Scafell Pike – 19 May 2018
Snowdon – 29 June 2019
Ben Nevis – 25 September 2020
One of the world’s slower National Three Peaks Challenges, let’s face it. Having seen a lot of groups 10-20 years younger on these mountains (particularly Scafell Pike), there’s a bittersweet tinge to my recollections of conquering Ben Nevis today. The Three Peaks Challenge is exactly the sort of thing I wish someone had told me about when I was a fit but shy young man. Perhaps walking wasn’t as big a thing back then, but I really wish I’d experienced some of that camaraderie in my own belated hiking ‘career’.
The mountain was quite busy today – certainly more so than Scafell Pike was, but much less crowded than Snowdon. A day or so after my walk, pictures of huge weekend crowds at the summit of Snowdon were posted on Twitter. Obviously there was a lot of tutting about the lack of masks and social distancing. All I can say about Ben Nevis is that people found a sensible midpoint between safety and enjoyment of the outdoors. No masks, but no crowding either. I’ve been extremely careful all year, but having taken this walking holiday I cannot define myself as an “ultra”. I honestly believe that anyone climbing serious mountains is, on the whole, more careful and considerate than your average person. Throughout the day I felt I could trust the people with whom I shared Ben Nevis. I have no regrets.
The walk: Friday 25th September
The map used is the same as Day 73 of LEJoG, i.e. OS Explorer 392, Ben Nevis and Fort William. I’m sure there are more detailed maps of the mountain available, but in good visibility and with plenty of other people around, I didn’t feel like I needed one today.
Weather: Cool and cloudy at foot of mountain; occasional drizzle; becoming clearer and milder by halfway; windy on higher slopes; cold at summit, with a special surprise at about 1:30pm (read on). Warm on descent.
[LEJoG progress at the start of this sidetrack: Day 73, Fort William]
As with Scafell Pike and Snowdon, this was my first experience of Ben Nevis. Awoke slightly nervous, hoping that the weather held and that conditions wouldn’t force a turnaround. It seems silly now, but I couldn’t rule it out. The air was noticeably colder than yesterday, and I would be climbing more than 250m higher than I’d ever done before. Sure, this is the same guy who wants to climb Olympus (more than twice as high) and Kilimanjaro (well over four times higher). But the guidebooks and blogs I’ve read all say the same thing: do not underestimate Ben Nevis, particularly if the weather is anything less then perfect.
Breakfast at 7:30: a decent but not overwhelming fullie, with a bit of cereal and toast. Went to the local Tesco for a sandwich, wine gums and a few more drinks. Left Fort William at 9:10: the walk to the Visitor Centre car park was surprisingly lonely. I began to wonder if many people were going to bother, or if perhaps they were starting later. However, the car park was busy and I started my climb proper at about the same time (9:45) as maybe a dozen other people.
View of Ben Nevis in cloud at the start of the climb
Looking back towards Fort William – a fortuitous rainbow
I was taking the Tourist Route to the summit: the recommended route for novices which Trailblazer describe as “significantly harder than its belittling name would suggest”. The alternative Carn Mor Dearg Arete Route can be taken about halfway up the Tourist Route, just after Lochan Meall An T-Suidhe (Halfway Lochan). This involves some scrambling and, although not as fearsome as Crib Goch on Snowdon, it didn’t feel right for my first visit. It joins Sharp Edge and Crib Goch on my “to-do” list. I guess I am still something of a novice when it comes to the real testers, and in all honesty I don’t have a great head for heights when on edges. Again this is something I wish I’d confronted as a younger man.
The climbing is fairly steady to begin with, and indeed for most of the first 45 minutes. I think you do begin to feel it in your legs and lungs by this point though. I was overtaking quite a few earlier groups. The only person who overtook me on the lower slopes was a super-fit fell runner type in blue. I made a self-deprecating reference to his speed as I followed him past a couple in their 50s. This isn’t to boast, but an indicator of the progress made since I started LEJoG three and a half years ago. I think I would have struggled up the Ben as late as 2017, whereas for the last two years I’ve been at my fittest since my early 30s. It’s just nice to acknowledge this, particuarly in a year that’s left so many (including me, from time to time) feeling powerless and depressed.
The Glen Nevis single track road (from Day 73) is in constant view for the first hour or so
There’s not too much doubt about the nastiest section of the climb. Having proceeded SE from the Visitor Centre along some easy paths, you encounter rougher, steeper ground as the route turns NE to follow the Red Burn. I slowed noticeably here, and was overtaken by two couples in their 20s or 30s. It’s the first point at which the ‘Tourist Route’ feels like the huge mountain ascent it truly is. This is also the first of many zig-zags to come. In this case the second part of the zig-zag is slightly easier than the first, but still an energy-sapper. As you reach flatter ground and approach Lochan Meall An T-Suidhe, turn your head to look at those at the bottom of the Red Burn, and note how much height you’ve gained. It’s a genuine relief you’re not still down there.
