“How hard is Ben Nevis?” and “Is Ben Nevis harder than Snowdon?” are questions we often get asked. Hopefully this blog will help answer these questions.
It is difficult to know whether you are capable of walking up Ben Nevis. Unless you have done similar walks up other mountains, you have no gauge or marker to tell you that you will be able to manage it. We all like to think that we are quite fit and healthy but this is the biggest mountain in the UK.
Here are the numbers. The walk up Ben Nevis from Glen Nevis is 16km (8km each way) which is 10 miles. This on its own is fine. Along the flat we can walk at about 4km/hr or 5km/hr, so it would take four hours to do the whole thing. But, of course, there is also the climb up and down to think about.
Ben Nevis has 1300m of ascent and descent in those 16km. This is the height of a 430-storey building. The path up Ben Nevis is not as steep as the steps in a building but you can perhaps get an idea of what is involved by walking up the tallest building you can find or walking up a few flights of stairs lots of times.
If you have a hill in your area that is, say, one quarter the size of Ben Nevis, you can use this as a gauge. A hill that is 325m high and the path is 2km to the top is one quarter the size of Ben Nevis; walk this four times and you will get a good idea of what Ben Nevis is like. It’s not quite like Ben Nevis though because changing from climbing up to walking down repeatedly makes it easier. We are not using the same muscles in the same way repeatedly for as long.
We all know that walking up will be hard work, and we are right. It might take 3 or 4 hours (or sometimes 5 hours) to reach the top. The angle of the path is much the same for the entire climb up, so it is unrelenting hard work for 4 hours. After a short rest at the top, we soon discover that walking down is just as hard work and possibly sorer than climbing up, especially as we will be walking down for 3 or 4 hours.
On the climb up our cardiovascular systems are working hard. On the way down, it is easy for our hearts and lungs, but the muscles in our legs work very hard, plus the jarring on our feet, ankles and knees, make it harder than you think.
The surface of the path is dry and mostly very good. The lower half of the path is very well made with smooth sections of grit and small steps made with rocks. The upper half has more small, loose rocks on the path and more random, irregular rocks scattered about. These are mobile, quite loose and make it harder work underfoot. The small rocks also push into the soles of your shoes, so sturdy soled shoes or boots are best.
If you only ever walk on smooth pavements and concrete and don’t do any exercise that will strengthen your ankles (such as tennis, dancing, squash, football, cross-fit) you will find it hard to walk over the irregular surface of the trail and it will be harder work for you (especially your ankles).
Coming down is always hard work on your thigh muscles and the joints of your legs. Do as much training as you can in preparation for your walk up Ben Nevis by walking up and down hills. If you don’t have hills near you, try walking along a coastal path. These often have lots of smaller ups and downs. If you can’t get out at all, try walking up and down as many stairs as you can, but remember to try to train your ankles on irregular surfaces somewhere as well. Walking on sand and pebble beaches is excellent for this.
Snowdon is 1085m high compared to Ben Nevis at 1345m high. If you start in Llanberis at 110m above sea level, the height gain is 990m and the distance is 7.3km each way. So, Ben Nevis is about one third bigger than Snowdon if you walk the Llanberis path. If Snowdon took you 6 hours, Ben Nevis will take you 8 hours. (From Pen y Pass on the Pyg Track there is 870m of ascent over 5.9km.)
Most people who take on the walk up Ben Nevis do make it to the top and back down. It is only one day, so some people are happy to try harder than they ever have done before, knowing that they can take a day or two of rest afterwards. Make sure you go prepared for a long, gruelling day, take all the right clothing and equipment, drink and eat lots on the way, and use walking poles on the descent, you will probably be OK.
And remember, it’s only a mountain. If it turns out to be too much, just turn around and come back down, before you can’t take another step! Enjoy being on the mountain, soak up the atmosphere and the landscape, enjoy the nature of the place. Reaching the summit is just one part of the Ben Nevis experience.
It's school holiday time so team Pescod went out for a family adventure, right on our doorstep. You don't have to go far for a full on adventure, especially if you are 10, 14 or 16 years old. For a few years now I have wanted to enjoy a day on the North Face of Ben Nevis with my children and today everything came together. Louise and Victor (our dog) came up to the CIC Hut before continuing round by the half way lochain and down the mountain path to Fort William. The rest of us went up Tower Ridge, certainly too hard for a dog but would it be OK for a 10 year old?
