Ben Nevis. The highest mountain in the UK. Tens of thousands of people reach it's summit every year and the vast majority of these are during the summer months when conditions are that bit easier and more forgiving on the inexperienced. But what about in the winter? During the winter months it becomes a whole different ball game and more skills are required to safely ascend and descend all 1345m. Do you have what it takes?
Winter often arrives on Ben Nevis as early as October and it is from this time that you should be aptly prepared. Throughout the season the snow line usually sits at about 600 to 700m, about halfway up the mountain, roughly where the path crosses the Red Burn. Up until this point the path is usually visible, even if it is covered with snow, but you should still be prepared for icy conditions and poor visibility in low clouds.
Beyond the Red Burn is where it starts to get much more serious. It is from this point that crampons are often required and an ice axe should be in your hand. You should also be prepared for there to be no path. As the snow builds up through the season it will cover all the rocks and features, and you will have to rely on your navigational skills to continue up the zig-zags. Keeping track of each corner on the zig-zags can be tough, but once you get to corner seven you will be greeted by the first of the summit cairns which gives you a nice confirmation that you are on track.
Ascending and descending the zig-zags requires good crampon technique, especially when the snow has been frozen into hard, icy neve. A trip or a slip here could have very serious consequences so you need to be comfortable on steep ground while wearing crampons, and know how to perform a self arrest using your ice axe should a slip occur. The section from 1200m to the summit and back is much less steep but this is where the ability to walk on a compass bearing and pace a distance is invaluable. With cliffs on both sides of the plateau you need to know exactly where you are at all times. The cairns across the plateau are there to help as you walk on your bearing and should not be solely relied upon as it is often not possible to see from one cairn to the next, and that's if they're not buried. In terms of avalanches, it is always good to know what is going on in the snow pack. Avalanches on this side of the mountain are rare but do occur so always check the Scottish Avalanche Information Service before heading out in winter.
Reaching the summit of Ben Nevis in winter is a fantastic experience which many people can achieve, and if you are going to go for it alone make sure you have brushed up on your navigation, crampon technique and self arrests before heading up there. And remember, if you are in any doubt just turn around. It's only a mountain after all, and it will always be there on another day.
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.