If you’ve hiked up Snowdon and Scafell Pike and are yet to complete the trio of peaks, I’don’t say you’ve saved the best till last.
I love trekking up the other two, they are majestic in their own right. But my Ben Nevis hike last week was the best all-round experience, in terms of the views, the diverse geography, and the varied terrain of the mountain path. It all made for a consistently exhilarating and interesting trek.
I checked out other climbers’ experiences beforehand: I found this useful, informative video on youtube. All seemed very straightforward. I then searched Twitter for more recent climbs and came across this one in May – a massive achievement for a great cause. And not so straightforward – hail, ice on the track and no visibility? I started to feel a little anxious about the climb, and even more apprehensive that we might not reach the summit. We just had to hope for the best and pray for good weather!
Equipment-wise, I already had the essentials. But since there were some good sales around, I thought I’d update and upgrade my boots (with new-fangled ‘Vibram’), walking pole (decided to get the ‘extreme’ brand this time!) and rucksack (I deliberately opted for light-weight in the past, this time I bought a 30L).
This useful website lists multiple treks on and around Ben Nevis, varying in levels of difficulty and geography. The main and most used path, the Mountain Track, was the one for us. Unlike Snowdon and Scafell Pike, the less commonly trekked paths are not just more challenging but in fact shouldn’t really be scaled without more serious mountaineering equipment. The main Mountain Track used to be informally (and misleadingly) dubbed the ‘Tourist path’, but it was officially (re?)named to dispel the idea that it was something you could do on a whim in your loafers. Apparently some people tried doing that in the past. I did once see a man strolling up the Firehills cliff in Hastings in flip flops, but that’s for another post.
I did the trek with three friends: we met up from around the country in a rainy Glasgow – from there we took the train to Fort William. This has got to be one of the most stunningly scenic routes in Britain (in fact, I discovered afterwards that it is indeed widely considered one of the best rail journeys in the world). Gradually the city gave way to hills, lakes and tall pine forests. The scenery then changed to vast, snow-capped mountains, by which time all the fellow passengers in the carriage had stopped chatting, reading or snoozing and gave their attention to the views, their faces filled with awe. It felt like we were going back in time to an ancient, unsullied wilderness.
The last station on the West Highland line is Mallaig – we would be getting off at Fort William. Those staying on after us would go over the famous Glenfinnan Viaduct we reflected, with just a bit of envy (now commonly called the Harry Potter bridge – but it existed long before so let’s not call it that…)… ah well, that’s a journey for another time.
On arrival at Fort William we got a taxi for £8 to our accommodation (you could walk it, a 40 minute pleasant route, or get a bus – but we wanted to save time so we could do some exploring before nightfall). We booked a quadruple room at the Glen Nevis YHA – perfect since it sits at the foot of Ben Nevis – the mountain path pretty much starts outside the hostel entrance. And we couldn’t have asked for a better view outside our window!
It’s a decent place – basic, but clean, warm, and friendly. No wifi, so we turned to our trusty OS map for nearby trails.
There was so much to discover, so if you plan to see more than just the mountain you’d probably want to add on an extra two days. In the end we meandered up the West Highlands Way. This led into the Glen Nevis forest, where a wide footpath snaked uphill, pine trees either side.
There were many stony streams along the way so our walk was accompanied by a constant peaceful babble. We filled our bottles up at one of the falling streams – as ever, the difference in taste from the water we usually drink from the tap, was instantly noticeable.
The skies were a bit overcast, water vapour hung in the air – we could see the peaks over on the other side wreathed in clouds, while the forests were slowly beginning to darken.
The dwindling light made the mountains look even more daunting – enough to heighten nerves but also the spirit of adventure. As we walked we began comparing weird tales we had heard about Ben Nevis, and tried to decipher its mountain track – tiny and winding in the distance, high above. We would be on that path tomorrow…right now it looked very steep and not very encouraging. Someone mentioned that the apparent peak we could see from this side was a deception, and that actually the summit was so far up it couldn’t be seen amidst the clouds (this turned out to be very true). We then reflected on the missing person poster we caught sight of at the hostel – a poor man had gone climbing Ben Nevis on his own a couple of days ago and still hadn’t returned.
Unexpectedly, we saw another group of walkers come down the path towards us. Judging by their accents they were Scandinavian – they were lost and only had a very basic, not-to-scale map printed inside a tourist leaflet. It had about 3 things marked on it – quarry, forest, Ben Nevis – it was impressively useless; so we helped them get their bearings with our map. They were keen to get off the winding trail before it got much darker and seemed surprised that we weren’t turning back too. We’ll be fine, we said, we have our torches! so on we went.
After a while the light became dim and we noted the walk back to the hostel would be a long one – so, probably influenced by the caution of our fellow walkers, we made our way back. My three friends had not brought walking poles with them, and after all the unsettling mountain stories we had shared, they decided to go rummaging for opportune sticks that had fallen by the trees. They picked out and tidied up three sturdy looking ones (and thank goodness they did!).
We eventually caught up with the walkers from before – they had decided to camp for the night and had got a small fire going. It was getting dark and very windy, and we were at last feeling the fatigue from the long train journey, so we hurried back to our hostel. After dinner and making our lunches for the big climb we finally got to our beds. Tired and a bit apprehensive, I took a long look out the window before I went to sleep – the promising scene that welcomed us earlier looked quite different in the dark. The tall trees swayed loudly in the wind, and there behind them stood Ben Nevis, looking quite eerie, a colossal black shadow in the night.
Part 2 here