All our children have done a lot of climbing indoors and quite a few days outdoors. We've also done some scrambling and Owen has done quite a few bigger mountain days. For him, this was the third time up Ben Nevis and he has enjoyed Curved Ridge a few years ago. For Megan and Katie, this was the first time up Ben Nevis and we chose the hard way to make it even more special for them. Tower Ridge is very exposed and feels like a big place to be climbing (it is!). But, I know them all very well, I knew they could do all the climbing, and we had biscuits to keep little legs working.
There was a little flutter of nerves for everyone as we crossed Tower Gap. The exposure here is something else and stepping across the void of Glover's Chimney is always intimidating. The flutter of nerves did not cause any fluster though and we got to the top in good order to join the crowds on the summit. Lots of walkers and climbers have been unlocked and are enjoying the walking and climbing here now. There is lots of fresh air, breathing space and socially distant adventures to enjoy. Little legs like going down hill about as much as big, older legs; not very much! We will all have sore legs tomorrow but being young, their legs will recover a lot faster than mine!
This week Nigel and I have continued with the theme of variety in the climbs we have done. On Tuesday we went to Applecross with its wonderful range of sandstone mountains, big vistas and wide open landscape. We climbed the mega classic Cioch Nose in improving weather. We got wet on the walk in, climbed the first two pitches on wet rock and enjoyed the rest of the climbing and th scramble to the top in the dry and with the cloud above the tops.
The sandstone is so clean and grippy that the wet rock does not make much difference to the climbing. We wore rock shoes to compensate and it was fine. If you walk in from the top of Beallach na Ba it is a short downhill walk to the climb and a very short walk back to the van after the climb. This makes it a reasonable climbing day trip from Fort William and you really feel like you've been on an adventure.
Today was another wet day in the west so we went east to find dry rock. Creag Dubh at Newtonmore can't be much more different to Cioch Nose, but it is just much fun to climb there. It is just a few minutes walk from the road and offers steep climbing on (mostly) good positive holds. We climbed King Bee and Brute, a pair of lovely VS 5a climbs on the Main Wall. There are some very serious climbs here and it was nice to see a few other teams out enjoying them. A friend of mine told me many years ago the climbs here do not get any harder as you go up through the grades, they just get bolder!
Thankfully these two climbs have great protection right where you need it and abseil anchors to get down easily after two or three pitches of climbing. The outlook is lovely and the showers seemed to bounce off the crag and away again so we didn't get wet at all.
Next time out Nigel and I should go to the Etive Slabs for the opposite experience to Creag Dubh! I will feel much more at home, that's for sure.
In my recent blog I was wrong about the legislation and I need to correct this. Sorry folks. My (incorrect) understanding was that camping next to your car close to the road is not governed by the Scottish Outdoor Access Code because the code is for non-motorised transport. I was wrong.
It's all explained very well in the 2016 update here - https://www.outdooraccess-scotland.scot/managing-informal-camping-under-land-reform-scotland-act-2003 - camping close to the road does fall into the catogory of wild camping and we have the right to do it, as long as we do so responsibly.
The Scottish Outdoor Access Code explanation is in two parts, first stating the statutory position in the Act (i) “You can camp in this way wherever access rights apply...”, and then with subsidiary Code guidance (ii) “...but help avoid causing problems for local people and land managers by not camping in enclosed fields of crops or farm animals and by keeping well away from buildings, roads or historic structures. "
This does make it slightly confusing due to the conflicting statements that we have the right to camp close to the road but we should try to camp well away from the road. The responsibilities that come with the right are very clear and if we do not observe these responsibilities wild camping becomes unlawful.
"Camping is therefore a legitimate activity wherever access rights apply, including some locations close to roads, subject to responsible behaviour and any restrictions resulting from other legislation, including byelaws - for example concerning car parking. Access rights do not legitimise any activity that is an offence under other legislation and do not, for example, provide an ‘excuse’ for antisocial behaviour.
Scottish access rights apply to non-motorised recreation and do not therefore extend to activities that are entirely based on the use of a vehicle, such as sleeping in cars, camper vans or caravans." Sleeping in your car or campervan falls under different legislation and is not wild camping.
