“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.
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.