A few weeks ago, I achieved something I never thought I could – I climbed Ben Nevis!
…and it’s fair to say that it’s one of the most physically challenging things I’ve ever done. At 1345m high, Ben Nevis is the tallest mountain in the UK, and reaching its peak by foot is no walk in park.
Despite this, it’s also one of my most amazing achievements to date. Beautiful views of the surrounding mountains, lochs and waterfalls makes this climb a must if you’re in or around Fort William.
However, there are some things you need to know before attempting to climb the ‘mountain with its head in the clouds’. Read on for my handy guide to climbing Ben Nevis.
Which route should I choose?
The two most popular hiking routes are the Mountain Track and the Carn Mor Dearg Arete route. The Mountain Track is the easiest route to the peak of Ben Nevis, although don’t be fooled: it’s still very strenuous. This is the one my boyfriend and I took and found quite difficult, despite being fairly fit and active.
The Mountain Track: This route starts at the Ben Nevis Visitor Centre in Fort William. Once you’ve crossed the bridge from the visitor’s centre (or the Glen Nevis Youth Hostel), you will see the path quite clearly.
From here, you will walk along a pretty stable pathway from the starting point up until the top of the Red Burn waterfall. After this, the pathway becomes stonier and more difficult to walk on. However, as the pathway zig zags across the mountain face, there are only a few steep sections to climb.
The Carn Mor Dearg Arete: This track is for more experienced hikers who are comfortable with sections of scrambling. It begins at the North Face Car Park in Torlundy and the first part of the walk is signposted for visitors.
As I haven’t completed this walk I’m not clear on the terrain you’ll come across, but there’s some useful information on the Walk Highlands website.
How long does it take to climb Ben Nevis?
As with any walk, this really depends on your fitness levels, the weather, how many other people are attempting the climb that day, and a whole host of other factors. It also depends which route you decide to take.
Typically however, the walk should take approximately 6-8 hours. Completing it in eight hours (like we did) gives you about 4-5 hours to walk up the mountain, with a few short breaks, about 20 minutes at the peak, and roughly 3 hours to descend.
To make the most of the day, some people start the walk as soon as the sun comes up. This gives you plenty of time to take it easy and enjoy a more leisurely hike, if you’d prefer.
We were told that once we’d reached the top of the Red Burn waterfall (impossible to miss!), we were halfway up the mountain. While this is true, the second half of the walk is much more strenuous, so don’t assume that it’ll take the same amount of time to reach the peak from the waterfall.
For instance, it took us about an hour and a half to reach the Red Burn waterfall from the Visitor Centre, but another three hours or so to reach the top. Bear this in mind when using the waterfall to navigate yourself.
What do I need to take?
My boyfriend and I weren’t actually planning to climb Ben Nevis when we arrived in Fort William, so we were fairly unprepared. However, if you’re completing the Mountain Track (the most popular route and the recommended path for less experienced hikers), you probably won’t need any specialist equipment.
This will change if you’re planning to hike Ben Nevis throughout the winter. In this case you may need more specialist equipment, such as crampons, but climbing the mountain at this time isn’t advised.
Otherwise, make sure to take:
- Plenty of water – it’s a tough climb and you’ll need frequent water breaks
- A few snacks – fruit, nuts and protein bars are all good options
- A small first-aid kit, including blister plasters
- A spare pair of socks
- Sun cream and sun glasses, as you’ll be very exposed
- A torch, just in case you find yourself descending in low light
- A walking pole, if you think you’ll need one
- A camera – you’ll see some truly mesmerising views!
What do I need to wear?
You also need to make sure you’re wearing the right clothes. It is better to wear too many layers and take them off as you go than to get caught out by the cold, so make sure you wear:
- A base layer
- A lightweight top
- A fleece
- Waterproof trousers (perhaps with leggings or thermals underneath if it’s cold)
- A waterproof coat
- A hat and gloves – don’t underestimate how cold it can be at the peak
- A pair of waterproof hiking boots.
My boyfriend and I climbed Ben Nevis in late October and my hair actually froze…so please please please don’t forget a hat and gloves! The peak of Ben Nevis can be up to 9 degrees cooler than at the bottom so you need to be prepared.
When is the best time to climb Ben Nevis?
There’s no denying that the Scottish weather can be highly unpredictable. Even planning to climb Ben Nevis in the summer doesn’t guarantee you perfect weather. We were extremely lucky to have chosen a dry day with clear skies in late October, but of course this won’t be the case for everyone.
The best thing to do is make sure you are prepared for everything. Pop into the Ben Nevis Visitor Centre to see whether or not they advise you to climb in the conditions you’re facing and make sure you listen to their advice; if they suggest leaving it for another day, it’s not worth putting yourself in danger by attempting the hike anyway.
People have died while climbing Ben Nevis – so make sure you do all you can to keep yourself safe. If it starts raining heavily, it’s too foggy to see anything or the winds become too strong, you need to put your safety first and turn around.
Where should I stay?
If you’re travelling from outside of Fort William or the surrounding areas, it’s a good idea to book a local hotel or campsite. After all, you’ll need to wake up early to get started on the Ben.
We stayed at the Glen Nevis Caravan & Camping Park which was perfect for all we needed. We decided to camp, which was extremely cold (we even woke up to a frozen tent!), but we pretty much had the entire campsite to ourselves.
The campsite had lovely hot showers and a clean toilet block, plus an on-site restaurant with a great menu. They even had a couple of vegan options, including pudding, and the waiting staff were brilliant.
The park is also just a 10-minute walk from the Ben Nevis Visitor Centre, so we didn’t have to find a parking space or anything before starting the climb. If you’re happy to camp before the climb, this is a great place to stay.
Things to note before climbing Ben Nevis:
- The Ben Nevis Visitor Centre opens at 8.15am every day. If you are planning to start the walk before this, I’d recommend popping in the day before to check the weather conditions and ask any questions you might have.
- Make sure you do some practice hill walking before you attempt the Ben. My boyfriend and I hike fairly frequently and we struggled more than I thought we would, so some practice wouldn’t go amiss.
- If you think you’ll struggle to climb to the peak, consider stopping at the top of the Red Burn waterfall. There are some rocks surrounding the falls which make idyllic picnic benches and the views are still phenomenal.
- Do not underestimate how cold it can get at the mountain’s peak. I didn’t take gloves which was a HUGE mistake. Within five minutes of being at the top my fingers were in a lot of pain, and I’m not sure I’d have made it that far without a beanie covering my ears.
- If the weather gets too bad, turn around and head back. No mountain peak on the planet is worth putting yourself in serious danger.
- Make sure your phone is fully charged before you leave. Tell someone you’re planning to climb Ben Nevis and read through the following information from the Lochaber Mountain Rescue Team before you begin.
- When you get to the bottom, spend a bit of time stretching out your legs and hips. It’s a physically demanding climb that is almost certain to leave you with aching joints and pulled muscles, so don’t forget to stretch.
- Take a flask with hot tea or coffee – you’ll appreciate this a lot if it’s chilly!