Monday, 8 July 2019

Climbing Ben Nevis - What you need to know. A Ben Nevis guide.


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Climbing Ben Nevis – What you need to know.
A Ben Nevis guide.

So, you have decided to climb Ben Nevis, the UK’s highest mountain. This guide is here to hopefully, answer all your questions. I have been Guiding and Leading on Ben Nevis for years and hear the same questions from clients and visitors repeatedly. Everything I write here is just advice, you are responsible for your own planning and actions whilst out on the hills. I am just trying to help some people that may never have been out in the Scottish hills before.

The route.

The most popular and easiest route up the mountain has many names, the Pony track, the Mountain path and even the Tourist track or path. Don’t be fooled by these names, you are heading up high into the Scottish mountains and the conditions can be difficult or dangerous if you are underprepared.
The main path is 1300m of ascent and descent and is approximately a 16km round trip. Average times range from 6-9 hours and although it is achievable for most people you do need to be exercising regularly before you try, it will make the route and your day more enjoyable. I promise you; you will enjoy it more if you have done at least some training. The route starts at the Ben Nevis Visitors centre in Glen Nevis from here it crosses the River Nevis and heads uphill towards the Achintee, from here it starts climbing and traversing around the flanks of Meall an t-Suidhe.
After about 1 Km another path joins from the right, this is an alternative start to the path and comes up from the Glen Nevis Scottish Youth Hostel.

From here the path starts to climb more steeply with a couple of Zig Zags up towards the ‘Halfway Lochan’ (Lochan Meall an t-Suidhe) the path is well constructed but it is rocky and rough underfoot with several larger steps. This is one of the steeper sections and it doesn’t seem like much now but wait until you are tired and, on your way, back down in a few hours.

Just below the ‘Halfway lochan’ the path turns sharply left at what is known locally as ‘Conservation corner’. Please stick to the main path, the path leading left up the hill is an old section of path that suffers badly with erosion and even after lots of effort by many people it still sees a huge number of traffic and it is not getting the chance to regenerate. I promise you it really isn’t that much quicker up or down.

As the path passes by the ‘Halfway Lochan’ it eases in angle and you get a chance to have a breather just before the halfway stage. Average times to this spot are about 1 ½ hours to 2 hours. The Mountain path now turns sharply right and continues to rise gently up towards the Red Burn. The path that heads left at this junction either takes you round under the North face or to the end of the Lochan. After you cross the Red Burn you start what is known as the upper Zig zags, the path goes back and forth with a total of 8 corners leading onto the edge of the Ben Nevis plateau. The distance between each corner gets smaller as you get higher (overall) and as you gain height, so the path becomes more and rougher underfoot.

Ben Nevis map

The Mountain path follows the Red route.

At the edge of the Plateau and just after corner 8 there is a small circular shelter, your journey time to this point will probably be between 2 ½ and 3 ½ hours. This is the point at which the path starts to cross the plateau with the final two short steep rises towards the summit. In Summer the path doesn’t completely follow the line of Cairns, but they will be visible as should the path be. You will then pass Tower gully and Gardyloo gully, both of which usually hold snow until July/August, at the top of Gardyloo gully, three cairns mark the change in direction, and you are just 150m, (2-3 mins) from the top. This last section will take you about 30mins – 45 mins. Awesome, you made it, well done. Grab a photo and enjoy the view, if you have one and then head back down the same way.

Descent times are usually 1-2 hours quicker than the time it will have taken you to get to the summit.

What is the weather really like?

In one word, changeable! I am asked all the time about whether it is safe to climb Ben Nevis in bad weather and the answer is, it depends on you and your experience. The summit of Ben Nevis reliably has snow on it from November through to August with the Mountain path covered completely by snow at any point between September and May, usually. It is rare but not uncommon for it to snow on the summit of Ben Nevis at some point through the summer months, so you should be prepared to navigate yourselves off the mountain, change your plans and climb another day or turn around.
So, it is changeable, what can we do about that? Modern weather forecasting is great, and they are very accurate nowadays even knowing when the weather will change down to the hour. I suggest you look at both forecasts before you make your plans and if you can get more forecasts, even better! The Mountain Weather Information Service forecast is great, but the Met office Ben Nevis Forecast is even better, with an hour by hour breakdown of the weather. With all this information you can then decide whether you want to be tackling Ben Nevis on your planned day or it can help you decide what kit you will be taking for the day.

Do I need a Guide?

Hiring a qualified guide to lead you on your Ben Nevis day has several advantages. They can show you the way in poor visibility or if the path is covered in snow, they can advise you on pacing yourself for the whole day, inform and educate you about the mountain’s environment and local history, keep your group together, help you to manage your temperature throughout the day, when and what to eat and just be good company. Just some of the things that a guide can do for you. The downside, they cost money.

Ben Nevis summit on the 21st June 2019

The Summit of Ben Nevis on the 21st June 2019. Photo: Andrew Hague.

What kit do I need?

Ah, the big one. There are loads of reports out there of ill-equipped walkers on Ben Nevis, flip flop wearing walkers with just a carrier bag, people wearing jeans and trainers. But what should you be wearing? The simple answer is it depends on the weather, again.

Poor weather kit list.

· Comfortable walking boots or approach shoes, that will offer grip and comfort preferably waterproof.
· Waterproof jacket and trousers.
· Comfortable walking socks.
· Base layer t-shirt to be worn next to the skin, merino wool or synthetic (not cotton).
· Comfortable walking trousers, something light and breathable (not jeans).
In your rucksack: -
· Warm mid layers. At least two, one to wear and one as an emergency layer.
· Hats and gloves.
· Head torch, it depends on the time of year in my opinion and what time you are walking.
· A small personal first aid kit containing plasters, ibuprofen, pain killers etc.
· A flask and/or drinks bottle, 1L should be enough.
· A rucksack. About a 30L pack will do.
· An orange emergency survival bag.
· Food (A collection of high sugar foods and some carbohydrates will help you through the day)
·A mobile phone in case of emergencies.
·Some way of navigating, a map and compass preferably.

Good weather kit list

· Comfortable walking boots or approach shoes, that will offer grip and comfort.
· Waterproof jacket and trousers if any rain or strong winds are forecast.
· Comfortable walking socks.
· Base layer t-shirt to be worn next to the skin, merino wool or synthetic (not cotton).
· Comfortable walking trousers, something light and breathable, could even be shorts on hotter days.
In your rucksack: -
· Warm mid layers. At least two, one to wear and one as an emergency layer. If it is due to be hot, just one will suffice.
· Hats and gloves.
· Head torch? it depends on the time of year in my opinion and what time you are walking.
· A small personal first aid kit containing plasters, ibuprofen, pain killers etc.
· A drinks bottle, 1L should be enough for most but you could take more if it is due to be hot.
· A rucksack. About a 30L pack will do.
· An orange emergency survival bag.
· Food (A collection of high sugar foods and some carbohydrates will help you through the day)
·A mobile phone in case of emergencies.
·Some way of navigating, a map and compass preferably.
·Sun cream and sun hat

They might not seem that different, but you can select what you think will be needed on the day after having gathered information about current weather conditions and the weather forecast.

Do I need poles?

For some people walking poles can be a saviour, especially if they have sore knees on descent. It is well documented that poles help to reduce the amount of force on your knees, but some people just don’t get on with them. If you have used poles before then I would suggest you use/carry them again if you haven’t don’t worry, plenty of people don’t’ use them but if you feel they may be of some help then I suggest you use your poles before your Ben Nevis trip so as you are more familiar with them.

Are there any toilets?

There are no toilets on the mountain, the only access you have to toilets is at the Ben Nevis Visitors centre. The opening hours of these change during the year so it is worth checking with them if you have any questions.

Where do I go to the toilet on the mountain then?

If you just need to urinate, then pretty much go wherever you want if it is not directly into a water source. I suggest you try to plan in advance but If you need to take care of something else whilst on the mountain, I suggest you carry some poo bags so you can carry your waste and tissues/sanitary items down with you. This might sound disgusting but so are the piles of rotting faeces and baby wipes that litter the few places on the mountain that you can get a bit of privacy. There are approximately 120,000 people that head up Ben Nevis each year and if even just 1% of them decide they need to ‘leave a small package’ that is 1200 ‘packages’ being left in just a couple of locations.

Can I drink the water on the Mountain path?

I used to happily drink the water from the Red burn but having seen the rise in numbers on the path and considered the above information about toilets, I no longer drink from this side of the mountain. Carrying 1-2 litres of water should be enough for all but the hottest days.

Where do I park to walk up the Mountain path?

You have four choices really, you can either park at the Glen Nevis Youth Hostel, at Achintee, the Ben Nevis Visitors centre or leave your car at your accommodation and catch the bus or a taxi into Glen Nevis. Parking at the Youth Hostel and Achintee is limited and free. I would recommend parking at the Ben Nevis Visitors centre, yes they do ask for a small charge but this charge is to help with the facilities at the start of the path, such as the toilets and a portion of this parking charge will also go back into maintaining the Mountain path.

Ben Nevis litter

The usual haul of litter after a day of guiding on Ben Nevis. Photo: Scott Kirkhope

Is there anywhere I can leave my litter on the Mountain?

No, please take all litter with you! It is very simple if you carried it up please take it back down with you. Absolutely everything should go back down with you, cigarette ends, Orange and Banana peel and any waste food and packaging. The environment on Ben Nevis is a delicate and balanced system and it is already changing due to the high level of Potassium from rotting Banana skins.

Can I leave a memorial or spread my relatives’ ashes?

If you wish to leave a memorial, there is an area down by the Visitors centre and the John Muir Trust, who own the upper parts of Ben Nevis would wish that any memorial was placed at this location. Any memorial left on the mountain will probably be removed at some point during an organised litter pick. The spreading human ashes fall into the same category really. No one can stop you but please think about the effect you are having on the environment and other users, who may not really want to be sat having a bit to eat whilst surrounded by human remains.

Can I take my dog with me?

Dogs are allowed on the Mountain path but please be aware that there will be sheep on the Mountain and that your dog should be under your control, whether on a lead or comes when you call it. Please also bear in mind that it is a big day out and the path is all bare rock and gravel and that your dog should be accustomed to walking on this terrain or have protection, so their paws do not get damaged.

Still, have some questions?

If you do have any questions then please feel free to send them to scott@kirkhopemountaineering.co.uk and I will get back to you as soon as possible. I also run a Mountain Guiding company based in Fort William that offers a wide range of courses and routes to take you to the summit of Ben Nevis in Summer and Winter.



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