West Highland Way: Day Eight – Ben Nevis

26th May 2008 – Ben Nevis – 13 miles

Synopsis: Up Ben Nevis and down again

The alarm on my phone went off at 05:30. Unfortunately I was already in the shower, so it beeped increasingly louder for 2 minutes before going into snooze mode. It seemed like some sort of natural justice though, as the loud American guy in the next room had been talking loudly the night before, probably into his mobile phone and kept bringing me back to wakefulness every time I dropped off.

I collected the tray from outside the door, replete with Weetabix, two flasks and an envelope. The milk in one flask was warmish and the juice in the other was that severely processed type that makes your mouth go tight and causes involuntary shudders to rack your body. I ate the Weetabix though, a good source of slow release energy and brewed tea from the tray in the room. The envelope contained my final drinking voucher from Pete, to be redeemed at the Ben Nevis Inn after completing the short up and down trek. I thought it was a nice touch from the B&B owner to leave it on my tray in the morning, rather than give it to me the night before.

My gear was already packed and I carried it carefully as I crept silently out of the house and into the bright morning sunshine. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky and the sun was already warming the air nicely. I walked through the deserted streets, back the way I had come into town the afternoon previously, before turning off the road, across a narrow bridge and onto the road that leads only to Achintee. It was almost two miles to the Ben Nevis Inn from the B&B, but the walk-in warmed me up nicely. I arrived outside the Inn, right at the start of the climb, at 06:30, so a brisk 4mph walk-in.

Elaborate stile at the start of the path

Elaborate stile at the start of the path

I’d made some sketchy estimates about how long it would take me to get to the top. You’ll notice that I say that like there was never a doubt in my mind that I would make it. Three months ago I wasn’t sure, six weeks ago I was fairly sure and this morning I was positive; nothing except an injury was going to stop me getting to the top. I felt fit and strong, the weather was perfect and I had all the time in the world to get it done. I’d estimated three hours for the climb; 90 minutes to reach the half-way lochan and another 90 minutes to complete the rest of it. I’d allowed plenty of time for breaks and rest stops, so 09:30 should see me on the summit.

There was no one around at the Inn, although there were a few cars parked in the car park and I guessed these must belong to walkers eager to watch the sunrise from the top. I set off along the well laid, cobbled path from the Inn. This is a great place to start the walk as the path climbs gradually, easing you into your stride. If you start from the Youth Hostel or Glen Nevis camp site the path starts out very steep indeed; gaining 500 feet in a third of a mile.

I could see the first stirrings of life in the camp sites and caravan parks below me in the Glen and I soon came to the point where the path from below joins the main path up the mountain. The path is wonderful here, huge cobbles laid securely into the path rising gradually, rather than stepped, and this makes it so much easier on the knees.

The main path meets the path from the Hostel and camp sites

The main path meets the path from the Hostel and camp sites

As I climbed, the views opened up to the south. The sun was still obscured from the path, but elsewhere it looked splendid.

The view from the path, south to the Mamores range

The view from the path, south to the Mamores range

I crossed a couple of new-looking steel bridges – they looked like they’d been designed with Health & Safety in mind and also looked like they could be closed and bolted should anyone wish to deny access to the mountain. They were both strategically positioned such that it would be extremely difficult to continue up the hill without crossing them. They held steel boxes mounted at waist height opposite each other and I think these were counting the people that passed between them, some sort of census point.

Bridge on the path to Ben Nevis

Bridge on the path to Ben Nevis

I met my first walker after about 30 minutes or so. He was an old chap walking very slowly up the hill. I paused with a greeting as I passed him and we chatted for a minute. He looked just about done in, and although I was very tactful I’m sure he must have guessed what I was thinking as he said he had started very early so that he had all day to complete the ascent. I left him to his own devices and pushed on up the path.

Looking back along the zig-zag path

Looking back along the zig-zag path

Another 15 or 20 minutes later I met another old chap, he turned out to be an Australian resting at a bend in the path with a convenient wall to sit on. Again I paused for a minute to chat to him. He was looking in better shape than the last guy and he said he was on the last day of his holiday in Scotland and was determined to climb the Ben. He’d also left really early to make sure he had plenty of time. I wished him well and continued on.

The path is shaded for most of the first half of the climb

The path is shaded for most of the first half of the climb

Within 5 minutes I reached the half-way lochan; Lochan Meall an t-Suidhe. It was only 07:25 which meant I was over 30 minutes ahead of my original estimated schedule. I’d not felt the need to rest so far and apart from brief pauses to take photos and chat to the two old guys I’d not stopped at all. I still felt fresh and strong and although I was sweating profusely this wasn’t anything unusual for me. The path makes a large cut-back at this point and I could see the route ahead for a fair distance. I saw two people walking slowly and a solo walker further ahead of them.

Lochan Meall an t-Suidhe - the half-way lochan

Lochan Meall an t-Suidhe – the half-way lochan

I didn’t stop at the lochan, but continued past the low shelter at the turn in the path and made my way up the first of the upper zig-zags. The Pony Track is the most popular route up Ben Nevis, but for those with a little more adventure in their souls, another track leads away from the lochan to take them around the north side of the mountain and onto the Carn Mor Dearg Arete. This track also leads to many climbing routes up the numerous gullies on the north side.

