Scotland (Hiking Vicious Little Ben Nevis)


The morning weather forecast sounded grim––50 mile per hour winds with snow and poor visibility at the top of Ben Nevis, the highest point in the Scottish Highlands. And this was in late May.

At 4,406 feet, Ben Nevis is the U.K.’s tallest mountain. Given that it’s roughly the same size as hiker-friendly Slide Mountain, the highest peak in the Catskill Mountains in New York state, it sounds like an easy way to claim bragging rights by standing atop Britain. But the climate toward the mountaintop can be like surly Scottish weather times 10, and it has claimed the lives of numerous would-be summiteers. Given that, it seems Ben Nevis (derived from beinn, the Gaelic word for mountain, and nibheis, roughly translated as malicious or venomous), is aptly named.

The mountain is located near Fort William in the Lochaber region in the West Highlands, an area billed as the outdoor capital of the U.K. As such, it attracts lots of visitors––an estimated 100,000 people ascend Ben Nevis annually.

Given the mountain’s size and popularity, I was incredulous about the supposed dangers posed by Ben Nevis. But after reading enough warnings on various websites and hearing cautionary tales from the locals, I approached the mountain with respect––and even a little trepidation. And certainly with many layers of clothing, as well as a $30 pair of Gore-Tex gloves I bought the day before.

From the visitor’s center, the base of Ben Nevis was green in the Scottish drizzle and the maelstrom at its crown hidden by the mountain’s curvature. As I surveyed the hill, I heard a guy who hiked the mountain the day before tell two hikers that the weather changed with every switchback, and that his hands froze after he took off his gloves for five minutes at the peak.

I bought a trail map, and asked the person at the cash register for directions to the Mountain Track, which I read was the easiest hiking trail to the peak. “It’s not the easiest,” he replied, “it’s just the least difficult.” He cautioned that if I had any doubts about making it as I neared the top, then it’s best to turn back.

The trail began at a bridge that crosses the narrow, swift-flowing River Nevis, passed a field filled with shaggy Highland sheep, and reached the gentle lower slopes covered with grass, heather and peat bogs. The path of dirt (mud in the rain) and rocks was a steady yet moderate incline in the lower half, but the going got tougher in the upper half as the trail became mainly boulders and scree, the mountainscape turned bleak, and the winds blew hard enough to where I made a point of staying on the left side of the trail to avoid getting knocked off the hill and plunging down the steep, rocky slope.

The trail was more a relentless ascent than a brutally steep pitch as it zig-zagged upward along the mountain’s west face, and rain was a constant companion. The rain later became more horizontal than vertical, and I pulled the hood of my waterproof jacket over the side of my face exposed to the weather. But some of the drops managed to bend it like Beckham and pelt my face anyway.

Higher up, the rain turned to stinging hail. Patches of snow covered the ground, and a continuous shroud of cloud obscured the nearby mountains. Eventually, I spotted a cairn, a telltale sign that a mountain summit is near. But the path kept going up, even as the pitch began to ease up. At that point, the visibility decreased further and the wind intensified––the hood of my jacket that was tied firmly over my head flapped viciously and made a loud noise in my ears like the sound of a helicopter.

After the final switchback, the strong wind was at my back and provided a nice boost during the final push to the summit. By then the trail had turned to snow, and it was tough to get traction, particularly on the last hilly stretch of snow-covered scree. Visibility was down to less than 50 yards, and cairns and hikers looked like ghostly images.

At last, the summit was in sight. I walked past the ruins of a stone observatory where a handful of people took shelter, ate a snack and celebrated their successful ascent. I took a picture of the stone cairn indicating the apex of the British Isles, and then put on my gloves before my hands froze. Next I scrambled up the rocky entrance to an emergency shelter to dine on a power bar, fruit and water. The howling wind made the shelter shake slightly.

I read that it takes three to five hours on average to reach the top; I made it in two hours and ten minutes and was quite proud of myself until I put things in perspective. For starters, somewhere near the upper reaches I encountered a guy who was descending the mountain with his dog, a black lab, in tow. I asked if the dog made it to the top. “Yeah, he made it, mate,” he said proudly.

As for speedy ascents, the annual Ben Nevis race from Fort William to the summit and back is held on the first Saturday in September––the record is 1 hour and 25 minutes!

Ben Nevis lore comes with a few pranks. In recent years, conservation volunteers have found a wheelchair and remnants of a piano buried beneath cairns at the summit. Other pranks aren’t as funny, such as when a rescue team in 1995 erected three-meter high aluminum marker poles to prevent hikers and climbers from straying into Five Finger Gully, the scene of many fatalities in descent. Somebody took offense and cut down the poles, and a tit-for-tat ensued until it was decided in 2004 not to erect any more warning poles at that spot.

When I returned to my car, my upper body was dry but the weather had soaked through three layers of legwear and water sloshed in my hiking boots. I had to wait several minutes for my hands to thaw out (I didn’t realize they were so cold) before I could unbutton the top layer of my pants to get the car keys.

After changing my shoes and socks, I drove into Fort William and warmed my bones at the West End Hotel with a tumbler of Glenfiddich single-malt scotch, a Guinness stout and a window table with full sunshine exposure that overlooked Loch Linnhe. The West End was a place of old-school stateliness, where one of the Sunday dinner specials that night was roast beef and Yorkshire pudding.

But I was in the mood for something with a more contemporary flair, so I ventured across the roundabout for dinner at The Lime Tree, which serves a creative menu in a building it shares with an art gallery. I felt tired in a satisfied way from the day’s adventure, and I wondered if the black lab I saw near the top of Ben Nevis felt the same way.

The next day as I drove back to Glasgow, I heard a radio report that a man had died after being airlifted from Ben Nevis the day before. A later report said he died of hypothermia.



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