In the northwest Highlands of Scotland, and part of the Grampian Mountain range, lies the UK’s tallest mountain – Ben Nevis.
At a lofty 1,345 metres tall, this ancient giant of the land towers over everything that surrounds it, including nearby town of Fort William.
Although 1,345 metres sounds pretty meagre in comparison to Everest and other giants that sit at over 8,000 metres, to put it into perspective Big Ben is just 96 metres high.
Ben Nevis was in fact once an active volcano that exploded and collapsed in on itself millions of years ago. There is evidence of this explosion at the summit where you can find light-coloured granite.
The name Ben Nevis derives from the ancient Gaelic language, with two translations. One of them means ‘mountain with its head in the clouds’, thanks to its iconic mist-shrouded peak, and the other is ‘venomous mountain’, which seems fitting as your legs start to burn on the trek up to the summit.
The famous peak attracts over 125,000 walkers every year as they attempt to conquer the tallest peak in the country.
The effect of so many tourists on the trails has led to degradation and littering issues and there is currently no permits or protection on it as it does not lie within a national park.
Whether you’re an avid ambler or just love a challenge and stunning landscapes, then conquering ‘the Ben’ should be on your bucket list.
It is also part of the Three Peak Challenge. The National Three Peaks is a challenge that involves attempting to climb the highest mountains in England, Scotland and Wales within 24 hours.
It is typically to raise money for charity and participants climb each peak and then are driven from the foot of one mountain to the next.
Alongside Nevis, trekkers must also take on Scafell Pike – England’s highest mountain – and Snowdon – Wales’ highest mountain.
The total walking distance over the challenge is 37 kilometres with a combined ascent of 3,064 metres – so not for the faint-hearted.
- Wild climb with outstanding views over glistening lochans and deep glacial valleys.
- Glory of being able to say you’ve climbed the UK’s highest peak.
- Do-able in a day.
There are also various challenges that take place on Ben Nevis alone. The annual Ben Nevis Hill Race is immensely popular. The male race record is a staggering one hour 25 minutes and 34 seconds.
Wheelchairs are frequently carried and pushed to the summit, with one man even riding a motorbike to the summit.
Early last century a Model T Ford was driven, pushed and carried to the top of the mountain, with the event recreated in 2011 with a team of 60 volunteers carrying a dismantled replica to the top.
Two fell runners from Fort William once even carried a piano to the summit, with its remains being discovered many years later, buried deep within a cairn.
Fort William is situated almost right at the foot of Ben Nevis. By car it takes between two and three hours from Glasgow or three hours from Edinburgh, traffic dependent.
The journey time is usually longer on weekends and holidays, so factor this in if you are planning to climb Nevis on the day that you arrive.
Travelling to Ben Nevis by train is very straight forward. You can catch a direct train to Fort William from Glasgow or the Caledonian Sleeper from London Euston, which arrives just before 10am.
On an average weekday, there are 6 trains travelling from Glasgow to Fort William and there is also a CityLink Bus service from Glasgow.
If you’re coming from further afield, Inverness, Glashow and Edinburgh are the nearest main airports, all lying between 100-150 kilometres from Fort William.
Many of the nearby accommodation options have free parking if you are renting a car, but double check ahead of booking.
The total trek distance from start to finish is 18 kilometres and anywhere between four to eight hours hiking time, depending on fitness, weather conditions and route taken.
Although the technicality of the climb is pretty low, it is still a tough walk due to its steep sections and loose scree underfoot.
The main route, which was previously known at the ‘Tourist Track’, was properly designated as the ‘Mountain Track’ in 2004 as it was deemed its title was misleading visitors into thinking that the trail was a relatively simple walk suitable for a spur of the moment ascent, rather than some of the fiercest mountain weather conditions in Scotland.
Before setting off, it is worth going to the Glen Nevis Visitor Centre to gather information, check the upcoming weather conditions and figure out how long it will likely take you to walk up Ben Nevis.
You can also collect a map of the Mountain Path route so you can visually see your trail up to the top.
Ascending via the Mountain Path route is 18 kilometres there-and-back and will generally take between 3.5 to 4.5 hours.
On a nice day you can stop en route to take photos or sit and have a snack, or on colder days you may well be slowed down by the weather.
The descent then takes around 2.5 hours, due to loose gravel at points and other people coming up the path. If summiting with a group or family, it is worth leaving up to eight hours in total to complete the round trip.
Obviously, times vary depending on a number of factors including each climber’s fitness, how many breaks you take and the weather – which is subject to change at short notice.
Snow and ice during winter make the climb much more difficult, as does fog or low cloud, which requires extra care.
During winter, the ascent alone can take as long as eight hours.
Grade and difficulty of the walk
Even though the hike is just 18 kilometres up and down, it includes 1352 metres of ascent.
Unlike Snowdon and Scafell Pike, the path to Ben Nevis starts close to sea level, meaning much greater vertical ascent and some steep climbs, just to get your lungs fired up from the get go.
Nevis is known for being the hardest of the Three Peaks. Ben Nevis exceeds both Scaffell Pike and Snowdon in terms of fitness requirements, even going via the Tourist/Mountain Path, which is regarded as the easiest path up.
The trail is well-made and maintained throughout its length, and the zig-zag route helps to reduce the steepness, except for in the initial stages.
Overall, the gradient is generally never more than 1 in 5 thanks to its initial purpose of construction as a path for ponies to supply the observatory at the summit.
Ben Nevis isn’t a technical climb if you opt for the Mountain Path (or Tourist Track), as it is a designated route.
It is possible for children to trek Ben Nevis on the Mountain Path, as long as they are prepared for a long walk.
You can also bring your dog with you but bear in mind that sections of the walk involve tricky terrain underfoot with loose scree that dogs may not like.
Other than a moderate level of fitness, there is nothing specific to do in preparation for the trek and you do not do be an experienced climber or athlete.
Having said that, the more training and preparation you do before the hike the more you will enjoy it.
If you climb Ben Nevis during the summer months, you will find that you’re in summer at the base but in winter at the summit, and therefore need to dress accordingly – taking layers, water and snacks and sunglasses with you.
Whatever month you go in, you need to prepare for potentially freezing temperatures near the top.
In the first steep section you will feel hot and out of breath, but closer to the top where it flattens off and cools down considerably, you will need more layers and probably a waterproof jacket.
Make sure you take plenty of water and high-energy snacks, as well as a map and compass, which could prove vital should you become lost near the summit.
The Mountain Track is used by most walkers, whilst the Carn Mor Dearg Arête route presents a more challenging climb for more experienced hikers. Families, children and groups with mixed abilities should not attempt this route.
Whichever way you choose to go, climbing Ben Nevis in the winter is really only for experienced mountaineers due to tougher weather conditions and ice and snow on the tracks.
Many people climb Ben Nevis as part of the National Three Peaks Challenge, and this epic long-distance challenge definitely requires more training and a much higher level of fitness as well as mental resilience.
Trekkers attempting to summit the three highest mountains in the UK need good stamina as they tough out three walks back-to-back.
There are no permits required to climb Ben Nevis and despite some concerns for the deteriorating condition of the mountain and trail, there doesn’t seem to be any plans to introduce fees or permits any time soon.
Due to the fact that this hike is a one-day return trip and can be done without a guide or permit, there is no specific cost for the trek.
With a night’s accommodation before and afterwards, travel to Fort William and food supplies for the day, visitors are looking at around £150 expenditure.
Guided or Self-Guided
Even though the Mountain Track is reasonably easy to follow, especially on a clear day, it is worth having a map and a compass (most phones now have one built in) and know how to use them especially if there is poor visibility during the climb.
You can also download the route on your phone as signal is pretty good the whole way to the summit.
Most people to complete the route themselves, and with a steady flow of visitors ahead of and behind you it is not difficult to do so. Due to good reception on the mountain and guides coming up and down with tourist groups, help is also never far away.
That said, some people prefer to go in organised groups or with a guide. This can be organised ahead of time or you can drop into the visitor centre on site to find out more.
For all amateur walkers, it is recommended that you only attempt to reach the summit of Ben Nevis during the summer months.
Even when it is warm and sunny at the base, by the time you close in on the summit the temperature drops dramatically, normally below freezing and means snow and ice is frequent. Even at the height of summer there is a high chance you will still come across snow near the top, meaning it can be unbearably cold in winter if not properly prepared.
Unless you are a seasoned trekker, snow on the mountain can make the climb increasingly dangerous, as can the onset of low, thick clouds. Another benefit of going in the summer is the constant flow of other walkers, decreasing the likelihood of getting lost.
The route is fairly simple and is easily completed within a day. If driving, head for the Ben Nevis Visitor Centre car park. A main path runs up Ben Nevis, from Glen Nevis, which can be followed from either Glen Nevis Youth Hostel, or the Glen Nevis Visitor Centre and car park (mentioned above).
These two paths join fairly early on, so it does not matter which route you take as you will not miss anything. Not long after they merge, after some testing uphill walking, you will reach a Loch (body of water) – Lochan Meall an t-Siudhe. From this half way point, the path follows a zigzag pattern to the rocky summit plateau.
At the summit, there’s a cairn that marks the highest point and your reward on a clear day will be the incredible 360° panoramic views, stretching as far as Northern Ireland. Snow will often nearly obscure these cairns until around May each year.
A fun and unique feature of the summit is the Old Observatory, dating back to 1883. It provided houry meteorological data for almost 20 years, recording some of the UK’s most useful information about mountain weather to date. It closed in 1904 and now lies in ruin, used only for shelter in emergencies.
For anyone looking to climb Ben Nevis via a more challenging route, you will need technical experience and potentially equipment, depending on the time of year.
Carn Mor Dearg Arête is the mountain’s challenging ridge climb, which should only be attempted by experienced and physically-fit hill walkers. Though demanding, this route rewards walkers with the finest possible views of the mountain’s North face and far fewer visitors. Starting from the North Face car park at Torlundy, the trail traverses two Munros, the Carn Mor Dearg and Ben Nevis. If preferred, trekkers can follow the Mountain Track to the ‘halfway lochan’, then taking the left fork.
Passing the CIC Hut soon after, this route scrambles across boulders and requires a head for heights and careful navigation across trickier exposed sections. Carn Mor Dearg Arête is a longer and more strenuous walk than the Mountain Track, taking between 10 and 11 hours to complete.
Due to the fact that it is a relatively short trek, and that the peak is exposed and constantly busy with walkers, camping on the mountainside is not advisable (not to mention the challenge of trying to pitch a tent on the uneven terrain).
In terms of camping the best option is to pitch up at Glen Nevis which is just a 10-minute walk from the start of the Ben Nevis hike. Arriving the night before means that you can be one of the first people on the trail in the morning. You have two options: either camping or pre-erected glamping pods, for a bit of added luxury but at a largely elevated price.
If camping isn’t for you then that’s not an issue. The start of the Mountain Path route is located in the town of Fort William. Here you’ll find plenty of options for places to stay.
In the summer it is important to book in advance, as Ben Nevis is one of the UK’s most popular destinations backpackers, road-trippers, tourists and trekkers alike.
After your epic adventure, choose from a wide variety of accommodation options available in and around Fort William.
Wild camping is allowed in the area, so if you have your own equipment you can pick a spot and sleep in the shadow of Ben Nevis. A top spot to pitch up a tent are the grassy and idyllic plains of the Steall Meadows, Upper Glen Nevis. This sheltered spot is also a good base to check out the local Steall Falls and cross the famous wire bridge, both within walking distance.
The local Ben Nevis Inn and bunkhouse are also perfect options for a little more comfort but still close enough to admire the magnificent views out the window, whilst enjoying a pint of real Scottish ale and some hearty Highland produce. For those on a stricter budget, the best choice would be to spend the night at the Glen Nevis Youth Hostel, which is situated at the foot of Ben Nevis, also at the start of one of the tracks.
Although its possible to stay in Glasgow or one of the nearby cities, it involves a fair amount of driving there and back in one day and it’s unlikely that you’ll feel in the mood for a traffic jam after six hours climbing!
Beyond hiking there are other incredible ways to experience Ben Nevis and get a view of the surrounding area. For those who are multi-talented, they can try their hand at rock climbing.
An absolute rock climber’s paradise, the North Face of Ben Nevis has 600 metre high, jagged cliff edges. There are various routes to choose from, including the Ledge Route and Tower Ridge, so it’s worth doing your research or finding a knowledgeable rock climbing or mountain guide.
To take in more the surroundings (without the work), you can jump on a Nevis Range gondola to travel along the north face of the Aonach Mor, and enjoy awe-inspiring views of the Great Glen and Ben Nevis, and on clear days, even the Inner Hebrides.
Fort William and Lochaber is a region often referred to as the ‘Outdoor Capital of the UK’ and with good reason. Depending on what season you go in, you can have a go at gorge walking, canyoning, river rafting, skiing or snowboarding on the Nevis Range, mountain biking, tree-top adventures and even paragliding.
There are plenty of scenic walks (that are less taxing than Nevis) or once you’ve got your fill of the adventure, unwind with a brew at the Ben Nevis Distillery, one of Scotland’s oldest distilleries.
For any film nerds, you can climb aboard the iconic Jacobite Steam Train, which departs from Fort William to Mallaig, in the summer months only, over the magnificent Glenfinnan Viaduct which featured in the Harry Potter film series.
|Skills Required||Hiking, Walking|
|Difficulty||2/5 - 3/5|
|Starts at||Fort William, Scotland, UK|
|Finishes at||Ben Nevis, Fort William PH33 6SY, UK|
|Length of route||18 Km|
|Average time to complete||3.5 - 4.5 Days|
|Possible to complete sub-sections||No|
|Highest point||1345 metres|
|Equipment needed||Poles if preferred, walking boots|
|Countries visited||Scotland, UK|