I soon met my first descender, he came down at a fair lick and barely noticed me in his concentration on the loose stones in this section of the path. A few minutes later I caught the pair of walkers I’d seen earlier. They were two young lads with large packs on, resting beside the path. We greeted each other but I didn’t stop for long and shortly after I met the solo walker. He was also resting by the path, a Geordie lad having a smoke. He didn’t look like your typical fell walker, he had jeans and trainers on but also carried a rucksack and had a waterproof jacket on. He said he was doing the climb for his daughter who had said he could no more give up smoking than he could climb Ben Nevis. This was his response. When he got to the top he was going to quit smoking for good, but he wanted to get as many smokes in as he could on the way.

I met a man and his young boy as they were descending, the boy told me proudly he was 8 years old and he’d seen the sunrise on the summit. He was justifiably proud of his achievement and I was pleased for him in return. Another figure approached shortly afterwards, wearing a high-viz jacket and workman’s boots, he didn’t say anything as we passed, so I guess he’d got lost on his way to work and was suitably embarrassed about the fact.

Arriving at the snow line and the first sight of the sun on the way up

Arriving at the snow line and the first sight of the sun on the way up

In total I met 8 people who were coming down the mountain and I passed 5 people on the way up. The temperature dropped gradually as I climbed and I was soon cold enough to need my fleece on. I could feel my wet shirt clinging to my back and chest and the wind, although light, was cold and chilled the sweat on me. I sat on a cairn and took my first break, while I warmed into my fleece. It was 08:37. I’d climbed steadily for over 2 hours before needing to rest. I was very impressed with myself. As I stood to continue, I was passed by a young European lad going at a fair pace up the hill. I followed.

There is a choice of paths here. The zig-zags continue in one direction, but there’s also a clear path straight ahead, across an ice field and it was this one that we both selected for our route to the summit. The snow and ice section was soon crossed and the rest of the path to the summit was over stones and rocks.

The roof of the summit shelter comes into view

The roof of the summit shelter comes into view

The path soon flattened out and then there was a surprisingly long flattish section before the summit plateau finally comes into sight. The European was the only person there until I joined him. We congratulated each other and then both performed the same ritual. I dug into my pack and removed a fresh base layer and my outer shell. I removed my wet shirt and hung it to dry on a south-facing wall, then donned base layer and fleece to keep warm. The summit was very cold and the wind was a bit stronger than it had been previously. It was 08:55. I was 35 minutes ahead of my estimate and the climb had taken me just under 2 hours 30 minutes.

The summit structures on Ben Nevis

The summit structures on Ben Nevis

I got the European (I never did find out where he was from) to take a photo of me with the trig point and then did the same for him. He took himself off to a quiet spot and I did the same. I put my jacket on as I ate some flapjacks and raisins, in the shelter of the remains of the observatory. There are a surprising number of walls and structures on the summit, more than I was expecting. There are also a number of personal memorials to people; photo frames jammed into crevices and a football shirt pulled down over an ancient wooden post.

Huge snow cornice on the summit and me with the trig point

Huge snow cornice on the summit and me with the trig point

The views from the top were expansive, there was only a little haze and almost no cloud cover apart from in the far distance. It was a shame I knew none of the peaks, lakes or towns that were visible. The solo Geordie and the two lads soon joined us on the summit, but we all kept to ourselves, it’s a huge place and no need to sit on top of each other.

The summit shelter, formed from the remains of the Observatory

The summit shelter, formed from the remains of the Observatory

I walked around taking photos of the surrounding hills and the features on the summit. The snow was still very deep, probably three or four feet deep I would guess, based on the gap down the side of the shelter. It was well packed down though and easy to walk on. I had been concerned about wearing my Inov-8 shoes to the summit, but they’d proved equal to the challenge. Obviously they would have been no use at all if I’d had to kick steps into the snow, but with a well worn track across the ice field on the way up and well packed snow on the summit, they were fine.

Left: The Leanachan Forest.     Right: A north facing gully; this one had footprints all the way to the top and ski marks all the way back down

Left: The Leanachan Forest. Right: A north facing gully; this one had footprints all the way to the top and ski marks all the way back down

The Carn Mor Dearg Arete

The Carn Mor Dearg Arete

Hills as far as the eye can see

Hills as far as the eye can see

A close up of the valley floor and the Mountain Rescue Post

A close up of the valley floor and the Mountain Rescue Post

Snow cornice and walker for scale

Snow cornice and walker for scale

Our little group were soon joined by another half dozen or so folk and once I’d exhausted the photo opportunities and my shirt had mostly dried out on the rock, I packed it away and made my way back to the track leading down the mountain.

I’d seen a log for the Ben Nevis trig point on TrigpointingUK, and the author had stated that he’s met 186 people coming up as he was descending. I guessed that I’d see a few more on such a fine day and a Bank Holiday to boot, so I decided to try and keep a count as I was coming down. I started by counting the 6 people that arrived at the summit after me.