The ‘Halfway Lochan’ is the obvious place to stop and eat, but I wanted to press on before taking a proper break. At the junction for the CMD Arete route, I had some water and wine gums, but lost only a few seconds on those I was climbing alongside. As the sun came through the clouds and the sky turned bluer, the rewards for gaining that extra height were gradually revealed:
Overlooking ‘Halfway Lochan’
Having negotiated a couple more zig-zags (summit still not in sight, even in clear sky), I took a 10-minute break at 11:25, perched on the corner of the next switchback. Enjoyed some of the day’s finest views along with my sandwich:
Yes that’s ‘Halfway Lochan’ again, half an hour’s climbing later (Red Burn zig-zag in bottom left, Loch Linnhe beyond)
More of Loch Linnhe, taken from same point (Glen Nevis track visible just below centre)
It seems, reviewing my photos, that I became fascinated by the views of Loch Linnhe (the huge loch running SW from Fort William) from ever-increasing heights. By 12 noon I had the shades on, had made it through a few more zig-zags and could now see what I assumed to be the summit. And here’s what Loch Linnhe looked like at the warmest, brightest time of the day:
Loch Linnhe (45 minutes walk from summit)
Based on much of the reading I’d done beforehand, many people regard these higher switchbacks as a real slog. I understand the monotony argument, and it is slightly demoralising that you don’t seem to get closer to the summit for what seems an age. However the views are so consistently awesome that I found the ascent pleasurable throughout. I admit this is partly – perhaps mainly – because I struck it very lucky with the weather though.
Once those zig-zags are done with, there’s a visible, direct route to the summit which takes about 20 minutes. The gradient is reasonably comfortable, although there are a couple of “steps” to negotiate along the way. I found myself chatting to a man with a dog, who pointed out that the summit is in cloud for all bar 90 days of the year, and today we were lucky enough to see it clearly. I was carrying a map: perhaps this made me look like a novice, but he went on to offer some advice about mountain climbing. Told him that I had been on Buachaille Etive Mor just a couple of days ago, and this was my “treat” at the end of the West Highland Way. He adapted quickly to this information, realising that I more or less know what I’m doing. We shared the view that Ben Nevis is considerably more testing than Snowdon. Or, to be more precise, the Tourist Route is more difficult than the Llanberis Path.
At about this time I took my last picture of – yes – Loch Linnhe:
Loch Linnhe (20 minutes from summit)
Ben Nevis: The Summit
Arrived at 12:45. Even more boulder-strewn and featureless than Scafell Pike, and with none of Snowdon’s facilities, the highest point in Britain doesn’t compel you to stay long. But I was there for 40 minutes, during which a remarkable transformation took place. Although, like the man said, this was one of the 90 clear days, you can see from the picture above that the cloud was beginning to roll in. Below is the first picture I took from the top:
Looking west from the summit as cloud descends
One common theme in the guides is the emphasis on taking great care in cloudy conditions. In particular, the newbie is warned not to wander too close to the north edge overlooking Coire Leis. The summit is dangerously close to this sheer drop. Having experienced the almost complete lack of similar danger on the other two mainland peaks, you might be sceptical. Well here’s the proof:
The summit cairn, and its proximity to the Coire Leis drop to the north
The crowds were sparse to begin with, but I think 1pm was pretty much peak time for arrivals (no pun intended). By then, there were short queues for the obligatory cairn photos, and I decided not to bother. This is another thing you miss when climbing on your own – a lone moment of triumph would make me feel self-conscious, and I’ve never been the type to ask others for a photograph.
The summit cairn, just before the queueing started
And my summit selfie
This time with co-stars in the background
The only structures apart from the cairn and trig point are a ruined observatory, and a shelter. By this time it was becoming noticeably colder, and quite a few people made use of the latter. As the number of people doubled and then tripled, we were treated to a full rendition of ‘Flower of Scotland‘, with female vocalist and bagpipes. Yes I know this probably sounds like a cliche, but I was there, man.
The observatory ruins and shelter, Ben Nevis. Note the cloud cover compared to earlier.
I headed south, through the shelter to a gently sloping expanse with fewer people around. Had lunch here, looking south (see header image). The air was now bitterly cold and I momentarily wondered if it might actually snow. Less than an hour ago my climbing companion had said we should bask in the glory of a clear day, and now it was feeling distinctly wintry. I didn’t rush my lunch: in truth I was mildly excited by the prospect of such a seasonal shift.
