In just over six weeks we will start our regular Guided Group Walks up Ben Nevis. These run all summer, every Sunday and Wednesday and cost just £90 per person. They are a great way for summer walkers to get some help to try to reach the summit of Ben Nevis. However, looking at the depth of snow on the top half of the mountain right now, we will certainly be walking over snow for the first few walks in May!
This is normally the case. In the spring when flowers are blooming in the glens and warm sunshine washes over the woodland, the summit is still in the icy grip of winter. Reaching the summit in May very often takes unprepared people by surprise. Snow on the summit covers the path making it very difficult to follow in the mist, the temperature can be very cold and snow overhangs the tops of the crags in dangerous cornices which are very difficult to see from above.
Walking up Ben Nevis in the spring is very often a brilliant experience and the best time of year to do so. However, the winter snow on the ground does demand extra equipment and skills to keep an ascent safe enough. Lochaber Mountain Rescue Team has, unfortunately, had to help a lot of people recently who did not have the best boots and equipment.
With snow on the ground you will need winter walking boots that are rated to take crampons, as well as crampons and an ice axe each. All of these can be hired in Fort William from these excellent providers:
In good visibility, navigating up and back down Ben Nevis can seem quite straightforward. It is a busy mountain and there is often a well trodden path to the summit, as well as cairns above 1150m about every 50m along the way. When you can see as far as Skye to the west and Cairngorm to the east, it is not surprising that you should be able to find your way easily. Even then, the path above 900m or so is usually covered in snow between December and May and can be nearly impossible to find and follow. If there is no boot trail through the snow, it can be quite confusing, even in good visibility. And the summit is only clear about 20% of the time in winter.
You might read comments saying "just follow the path" which are fine when there is no snow, but until it has all melted away you will need to be able to navigate properly.
In the cloud, when there is no definition between the snow on the ground and the cloud all around you it is a very serious place, and navigation skills need to be very accurate. The skills you need are to be able to follow a compass bearing accurately, and to measure the distance you walk along the ground by counting your paces. With these skills, you can then follow your progress on the map and plan the next section of walking, as long as you are very used to using maps and identifying features on the ground that are marked on the map. Of course, most features will be covered by the snow, just to make it even harder!
Here is our guide to help with the navigation skills you will need.
Of course, on the summit of Ben Nevis, when everything is white, is not the best place or time to learn navigation skills! Do some preparation, practice in a safe place first, get some training before you need to use the skills for real.
The hazards on Ben Nevis are very real. It is not a tourist attraction, it is a mountain that many tourists are attracted to.
But it is still a mountain with real dangers and the very real chance of injury or worse. Please be prepared, take it seriously, and be rewarded all the more for the effort that you put into your climb.
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.