Beginning the long descent to Fort William

Beginning the long descent to Fort William

Plenty of cairns (perhaps too many) mark the path

Plenty of cairns (perhaps too many) mark the path

Once I was out of the wind, about 5 minutes from the summit, I shed my coat, fleece and base layer and redressed in my shirt. It was reasonably warm even this close to the summit and I continued on the long descent. About 20 minutes later I came across the old Aussie, still going but showing some signs of weariness now. I reckoned he had at least another hour to go before he’d get there. A few minutes later I met the first old guy I’d passed on the way up, he looked just as knackered as the first time I’d seen him. He was determined to make it and I wished him good luck and told him the views from the top were great.

Fort William and the half-way lochan, during my descent

Fort William and the half-way lochan, during my descent

I began to pass more and more people, all ages and sizes, all manner of footwear and clothing, much of it completely inappropriate for the conditions I had just left at the summit. I passed one family group just before I reached the half-way lochan; without a rucksack between them, all wearing short sleeve shirts and they each had a small bottle of water in their hands. I’d filled my reservoir with 2.5 litres of water this morning and I was more than half way through it.

The hordes continued to come. At one point I stepped on a stone that turned out to be loose, my foot went from under me and I fell arse over tit, right in front of a group of people. I was unhurt, apart from my pride, but it’s easy to come a cropper unless you’re very careful.

At the half-way lochan there were a number of people resting in the small shelter at the point where the path makes a sharp turn. Amongst them were three of the Cheerful Five I’d met at the Kingshouse Hotel. I asked after the other two members of their party and they told me that the guy who’d picked up the tick had had to take his wife to hospital as her blisters had got so bad that when they took the plasters off this morning to change them, they’d taken most of the skin off her heel, down to the bone!

Hundreds of walkers on the zig-zags

Hundreds of walkers on the zig-zags

A little further down the track I met the solo walker I’d had breakfast with in the Drover’s Arms. It was gone noon by this time and he wasn’t even close to the half-way lochan, I didn’t think he had much enthusiasm for the climb as he kept me chatting for a long time. This did sort of disrupt my count and I had to explain to him what I was doing, lest he think me rude and ignorant. I had long ago stopped saying hello to people as I passed them, unless they spoke to me first – I couldn’t believe how many people were on the path.

At the steel bridge choke points I had to wait for people before I could cross and the closer I got to the bottom, the more inappropriate the clothing and footwear became. I was sure that most of these people wouldn’t make it to the summit, even if that was their intention; I saw loads of sandals and several flip-flops, many people without rucksacks and therefore no cold weather gear or water and more jeans and trainers than I care to recall.

With the sun beating down and the temperature well up, I finally reached the bottom and the cool sanctuary of the Ben Nevis Inn. It was 12:30. The ascent had taken me 2 hours 30 minutes, I’d spent 50 minutes on the summit and 2 hours 40 minutes to descend – much of that time was spent waiting for people. I’d counted 693 people, give or take a dozen or so I guess.

I redeemed my beer voucher in the Ben Nevis Inn, but I wasn’t at all impressed with the place. It was laid out with benches and tables along both walls and a centre isle of benches and tables as well. A picture window at the far end also held a table and chairs. The place was empty, but most of the tables had reserved signs on them and the picture window table, where I’d hoped to spend a couple of restful hours, was occupied by two old women eating lunch. I felt aggrieved. I wanted somewhere to relax, to spend a restful period and watch the other people coming down off the mountain. To savour my achievement. As it was I spent an uncomfortable 20 minutes on a bench drinking my Diet Coke before I shrugged my pack on and headed back to town.

The two miles to town was unwanted, the first few hundred yards were terrible, as my legs got used to walking on the flat again. I must have looked a sight, hobbling along until I got into my stride. I was passed by a couple of cars on the narrow road, but at least it was warm and sunny. I got back to the B&B a little before 14:00 and retired to my room for a shower and a change of clothes.

My right Inov-8 had pretty much disintegrated on the way down the Ben. The heel came loose from the upper and is flopping about all over the place and the toe joint has broken or cracked, it doesn’t flex properly anymore and I can feel it clicking with every step. I rang Inov-8 and was surprised to actually get an answer on a Bank Holiday Monday. I asked the helpful lady on reception if she could tell me if there was an Inov-8 retailer in Fort William. I decided that if they had my size in stock I would get some new ones. I still had my boots in my pack, but I’d done so well on the Inov-8s that I didn’t want to change now unless I had to. She pointed me to a cycle shop about 200 yards further down the main shopping street, but they had nothing in my size. As a last resort I went into Woolies and bought some Super Glue. I’d glue the sole back on and hope that they’d make it to the end of the walk.

After a late lunch in the Crofters I went back to the B&B for a lie down and to try and mend my shoe. I walked back into town later for some tea and used the Inov-8s, now glued hopefully. I returned to the Grog and Gruel and had another excellent meal and beer, the place just isn’t big enough though, it was jammed. The Inov-8 held up to the walk into town and back, so I’ll give it a go tomorrow on the 23 mile stretch to South Laggan.

I was asleep by 22:00 and there was no noisy American to keep me awake tonight.

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