Dave Robinson gave me a great quote - "The bottom line is there is responsible camping on land where access rights apply and if you don't do it responsibly then you no longer have the right. This applies to mountain summits just as much as it does to roadsides."
It is clear to see that lots of irresponsible wild camping has been taking place in very many areas recently. The solutions I suggested in my previous blog still stand and match very closely the approach taken by SNH. They have run national information campaigns and provide resources such as posters for land managers to use - https://www.outdooraccess-scotland.scot/practical-guide-all/camping
There still seems to be a problem though. The message is not getting through to the right people and the management solutions are not being delivered. In these days of social media, an information campaign combining video and print media with a well known spokesperson delivered by Visit Scotland and SNH should be a quick and simple thing to achieve. It's not so quick and easy to build facilities to mitigate the impact of wild camping, and the process should perhaps be much simpler for local communities.
Thanks to Dave Robinson and Nick Kempe for correcting me on the legislation. It's important to get this right. It's also important to have simple, achievable solutions so that everyone gets to enjoy the outdoors as they should.
Right now we have a big problem. People want to get a bit of fresh air, feel a bit of breathing space and soak up the feeling of being in a wild, open landscape. This in itself is not the problem, in fact this is an excellent solution to a huge array of physical and mental health problems as well as bringing income to small rural economies. The problem we have right now is from people parking close to the road and camping overnight, creating an obvious impact and leaving behind a mess of rubbish and burnt ground.
This is not a new problem but it is worse right now due to people’s desire to get out of the lockdown, and because campsites and accommodation providers are not yet open. Public facilities are still closed in many areas as well. We might also have a number of people trying out camping for the first time, people who are unaware of the negative impact they can have so easily, or people just ignorant of what camping is like and finding it is not for them.
What is the solution? Should we ban camping close to the road in the way that the chair of Glencoe and Glen Etive Community Council would like to do right across Scotland? Do we impose local by-laws like we have around Loch Lomond? Do we introduce a permit system?
If, like me, you value the opportunity to camp in secluded little spots, out of sight of everyone, and leaving no trace at all of your stopping there, you will not want a nationwide ban. Perhaps there are other ways to tackle this big problem that are less heavy handed. There is often a very negative reaction to enforcement of powers as a first step. Perhaps it is better first to engage with people, to explain the problem and to encourage them to behave differently, and then to enforce laws.
1. Understand the difference between wild camping and free camping.
Let’s be clear, free camping close to the road is not wild camping as governed by the Land Reform Act of 2003 and the Scottish Outdoor Access Code. Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) needs to run an information campaign to educate everyone of the difference. SNH helped us understand the rights and obligations of the Scottish Outdoor Access Code when it came into power and it can continue with this service now. With a well managed and targeted campaign, SNH can separate wild camping from free camping and make sure we all understand we do not have the right to camp next to the road.
There is a general mis-understanding that is perpetuated among many groups of campers and camper van users, that we have the right to camp next to the road because of our right to responsible access. This is not correct and it needs to be tackled head on by the Scottish Government through SNH. A campaign that engages with the right people, explains the problems and encourages better ways of doing things should be the first step and can be done very quickly.
Even if it was covered by the Scottish Outdoor Access Code, free camping would come with the responsibility to leave no trace, and this is enforceable. So, perhaps part of the solution might be to bring free camping into the activities governed by the Scottish Outdoor Access Code. If it is done sensitively with no impact on other people (visual or physical), no damage done by fires or barbecues and no trace is left behind, free camping is acceptable or tolerated. It’s the impact and damage that is the problem and this would constitute irresponsible behaviour and would be contrary to the Scottish Outdoor Access Code. Perhaps this is the right way to go for enforcement.
2. Current legislation needs to be enforced, and to be seen to be enforced.
Several times recently I have heard of the police turning up at places where people are free camping and doing nothing. This story spreads the idea that free camping is OK and the police do nothing about it. Neither is true.
There have been many cases, unreported, when the police have spoken with people camping inappropriately, engaged with them, explained the problem and encouraged them to move on. In many cases the advice is taken well and people are happy to change plans.
Many times, when the police turn up, the campers have already started drinking and say they can’t drive away due to the alcohol. Nobody wants people driving or riding motorbikes under the influence of alcohol, so the campers are left in place for the night. What does not get reported or told as part of the story is that police officers do follow up, when they can, and check the area after the campers have left.
