Walk Report: Ben Nevis, 25/06/11

So… Ben Nevis!!  The highest mountain in the UK, standing at 4,406ft (and believe me, that 6ft matters!) above the beautiful town of Fort William in the Highlands of Scotland 🙂

The chosen day dawned overcast and with a slight wind.  This was preferable to the previous evening when, without any wind whatsoever, the lovely Scottish midges had played havoc with Grahame and I’s attempt at a warming cup of hot chocolate before bed!

As you can see, Ben Nevis was shrouded in cloud from about half-way up, but being savvy walkers, Grahame, Sheaghna and I were well-equipped with waterproofs, plenty of layers, liquid, flapjacks and even some Mars bars 😉  We gathered in the car park of the Ben Nevis visitors centre for a wee pre-walk photo, courtesy of Sheaghna’s mum-in-law.  There was a bit of a glitch in as much as Sheaghna’s own camera wouldn’t work to take the starting photo, but luckily we had another on hand.

Grahame and I were proud to be able to support Sheaghna in her walk up Ben Nevis, which she had arranged to do on behalf of Cancer Research in memory of her mum who sadly passed away.

On starting the walk, the first hurdle to be overcome was a low-level suspension bridge!  Despite being only a couple of metres off the top of a very small river, it bounced like a bouncy castle as you crossed it!  Not for those who have issues crossing bridges really!  However, once you manage that crossing, you are on to a level stretch of path up to the lower slopes of the Ben.  You cross one stile level with the Ben Nevis Inn and Hostel, before taking a right and starting the first zig of many zigs and zags that comprise the route to the top of the Ben!

The zig-zag paths are pretty much made of rocks!  Big ones, small ones, jaggy ones, smooth ones, stepped ones, flat ones and slippy ones!  It is a bit of a challenge to keep moving sometimes as some of the very large rocks take a couple of seconds of contemplation in deciding how to tackle them!  However, in the main, the paths are stepped rocks so if you are not good with steps, or if you have bad hips and knees, you might want to think hard about starting this climb, or at least make sure you have good shock absorbing walking poles with you for the descent! 😉

As you can see from the photo, there were literally hundreds of people walking the Ben at the same time as us.  A number of different walking parties were undertaking the walk for charities ranging from Macmillan Cancer Care, through to Papyrus (the UK’s young suicide prevention charity), although none were walking for Cancer Research except ourselves as far as we could tell.  There were also a lot of very fit people running – yes running! – up and down the Ben as part of the 3-peaks challenge.  You did have to dive out of the way of them from time to time as they would launch themselves off the stone steps at a heck of a pace, and once airborne you could tell it would be impossible for them to stop if they collided with you!  One particularly note-worthy mention is Scott Cunningham and his brilliant guide dog Travis, who were raising money for “Travistrek” which is named for Travis and supports Royal Marine Charitable Trust Fund and Guide Dogs.  Mr Cunningham made the trek with Travis and a number of supporters and I am both ashamed and delighted to say, passed us not once but twice in the process!  What a team! 🙂

Anyway, we trekked onwards and upwards through the hordes of people going both up, and down, the Ben.  Some of the climbers who were passing on the way back down had set off at first light in order to be some of the first to reach the summit.  It certainly galvanises your own motivation when you see chuffed to bits people coming back down the hill.  Some were a bit cheeky, telling us that we didn’t have far to go 😉  We brushed off those comments – we were only an hour or so in to a walk that would take at least another 7 hours, but it all helped to keep our spirits up 😉  There was a slightly wobbly moment just before we reached the half-way point, when Grahame’s hip started to give him the same pains as he’d been experiencing on the Mell Circuit.  We took a few extra stops on this section to give him a chance to evaluate whether he was able to continue or not, and I’m very glad to say that his pain eased and then disappeared after a while so he was able to continue on.

Around half-way up the Ben, the path begins to flatten out and you have a couple of easier zig-zags on normal gravelled pathway.  This section takes you past a loch hidden in the folds of the hill and also across a high waterfall which is generally acknowledged to be the half-way point.  At this point in our walk, we went from beautiful sunny views into banks of fast-moving cloud, so there really wasn’t much to see visibility-wise!

Looking back down the Ben just before we disappeared into the clouds, you can get some idea of the way the path twists and turns all the way down the hillside.

