When, last summer, I was making a list of Scottish hills to climb on my upcoming trip, I picked those that had intrigued me when I hiked beneath them on my The Kiss of Sweet Scottish Rain journey in 2011. I chose handsome hills, remote ones, and summits likely to command magnificent views. Two hills made the list because I had once begun to climb them and now wanted to finish the job.
Ben Nevis doesn’t really fit with any of these criteria. Handsome? Perhaps, but more like bulky. Remote? No. It’s right next to Fort William. Views? Far more often than not The Ben is wrapped in cloud. I certainly didn’t catch even a glimpse of its upper reaches on the days I spent nearby on my 2011 adventure. No, I put Ben Nevis on my list simply because it is the highest peak in the British Isles, the highest for 400 miles in every direction in fact. We are drawn to superlatives.
I arrived at the foot of The Ben on Thursday afternoon, and as I looked at its lower slopes through the panorama window of the youth hostel, I developed two concerns about the climb. Would the weather really clear? It was pouring with rain now and cloud sat low on the mountain. Secondly, even if the weather were perfect, Ben Nevis is a long climb. The youth hostel—my starting point—sits more or less at sea level, the summit of The Ben 4,406 feet higher. The high mountains of the US Northeast are loftier than Ben Nevis, but you usually start your climb 1,000 feet or more above sea level. Would I have the stamina for The Ben?
DATE: Friday, October 5th, 2018.
START & FINISH: SYHA Glen Nevis hostel, 2.6 miles from Fort William.
ROUTE: Up and down the Mountain Track, aka the Tourist Track.
DISTANCE: 9-10 miles.
TIME: 6-7 hours (starting around 7:45 a.m.)
TERRAIN: A very good path for much of the way but, higher up, rougher—a mere route through rubble and scree. Even so, I found the climb relatively undemanding and stamina was not an issue. I reached the summit in under three hours.
MAP: Ordnance Survey map downloaded to my tablet.
WEATHER: Changeable! Mostly cloudy to about 3,000 feet. There, I entered the clouds and it began to snow. There were no other climbers here and I wondered if I should turn back. I didn’t, and completed the climb in snow showers and mist. On the way down, the mist cleared (again at about 3,000 feet) to reveal a bright afternoon.
WILDLIFE: Do sheep count?
BREAKFAST: The SYHA’s continental option.
LUNCH: Trail food as I felt the need.
UPS: After 50 years with Ben Nevis on my radar, finally climbing it.
DOWNS: A clear summit would have been nice.
KIT: More even than other Scottish hills, the summit of Nevis is a different world from its base—waterproofs and warm layers.
COMPANY: When it started snowing, I thought I was the lead hiker on the mountain today. But, nearing the summit, I met a group climbing for charity (the highpoints of Scotland, Wales, and England in 24 hours). I took their Ben Nevis group photograph for them. Thereafter, a steady stream of hikers arrived at the summit, and I met an even steadier stream as I walked down. These climbers may have enjoyed a better view than I did as the day improved.
THE HIKE IN PICTURES: