Ben Nevis – The Inside Scoop! By David Buckett

Posted by True Highlands in Kit and Caboodle | 2 comments

Standing at 1344m (4409ft) Ben Nevis now only shows the base of the mountain that it once was.  Formed through volcanic activity, along with the other mountains of Lochaber and Glen Coe, it once rose to over 14,000ft and had a similar majesty to the Himalayas of today.  Back then the UK was near the equator with a very hot and dry climate but after millions of years, erosion and ice ages have shaped the mountains of Scotland to have a very different feel.  But they still pack a punch!


With the average time up and down via the popular Pony Track being 7-8 hours, 4 hours up and 3 hours down, walkers need to be able to trek the whole height of the mountain from sea level.  First created in 1883 for ponies to supply the first ever mountain weather observatory on the summit and the few men stationed up there for 3 months at a time, the track has evolved since then but sections of the original can still be seen.

At the base of the mountain the Pony Track starts in 3 places: Ben Nevis Inn, Visitor Centre and the YHA, with the Visitor Centre being by far the most popular starting point with public services and the biggest car park.  After a few hundred meters the paths all converge to then take the same route to the summit.  At roughly half way up the mountain the track flattens briefly passing Lochan Meall an t-Suidhe before changing direction and crossing the Red Burn which is a good half way marker on the mountain.  Above, the path starts on the first of 8 zig zags that end at the edge of the summit plateaux at 1200m.  From there the bleak rocky landscape leads up the final 144m of ascent to the summit.

But there is a sting in the tail!  100 meters of distance from the summit the track bends north around the top of Gardyloo Gully which plummets 400m down to the depths of the North Face.  More than likely this part of the mountain will be in cloud, and in winter through to spring, snow, so it is important to look out for the cluster of 3 large marker cairns that indicate the bend.


The weather on the summit in summer can vary massively from that experienced at the base in Glen Nevis, where it can be a warm, sunny, still day.  On the summit it can be the opposite, strong winds, rain and low visibility in the cloud.  But there are those rare days of perfect blue skies and 360 degree views.

Winter on Ben Nevis is another world, with temperatures consistently being -5 degrees, cloud and snow covered with strong winds down to the Red Burn, ascents should only be made by experienced winter walkers who have very good navigation skills or accompanied with a local qualified guide.  However being so far north winter conditions can easily last from November through to the middle of May, with deep snow still covering the top third of the mountain and the use of ice axes and crampons can still be needed.  So it is important to check the summit conditions before setting out.

But there is another way to get to the summit that isn’t via the Pony Track and doesn’t require the climbing knowledge needed on the North Face, but a head for heights and good fitness is definitely needed.  The CMD arête, a grade 1 ridge scramble which links the peak of Carn Mor Dearg 1223m (Big Red Peak) to the back of Ben Nevis.  This is a classic horseshoe of the mountain but it is a much longer excursion than via the Pony Track with an average time of 8-10 hours, climbing 2 mountains, mostly on rough paths and rocky terrain and not to be underestimated in high winds.

There are a few basics that are needed for a comfortable and hopefully, successful summit attempt: Checking the summit conditions, mountain fitness and determination, good mountain boots with ankle support, very good waterproof jacket and trousers (it is in Scotland), food and water, and spare warm clothes depending on the summit temperatures.  Finally a map and compass with knowledge of how to use them.


This article has been brought to you by The Highland Mountain Company.  For more information about Ben Nevis and current conditions please visit www.thehmcompany.co.uk 

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Comments (2)
  1. Ronny Allan says:

    great article – I didn’t know half of this! I want to walk up in nice weather with my wife without worrying about getting lost of using ice picks!!! Which route and time of year would you recommend?

  2. Ronny Allan says:

    sorry …typo ….. getting lost OR using ice picks

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