It’s a big task, and the police have many other things to attend to as well. However, if one or two campers were charged with vandalism or setting fires, this story would spread far and wide. Remember the people who were arrested for walking up a Munro during lockdown and needing the help of the mountain rescue team?
3. Engage with and educate campervan users.
There is already very good advice and information on the Campervan and Motorhome Professional Association (CaMPA) website (http://www.campa.org.uk/) for drivers. Unfortunately not all camper van renters are members or pass on the advice to drivers. Instead, some campervan hires are sold with the idea of driving without care or concern, parking up anywhere for the night with no additional cost beyond the hire charge of the van. More widespread is the chat in online forums that perpetuates the idea that the right to roam in Scotland extends to camping anywhere or parking up anywhere for the night.
If all camper van renters were obliged to encourage their customers to follow the CaMPA Code it would be a start to reducing inappropriate informal camping. Online forums can be kept better informed by people engaging and taking part in the discussions.
4. Empower communities to provide facilities for campervans.
In Ireland and right across Europe, there are many areas specifically for camper vans and campers where, for a small fee, you can park up and spend the night in a managed area with very basic facilities (a tap and a toilet). They can work very well and allow small rural areas to benefit financially from the visitors while managing their impact on the area.
Even if the camping area only just pays for itself, there will be the benefit of reducing the number of free campers. Potentially, these areas could generate a surplus for the use of the local community. And to minimise the displacement of business from campsites and touring parks, these areas could be for single night stays only. People wanting proper facilities, staying for several nights would still be encouraged to use formal sites.
There are examples of sites such as this in Scotland already. I have spent many very happy nights at Sheigra and look forward to visiting Ardroil on Lewis soon.
5. Educate people through signage.
I remember seeing a small sign once when I was walking my dog. It asked “Is your dog a killer?”. I immediately felt defensive and read more of the sign as a result. It went on to tell me about ground nesting birds and the damage that can be done by dogs off the lead at certain times of year. I had not realised this and I took it well. My dog walked on his lead that day and I went elsewhere for a couple of months.
Many people do not understand the impact of their actions and, if they did, they would change their behaviour. There are very many sites where people camp for free quite regularly and if we placed small sign here they could have a very positive effect.
Lighting a fire or using a barbecue out in the open is very difficult to do without leaving a mark on the ground. It takes an expert to do it successfully. People who light fires and use barbecues improperly not only leave damaging scars in the ground but also risk widespread wildfires. Even people who are very used to using small stoves sometimes have accidents that start wildfires. At a time when we need to improve biodiversity in our landscape, wildfires are particularly damaging in the long term.
SNH is ideally placed to create a resource of signs that can be used by local communities or landowners to encourage good camping behaviour.
Our first minister spoke about free camping today, and the need for people to use their common sense when they are making decisions. I think we need to do more than just tell people to be considerate because the impacts of free camping are not imediately obvious to everyone. We need to engage with people who are free camping inapropriately, educate them so they understand all the different ways they can have an impact, encourage them to change their behaviour and, when required, we need to enforce what laws we can. I completely understand that Glen Etive was overwhelmed at the weekend and what I describe here might not go far enough in particular places. However, in normal times, it might be enough to manage the problem sufficiently.
Any climbing trip that involves a boat is going to be good. Cathy and I went for the Corran Ferry and timed it perfectly to drive straight on. It's then a short drive on the other side to the walk in to Garbh Bheinn, a wonderfully rough and wild Corbet in Ardgour. The rock here is gneiss which is clean, grippy and brilliant to climb on. Right below the summit lies the south face which gets sunshine all day with an outlook over Ben Nevis and Glen Coe. Today we could see down as far as Arran and out to Rum and the outer Hebrides. A gentle breeze and great company topped it off to make a wonderful day of climbing.
The classic of the crag is Butterknife, a four pitch VS. The first groove was a little wet and this, along with getting used to the features of the rock, made it feel a little awkward. The second pitch is stunning! It climbs a steep corner with wild moves around bulges and undercut flakes. Long limbs do help to bridge out and find a few extra rests but there is very good protection. Two more pitches got us to the top and the cairn at the top of the mountain. This is proper big mountain rock climbing with everything that goes with it - a few seeps and wet bits, some loose holds, immense exposure and vast situation.
A sandwich stop and a moment to soak up the view got us ready for another climb, Sgian Dubh. The fine jamming crack on the first pitch was actually a slimy thrutch, again made easier with some long limbs. It's well worth sticking with it though because the second pitch is amazing. Fantastic rock and crazy exposure following ramps first leftwards then back rightwards got us to the top of the climb and a short sprachle to the top of the mountain again. As always with Cathy, it was a school day for me and I learned a bunch of stuff about hares, deer, heather moorland and many more things. I'm a grateful sponge when it comes to this stuff and it is always more complicated than it seems. Thank you Cathy; brilliant climbing and a lovely day.
The Blackpool of the rock climbing world on the west coast of Scptland is Poldubh in Glen Nevis. The translation is something like black pool and it is a popular place with with attractions to keep you entertained. Today it was perfect. After the first few midges at the start of the first climb we had a gentle breeze keeping them away and the rock was dry. It was a lovely temperature and, even thhough it is a popular place, there were just a few other climbing teams and plenty of space to keep separate.
If you are climbing at Severe to VS try this circuit.
Altogether we climbed eleven pitches but you can throw in a few more or link a couple more together. Six climbs, all on amazing rock and in a wonderful situation looking across Glen Nevis to The Mamores, watching the baby trees come up in their exclosures and admiring the open patchy woodland of native trees elsewhere in the glen. I saw a golden eagle and a lizard today too. And we had a fantastic time in nature climbing some brilliant routes and sharing adventures alongside a few like minded people. Wonderful!
We had a very wet weekend and morning yesterday. The rain came in and stayed in, running down the hill sides and filling the streams and rivers. Running down from Meall an t'Suidhe yesterday afternoon was a case of going with the flow, slipping and sliding down the grass with the water, everything going with the flow of gravity. Today was dry though and the rock was drying out. At least, the rock with no sponge of peat above, newly filled with water, dripping fat drops down the rocks. Weeping Wall on the East Face of Aonach Dubh in Glen Coe does live up to its name. Wide streaks of wet weeps were all along the crag. So, it's good to know which climbs dry out a bit better, where you can find grippy, positive holds in between the wet slimy holds.
Nigel and I started out with Eve's Arete, a fabulous V.Diff with amazing exposure but big positive holds right where you want them. This is the section where the route traverse right over an overhang with steep blank rock above. Once you get to the arete with a lot of space beneath your feet the way up is more obvious. Up above the terrace is Archer Ridge which also dries out pretty quickly. Another excellent climb on great rock, this route is a little more devious than it first looks. You can follow the ridge directly at the same grade but the original route went right and back left on the second and third pitches, a route that neatly avoids the worst of the wet bits.
With the threat of a shower coming up Glen Coe we decided to finish with Quiver Rib. This is the steepest Diff in the country but with very positive holds. It follows the rib imediately next to the dark, dank chimney of The Bow but is never affected by the drips coming down it. Instead, Quiver Rib follows the rib and a groove above up this improbably steep cliff for the grade. Walking off towards Far Eastern Buttress we saw several deer leisurely munching the greenery and a kestrel patrolling the crags and keeping an eye on us. It didn't seem to be disturbed by us so its nest must be far away somewhere else. Altogether we had a wild day of climbing and nature with hardly anyone else in the glen and very little traffic on the road far below. Bliss.
Almiost exactly three months since lockdown and my last day of work, I have gone back to work and it was amazing. My last day of work was a wonderful day of ice climbing on Rubicon Wall, Ben Nevis in excellent weather and amazing ice climbing conditions. Today Nigel and I went for a fantastic climb of Observatory Ridge, looking across at Rubicon Wall, in superb weather and (nearly all) dry rock. It was a long three months and it feels very good to be back guiding.
Nigel lives very locally and we have climbed a good few times together in the past. Observatory Ridge was well within our level of ability but that wasn't really the point of the climb today. We wanted a long mountain climb and they don't get much longer or more mountainous than Observatory Ridge. It is 500m long with several pitches of V.Diff and sometimes you have to pitch the whole thing in something like 14 or 15 pitches.
We were also thinking very carefully about keeping 2m separate all the time, not sharing equipment and good hand and face hygiene. This all seemed to work out very well, made easier by the big ledges on the climb. In this respect it felt safer than going to the supermarket!
