One Minute Mountain: Ben Nevis

© AlH

We could hardly run a series on Britain's favourite mountains without the biggest and baddest of them all. Alex Roddie tries his best not to be over-awed by the mighty Ben Nevis.

The Ben   © Al Todd
The Ben
© Al Todd, Sep 2015

Height: 1344m (4411ft)

Personality: Radically split. Viewed from the south and west, The Ben is a massive brooding lump with few distinguishing characteristics. Viewed from the north and east, it's a cathedral of flying buttresses and pinnacles, cliffs, ice gullies and arêtes. Few mountains in the UK can boast such an extremely polar personality.

What's in a name? The Gaelic Beinn Nibheis is commonly translated as 'venomous' or 'malicious mountain', but another theory suggests that Beinn Nibheis derives from beinn nèamh-bhathais, meaning something like 'mountain of heaven' or perhaps more accurately 'mountain with its head in the clouds'. To most walkers and climbers, it is simply referred to (with a mix of affection and apprehension) as The Ben.

Descending off the Ben towards the CMD Arete  © Onwards&Upwards
Descending off the Ben towards the CMD Arete
© Onwards&Upwards, Feb 2015

Why is this mountain special? Aside from the fact that Ben Nevis is the highest mountain in the UK, it's also widely regarded as one of the best, and it has something for everyone. First-time hillwalkers make it to the summit via the Pony Track, and perhaps discover a rewarding new pastime in the process, while the world's best climbers put up some of the hardest trad and winter climbs anywhere. For those of us in between, The Ben offers challenge, beauty and drama – enough to last a lifetime. Climbers appreciate the unique winter conditions often to be found on the North Face, caused by cold, damp air that results in atmospheric rime build-up on the rocks.

What's this about super-hard routes? Climbers have come to the North Face of Ben Nevis to test their mettle for over a century, but some of the hardest routes have been put up by Scottish climber Dave MacLeod. On July 28th 2008 he led Echo Wall, an extreme rock route as yet ungraded and unrepeated, but believed to have been one of the hardest traditional rock climbs in the world at the time. He followed this effort with the first winter ascent of Anubis (given the incredible winter grade of XII,12 or 'effing difficult' to you and me) in February 2010.

Ben Nevis Panorama  © Sean Kelly
Ben Nevis Panorama
© Sean Kelly, Feb 2010

And for mere mortals? If you're a walker, it's hard to beat the Carn Mor Dearg (CMD) Arête. This classic ridge links Carn Mor Dearg with Ben Nevis, offering unsurpassed views of the corrie beneath. It's one of the finest easy ridge scrambles in Scotland during the summer months, and when coated in snow and ice it transforms into the archetypal Grade I winter ridge – a route every aspiring winter mountaineer dreams of doing.

  • See the UKH Route Card here

If you prefer a more hands-on approach to your mountaineering then the Ben's northern cliffs offer the highest concentration of classic climbs anywhere in the UK, with quality routes at every grade. The best-known is perhaps Tower Ridge (Diff in summer or IV,3 in winter), which also happens to be one of the longest climbs in the country. At a more amenable level, Ledge Route (grade 2 scramble) offers a spectacular but generally straightforward journey through the full grandeur of the north face cliffs.

Topped out on Tower Ridge on a perfect day  © AlH
Topped out on Tower Ridge on a perfect day
© AlH, Oct 2015

Does it get busy, then? It's estimated that over 130,000 people climb Ben Nevis each year. Most of those ascents take place in summer via the Pony Track; it's the crux of the national Three Peaks Challenge, in which aspirant challengers attempt to climb Ben Nevis, Snowdon and Scafell Pike within a 24-hour period. When conditions are good the North Face can see queues of climbers too. There are always quiet corners to be found but you may have to go looking for them.

