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If you’re thinking about walking up Ben Nevis this could be the most important post that you will ever read!

At 1,344 m, Ben Nevis is the highest mountain in Scotland and the UK. As such it is a very popular mountain for people to climb. It is often attempted by inexperienced hikers who have no idea of the scale of the task or of the potential dangers involved. Many people attempt the summit of Ben Nevis without taking proper outdoor gear.

Ben Nevis Escape Route

If you are planning to walk up to the top of Ben Nevis the first thing you need to know is the escape route from the summit. Regardless of the weather in the valley or on the mountain tops when you start your hike, by the time you reach the summit the weather may have closed in, resulting in near zero visibility. This has happened to me.

There are two dangerous gullies which must be avoided. Falling down them is likely to result in fatal injuries. They are Gardyloo Gully and Five Finger Gully. To avoid these gullies, from the summit trig point follow a bearing of 233 degrees for 150 metres (roughly 100 double steps), and then a bearing of 284 degrees. These are magnetic bearings that should be followed directly from your compass alone.

The summit of Ben Nevis, Scotland, covered with snow.

Ben Nevis summit seen from Gardyloo Gully. Source Geograph. © Copyright Angus and licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Licence.

What is the Best Route up Ben Nevis?

The route that most people take up Ben Nevis starts in the valley of Glen Nevis, near the campsite. The footpath is well maintained. It runs along the side of Meall an t-Stuidhe, up towards the Lochan. At 640 m there is a T-junction where you turn right and head south across Red Burn, before the path zig-zags up a boulder field on the side of Ben Nevis. The final approach to the summit is a more or less a straight run up a gently undulating plateau. The route back down is simply the reverse. This tourist route is known as the Pony Track or the Motorway, due to the number of walkers on it! As a rough guide it takes about 9 hours to walk up and back down the mountain.

The view of Glen Nevis and beyond, from halfway up Ben Nevis

The first half of the Ben Nevis ascent is green and pleasant, the second rocky and mountainous. Source: Flickr by coda.

The walk up the from Glen Nevis valley to Lochan Meall an t-Stuidhe is green and pleasant. Once you get further up and into the boulder field the terrain becomes mountainous and rugged. The lower gradient of the plateau is welcome after the rocky ascent, but there are several false summits which can be frustrating when you are exhausted! If you make it to the summit and are lucky enough to be under the cloud base, the views are stunning. You can see right across the Scottish Highlands: mountains from horizon to horizon. Spectacular!

There are also scrambling, mountaineering and climbing routes to the summit, such as Carn Mor Dearg Arete.

Ben Nevis Best Hiking Gear

It is shocking to see what some people wear on Ben Nevis. On the two occasions that I have hiked up to the summit there were lots of people wearing jeans, t-shirt and trainers. Whilst the valley was lovely and warm with late April sunshine, the summit was cold. There was a thick covering of snow over the top 200 m of the summit. The visibility from the summit was clear the first time that I there, but the second time it started to snow and there was a white out. Visibility was down to a couple metres. This experience demonstrates the importance of being prepared for all weather conditions when hiking up Ben Nevis, or indeed any other mountain, such as Scafell Pike in the Lake District.

Kit list for Ben Nevis

Essential Gear and Clothing:

  • Rucksack, 30 – 50 litres capacity should be sufficient
  • Waterproof Jacket and Trousers
  • Fleece Jacket
  • Long Sleeved Mid-Weight Fleece Top
  • Wicking Base Layer
  • Waterproof Gloves
  • Warm, Waterproof Hat: a Lowe Alpine Mountain Cap of course!
  • Hiking Trousers, such as the Craghoppers Kiwi Trousers. Zip-offs are a good idea when it is warm in the valley, then you can put your legs on when it gets cold further up.
  • Two Pairs of Trekking Socks, one thin and one thick.
  • Stout Walking Boots
  • 2 litre Hydration System
  • Packed Lunch
  • Ordnance Survey Explorer Map 392: Ben Nevis & Fort William
  • Silva Compass

Emergency Survival Equipment:

  • Emergency Rations
  • Mobile Phone
  • First Aid Kit
  • Emergency Whistle
  • Survival Bag
  • Head Torch
  • Spare Laces for your Boots

Optional Kit:

  • Scarf – provides a lot of extra warmth for its weight
  • Spare fleece top
  • Gaiters
  • Walking Poles
  • GPS
  • Sun Glasses – the snow gets bright when its sunny
  • Sun Tan Cream / Sun Block
  • Anti-bacterial handwash
  • Flask
  • Bothy Bag
  • Victorinox Swiss Army Penknife
  • Cigarette Lighter
  • Camera

It is quite a list, but all this outdoor gear should ensure that you keep comfortable, warm, dry and blister free. Hopefully you will not need any of the survival kit, but its always best to take it.

Crampons and Ice Axe

Is it necessary to take crampons and an ice axe? In winter conditions, yes it is, and it is also necessary to know how to make a self arrest using an ice axe. The YouTube video below, from the Mountaineering Council of Scotland, shows various techniques and is well worth watching.

In late April / early May when I walked up the summit was covered in snow. Providing you keep well away from the edge, the plateau is relatively flat and walking in the snow is easy enough without crampons. There were a few places further down the path which were covered in icy snow patches, several metres in length. At the time I did not have crampons and they would have been useful for these short sections.

It is important to be aware of cornices, where the snow overhangs the edge of mountain cliffs. These can give way under your weight, leading you to fall to your death. As mentioned above, keep well away from the edge when there is snow!

Best Avoided

During the summer months, Scotland is famous for its midges. Fear not, there are plenty of ways to avoid getting midge bites.

And don’t forget to take with you a Model T Ford car, a bed, a wheel barrow, a piano and barrel of beer. All these items have been taken up the top of Ben Nevis for either publicity stunts or just for a laugh. What bizarre item(s) would you take up a mountain? Let us know, click on “comments” below!

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