There was a big cloud behind us as we walked up the Allt a'Mhuilinn and it gave some areas out west some very heavy rain and flash flodding. Thankfully it did not cross the Great Glen and we stayed dry. There was quite a breeze on top which kept us slightly cooler as well, very welcome in the intense heat. There were a few people on the summit enjoying the good weather and views. Dave and Al went up NE Buttress and another team enjoyed Tower Ridge. On such a good day it is rare to see so few people out climbing and on the summit. This is going to change as Scotland relaxes the travel restrictions at the start of July and tourism can start again on 15th July.
If you are not used to walking up mountains, it is quite hard to know what to wear and what to carry with you on your climb up Ben Nevis. Watch the video to hear chief guide Mike Pescod telling us what the key bits of kit and clothing are.
The main point to remember is that is is a lot colder, windier and wetter on the summit than it is in the glen at the start of the walk. You might start out in a light shirt but on top it is often 10C colder, wet and windy so you will need to wear a lot more clothing, a hat and gloves. As you come down again, you will probably need to take off all your layers again!
What to wear on Ben Nevis.
Walking boots with ankle support give you some essential protection from twists and sprains if you are not used to walking on rough ground. If you are very used to walking or you play sports such as footbnall, rugby, squash and tennis that strengthen your ankles, then rugged walking shoes might be OK for you. What ever you wear make sure they are rugged and have a solid sole. The path is dry and rocky (it's not muddy at all) and small, sharp edged stones push through soft soles easily making it uncomfortable.
All your clothing needs to be made of polyester or wool, and not cotton. This is because cotton soaks up any water from rain or sweat and becomes cold, heavy and uncomfortable to wear. It also takes a very long time to dry out. Polyester or wool shirts and trousers don't soak up as much water and they are designed to transport any water to the surface where it can evaporate off quickly, keeping you drier and more comfortable. It is also warm enough when it is wet.
So, wear a polyester or wool shirt, take a warm fleece or two to put on as you get higher up the mountain. Wear walking trousers – no jeans - that are loose and comfortable, or leggings that fit neatly and are not made of cotton.
You should have a spare fleece top or synthetic insulating layer, in case anything goes wrong and we need to stop for a long time. Keep this dry in a plastic, waterproof bag. Bin liners are a bit too thin so get some rubble sacks from a supermarket, tough plastic bags that are the perfect size.
A waterproof jacket and trousers are essential. The jacket needs to have a big hood that covers your head and your face, protecting you from rain being blown in sideways! Sometimes it rains all day and you will be soaked through and need to turn back if your jacket and trousers are not up to it.
Take a warm hat and waterproof gloves (spare gloves are also recommended) even on the dry sunny days. Remember the air is much colder on top and it feels even colder if it is wet and windy.
Sometimes the sun shines though so take a sun hat, sunglasses and sun cream. There is more UV higher up and you will be out for about 8 hours so it's a good idea to put sun cream on before you start the walk.
What to carry on a walk up Ben Nevis.
You need a rucksack big enough to carry all your clothing and kit. This is roughly 25 litres to 40 litres.
Bring a really good packed lunch and spare food. Don't rely on sweets and chocolate. You need some good quality carbohydrates which you will get from sandwiches, oat flapjacks, dried fruit, bananas and oatcakes. Take lots of tasty snacks that you know you will enjoy as well.
A 1 litre flask or water bottle is fine. There is a stream at the half way point called the Red Burn where we can fill up the bottles. So, if you start with 1 litre, fill up again on the way up and on the way down you will get through 3 litres which is plenty.
Carry a whistle so you can attract attention if you get separated from your group and you have an emergency.
Walking poles are recommended but not essential. Many people find they really benefit from the support of walking poles on the way back down. It normally feels much harder going down that it does going up, and walking poles can help a lot. If you would like to borrow a set of poles from us please do ask, we have a few spare sets.
Mobile phone in a waterproof case and a camera to record the adventure.
Also remember to take any medication that you normally require or that you might require. If you have asthma, take your blue puffer, even if you very rarely use it.
Self reliance is a fundamental principle of mountaineering. By participating we accept this and take responsibility for the decisions we make. These blog posts and conditions reports are intended to help you make good decisions. They do not remove the need for you to make your own judgements when out in the hills.