Returned to the summit at about 1:15. And sure enough, within a few minutes came the first snowfall. I really wanted to capture this on my phone before descending. Just one selfie would suffice. However the battery had almost run out. Every time I tried to take a photo it froze and the screen went black. I re-started four or five times but the result was always the same. So unfortunately you have to take my word for it. (Gallingly, the battery recovered sufficiently for me to take a few photos on the descent, so it must have been a combination of cold and height)
By the time I donned my waterproof trousers and decided to head down, at 1:25, the snow was heavier, and settling everywhere. It was still quite exciting, and a stunning change to witness. I wondered if the later arrivals would even believe how bright it had been just over an hour ago. Many people I shared the summit with had already started back at the first snowfall. I was heading down at the same time and pace as a young couple, and no-one else visible. I emphasise this to illustrate once again the gulf between ascent and descent conditions. For 20-25 minutes, until maybe the second zig-zag, the three of us saw no-one apart from a few people still coming up. We didn’t catch anyone up on the descent. No-one caught us and, if we turned our head to look back, no-one even appeared within eyesight.
Those people we saw on the ascent were already snow-covered, though thankfully most were well-equipped for the change in weather. I was reminded of this story from a few years ago – no additional comment necessary.
Eventually I overtook the couple and began catching others. I’d been descending for maybe 45 minutes before the snow turned to rain and I could pick out people and landmarks in the distance. I have to praise my Salomon boots for dealing brilliantly with proper snow walking for the first time in their two year lifespan. Reached Halfway Lochan after just over an hour. By that time I was alongside a number of other walkers and the descent conditions had begun to resemble those of the morning ascent. A second remarkable transformation was all but complete by the time I took the next photo:
Descent after snow cleared (after Red Burn, about 45 minutes from the Visitor Centre)
There were a couple of showers on the way down, but this picture was more typical. And now I have to warn you – skip this paragraph if you’re grossed out by or squeamish about bodily functions. OK? All clear? Right then. I’m afraid I had to fill my waterproof trousers with piss on the way down. I have never done this on a mountain before. Which is perhaps surprising in itself, because one of the things not often mentioned in climbing guides is the total absence of facilities on the vast majority of major peaks. In the case of Ben Nevis, I’d taken on a lot of fluid and you won’t find either toilets or privacy at the summit. In fact, I don’t think you’ll find privacy anywhere on the Tourist Route. So I just had to relax my bladder. There was no-one around – I made sure of that at least – and the composition and aroma was almost pure water. (At least I thought so until I put my clothes in the washbag back at the hotel: stale urine is not quite odourless)
Time for the last two photos before arriving back at the Visitor Centre:
Signpost near the foot of the mountain
The Ben Nevis Inn (in the direction of Achintee)
After the walk
Arrived back at 3:40pm. Total walking time on ascent was 2 hours 50 minutes, plus 10-minute break. Total walking time on descent was 2 hours 15 minutes.
Sat in the car park for a while, finishing my Lucozade and snacks. The Visitor Centre itself closed at 4pm. Walked back to the Alexandra Hotel, sorted my washing and packing, showered. Evening meal not booked until 7:30pm.
Felt very proud of completing everything I set out to do at the start of the week. Extremely thankful for the weather, and for the full ‘four seasons in one day’ experience on Ben Nevis in particular. This was, in all honesty, the best walking holiday I’ve ever had. Nothing went wrong, and the WHW is now my favourite long-distance route in Britain. Ben Nevis itself is a genuine challenge, and I think I’ll try the CMD Arete before Sharp Edge or Crib Goch. Probably as an appetiser for the next section of LEJoG in summer 2021. The Great Glen Way is a flatter route by all accounts, so I’ll need a true Scottish climb to sate my mountainous desires.
After my evening meal, I enjoyed a shot of this (10 year old).
Well why not? As I said that night on Twitter…
Boarded a very busy train from Fort William to Glasgow at 11:05. Quite surprised to get a seat as comfortably as I did. It was the classic West Highland Line route, so lots of staring out of the window and pinpointing the landmarks I’d walked past and through over the previous week. The railway line runs particularly close to the West Highland Way between Inveroran and Crianlarich/Tyndrum, as you may recall from Days 69 and 70.
As I am now too far from home to reach it in one day’s train journey from LEJoG, I spent the afternoon and evening in Glasgow. This may sound like an inconvenience, but in fact it opens up possibilities for future LEJoG holidays. Such as the Inverness Caledonian Sleeper…
Until 2021 then, walkers. Keep putting one foot in front of the other and let’s hope for a much happier year all round.
Picture (25 September 2020) shows the view south over the Mamores and beyond, from the summit of Ben Nevis. There are plenty of pictures of the Ben itself on the site, including the Day 73 header image. I thought it fitting to round off my journey along the West Highland Way and up Ben Nevis with a “from whence I came” retrospective photo instead. A reminder that, even in 2020, there is something you can look back on with fondness.