Most unfrequented route: The southern flank from Glen Nevis is probably the least trodden. Relentlessly steep slopes climb from Glen Nevis up into Coire Eoghainn to the ridge of Carn Dearg (the southern one; Ben Nevis has two tops called Carn Dearg) and then on to the summit plateau. Only fit walkers need apply. Also worth mentioning is the Glen Nevis approach to the CMD Arête: it's boggy, but you'll almost certainly have it to yourself.

Summit view: As you might expect from the highest hill in the land, the view from the Ben is far-reaching, spanning much of highland Scotland from the Cairngorms to Skye. But that's only if you get it on a good day, which is statistically unlikely as it's estimated cloud covers the summit 9 days out of 10. But even if you're wading through hill fog there are curious sights to see around the summit cairn. In around 1894, a local hotelier decided to open a hotel on the summit of Ben Nevis: a structure that became known as the Temperance Hotel, open throughout the summer months and with bed and breakfast available for the princely sum of ten shillings.

Ben Nevis April morning  © Jamie Hageman
Ben Nevis April morning
© Jamie Hageman, Apr 2018

Contributions to science: Closely linked to the Temperance Hotel is the Ben Nevis Observatory. In 1881, Clement Wragge began to make daily ascents of Ben Nevis each summer to take meteorological measurements from the summit, often starting his trek at 5am. He obtained the droll nickname 'Inclement Wragge' during this mammoth undertaking, which was mostly conducted in the full misery of a damp Scottish summer – but these were the days before Gore-Tex, trekking poles, or even the nice switchback path that so many walkers appreciate today.

The Pony Track was constructed in 1883 to service the new observatory (built so that poor Clement Wragge could have a bit of a rest from his labours). The Ben Nevis Observatory operated from 1883 to 1904, collecting the most comprehensive set of mountain weather data ever recorded in Britain, and its ruins can still be seen near the summit shelter to this day. The lowest temperature recorded was a bracing -17.4˚C on the 6th of January 1894.

But where did the observatory staff go to the toilet? Haven't you ever wondered how Gardyloo Gully got its name?

Is there a littering problem? In 2015 volunteers brought down 153kg of rubbish from Ben Nevis, including a rubbish stash dating back to the days of the observatory in the early 20th century – and a catheter bag. In 2016 the annual cleanup operation collected 267kg of rubbish. The mountain's popularity as a stage in the national Three Peaks Challenge is a major factor in the litter problem.

Ben Nevis summit view  © Garry Robertson
Ben Nevis summit view
uistgr, Nov 2016
© Garry Robertson

Most bizarre occurrences: In May 2006, conservation volunteers were removing redundant cairns from the summit area when they found an entire piano (missing only its keyboard) beneath one of the cairns. It's believed this instrument was hauled up there by a team of removal men in the 1980s. Perhaps they were inspired by the tale of a Model T Ford being driven to the top in 1911 (a feat repeated in 1928 and 2011, because great ideas never die). On a more sombre note, multiple climbers heard a 'bloodcurdling scream' from the summit cliffs in early 2015, described by witnesses as the unmistakable sound of someone falling to their death. The incident was never explained and no trace of a casualty was ever found.

Is Ben Nevis whisky any good? The distillery at the foot of the Ben produces several bottlings, and the 10-year-old single malt is regarded as an enjoyable and easy-to-drink dram, if not quite world class.

Where to stay? Fort William has options to suit all budgets. There's a SYHA hostel and campsite plus self-catering cottages in Glen Nevis. If you'd rather stay as close to the crag as possible, the Scottish Mountaineering Club run the CIC Hut at the foot of the North Face (advance booking only).

Local pub: The Ben Nevis Inn, Achintee, at the foot of the Pony Track. This inn serves excellent food and real ale, and also has an attached bunkhouse.

Ledge Route (grade 2), one of the greatest amenable scrambles in Scotland  © Dan Bailey
Ledge Route (grade 2), one of the greatest amenable scrambles in Scotland
© Dan Bailey

Loading Notifications...
Facebook Twitter Copy Email