a wonderful blue sky meant it was hot. Very hot. I was glad of the water I carried, the hat covering my head and the factor-50 sunblock stopping me burning to a crisp. The views now are stunning and easily compensate for any feeling of tiredness. Fort William and the campsite can be seen far below in the views to the west. Looking up though, the path continues to twist and turn over the grey rocky surface at times becoming almost invisible against the grey mountainside, only a distant cairn marks where itís heading. The mountain chooses to tease me with false dawns when a crest is reached. Hoping to see the top, only the next part of the walk and another level is revealed. This happens 2 or 3 times and can lead to a little deflation as itís clear thereís more walking to do. Such is the height now, cloud rolls through in front of my path and I can only head towards it. People who passed me on the way up, pass me again as they descend.

path to the summit of ben nevis Eventually the last part of the walk is reached and the summit is visible. I was tired at this point but knowing the peak is close invigorates my energy and the prospect of getting to the top excites me. At the top it is noticeably colder and I have to add layers to keep warm. There are already people here enjoying their summit of the Ben. The other walkers are eating, taking pictures and enjoying the view. The trig point is elevated about 2 metres which I think must be because in Winter, the snow reaches the base of that trig point. Thatís a lot of snow! Thereís also the remains of an old observatory and an emergency shelter, also elevated. The views all around are amazing and luckily for me the day was very clear so I could easily see for many miles. Caution at the top is paramount for the vertical drops are death-inducing. Itís a wild place so expect no barriers to keep folk away from the edge. The top is about the size of two football pitches and covered in rocks. Walking across it is awkward because more cautious footsteps are required. I really didnít want a twisted ankle to walk down the hill. Itís taken me 3 hours and 40 minutes to reach the top. This includes snack breaks and stops to take some pictures. (Iím a photographer, I canít help it).

I spent about 40 minutes at the top, eating, taking more pictures and taking in the scenery. It became quite busy very quickly so I decided to start my descent.

glen coe in the scottish highlands
If you like this image of Glen Coe you can buy it as a print, canvas, or card by clicking here.

Coming down, according to the reports I read before I started, itís supposed to be quicker than going up but for me it took longer. It was harder on my legs. I donít use walking poles so maybe they would have helped. I saw a few people using them and some who decided to store them in their bags. I also met a tide of people climbing up. It would seem the majority of people chose to start the walk later in the morning. It was incredibly hot and some people looked very unprepared for making the climb and a few were clearly struggling. It seemed like they didnít expect it to be so long, so hot and so hard. One little thing that improved my descent was a cover over my neck which kept the sun off. Despite the hat and sunblock, the journey down was spent mostly looking at where I was putting my feet so my neck was always facing the Sun. Without that cotton square hanging from under my hat I would probably have had sun-stroke. To reach the bottom it took me four exhausting hours, including stops to eat and rest. Getting back to the campsite I had a much-needed shower and then went for a celebratory meal and a pint at the pub conveniently situated next to the campsite.

The elation of walking to the top of Ben Nevis had me buzzing for days afterwards. Itís an amazing experience and Iíd recommend it but I would also say only do it if youíre physically prepared and take the right kit with you. In hindsight, I would have started at 6:00am, taken a bit more water and a bit more food but apart from that I felt I had prepared well for the expected and unexpected conditions. After that I was left with my drive back home with plenty of time to reflect on my achievement and plan a future trip back to the beautiful Scottish Highlands.


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