As you start the ascent of the second half of Ben Nevis, the terrain gets even more rocky than it was before.  Whereas on the lower slopes, the path was surrounded by green grass areas and wild flowers, the top of the Ben looks more like a lunar landscape with tonnes of grey rocks everywhere you look.  I’m not going to lie… this whole second section is a seriously hard slog and it pays to take regular wee breaks.  We were very grateful for our walking poles and sturdy boots on these zig-zags as the slightest shift in weight moved the rocks around like marbles.  However, if you just take your time and keep taking small rest breaks, you will get there 😉

We did manage to get some small breaks in the cloud as we reached around 4,000ft and the opportunity to catch a glimpse of Fort William was too good to miss! 😉  I risked my camera in the wind-blown cloud (feels a lot like rain to me! ;-)) to capture this shot of the view, along with a fair chunk of the path we were walking on at the time.  Around this point, there are a number of cairns placed at the side of the pathways to assist you in keeping to the correct route.  The plateau of Ben Nevis is quite a dangerous place and any number of walking guides will attest to this.  Given that visibility was around 10ft by my reckoning, the cairns are a welcome guide to the weary walker!

Now, being honest here folks, I knew that we really didn’t have much father to go, bearing in mind the total height of the Ben is 4,406ft.  However, I really felt that I didn’t have much more in me left to give.  About half an hour from the top, we came across a large cairn alongside a bank of snow – yes snow! – and it was literally on the steepest slope of the whole walk!  It was kind of cool as well, though, because with all those fist-sized rocks around, people had taken to laying their names out in the snow and it made for a bit of entertainment as you made the short climb up that section.  Once you reached the top of the snow bank, you really did have to be careful as you were walking past “Five Fingers Gully”, which is basically a sheer drop on the left side of the path.  There is virtually no warning and the path is only around 5 steps away from the gully edge, so I can’t stress enough how careful you have to be!

In the photo, you can see the edge of the gully where the white snow just stops and the blackness of nothing begins!  Up until this point, you can kid yourself that the hype about the dangers of climbing the Ben are just exaggerations.  But rest assured that without a little savvy and some research before-hand, you could definitely come a cropper out here!  I stopped for a second or two to take a photo of the gully’s edge and when I looked up, my walking mates were disappearing in the cloud beside me.  They were literally 10 steps away, but it doesn’t look like it, does it?

The top section of the Ben can only be described as “nasty” when it comes to the rock!  They are massive stones at all odd angles to each other and you have to really pay attention to every step you take!  As you get closer to the summit, large dark shapes begin to materialise out of the cloud and you find stone shelters dotted all around the summit tip.  These are actually really handy for having a quick – finger freezingly cold – meal break before you begin the descent again.  Its amazing how quickly you can go from pleasantly warm to bitterly cold at the top of the Ben and it’s a good idea to layer up your clothing again before you take your rest.

Before you can finally get a wee rest though, you have to climb the last 8ft or so up to the top of the trig-point for the obligatory photo at the summit.  It had taken 5 and a half very long hours for us to reach the top (half an hour longer than planned) but it was worth the extra time to get there feeling good instead of pushing too hard.

And you can see from our faces that we are tired, cold, but very happy with ourselves.  And it didn’t hurt that Sheaghna was able to provide proof to her charity of completing her walk up Ben Nevis by Cancer Research providing t-shirts for us all to wear and display 🙂  There is a great sense of camaraderie at the summit of the Ben with lots of people swapping cameras and sharing a nip or two if they have a hip-flask 🙂  We settled for flapjack, cheese salad sandwich and mars bars 😉  Then it was on with the packs and starting the trudge back down!

We managed to reach the Ben Nevis Visitor Centre 4 hours after we had left the summit, arriving back there 9 and a half hours after starting the trek up.  This fell comfortably within the 8-10hour estimation of many walking guides so we were happy with that 🙂  We were very tired, and our hips, knees and backs were complaining greatly – but probably not as much as we feared they might!  A straw-poll of our wee group returned a result of “never again unless it’s a weekday” from Grahame, a “only if I absolutely have to” from Sheaghna and a “why not, I’ve promised my sister!” from Janie on whether we would be prepared to tackle the walk again in the future!  I suspect it could be like having a baby – hours of strain and pain, a triumphant finish, and then just maybe the wish to do it all again one day! 😉

All of the above was written by Janie (though I appreciate that the post says it was published by me (Grahame) – The reason Janie wrote the report is because it wouldn’t have been quite as comprehensive if I’d written it.

The things that Janie missed out, and the overriding factors for my loathing of Ben Nevis (I hated this walk) was the attitudes of the people on the hills. Ben Nevis is not a hillwalkers hill. What I mean by that is that those who regularly go hillwalking tend to be sociable, polite and courteous with each other. We exchange pleasantries, when someone moves out of your way, you thank them – you move out of the way for others, etc.

Ben Nevis is nothing like that. I found that far too many of the people on the hill (there were, however, exceptions – not everyone is like this!) to be arrogant, self centred and obnoxious. It kinda ruined the whole walk for me. That’s why I would only do the walk again on a weekday – less people.

I should point out that this is my perception, rather than the perception of the group as a whole. I tend to like the solitude that hillwalking gives me, so a walk with this many people clearly isn’t my cup of tea.




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