Ben Nevis is the highest mountain in the British Isles, reaching a grand height of 4406 feet. This is an example of what several periods of glaciation can do to a tilted plateau. As it is the highest mountain in the Sceptered Isle it is a Munro1. However, its location is right by the west coast, virtually rising from the sea. This means that to climb to the top you have to climb it all, unlike Loch Na Gar where you already start 1000 feet above sea level. This, and the fact that there is virtually no respite from the incline makes Ben Nevis a real slog. Unless you are super fit your limbs will hurt after this walk.
The preparation for the mountain is basically the same as the preparation for any other hill walking expedition. It is a hard walk, but there is no way it should take more than nine to ten hours. On a summer's day, if you choose the weekend it is bound to be busy. Maybe some extra water would be a good idea - there is only a single place to refill on the trek.
How to Get There
From Inverness follow the A82 down Loch Ness-side and continue straight down the Great Glen until you reach Fort William. Drive into Fort William, past the turn off to Caol, and to the first roundabout. From here there is a turn off up Glen Nevis, or you can go right round the roundabout, back the way you came and take the first right. This will take you to the start of the Ben Nevis path. If you take the route up the glen then you climb from a campsite.
If driving from the south, head for Glasgow and take the A82 north, up Loch Lomond-side, through Glen Coe to Fort William. As you are coming from the south the roundabout mentioned in the paragraph above is the third roundabout in Fort William. From there you have the same choices as the person driving from the north. This entry will assume that you drove up the glen and are climbing from the campsite.
Once there, with all the equipment packed and hoisted onto your back, take a quick drink of water and be off. From the campsite follow the stream of people who are starting the climb2, use the bridge to cross the River Nevis and head for the huge mass in front of you. The first part is the killer. Follow the path from the river up to the Ben Nevis path. You will be blessing the steep steps built here3. The grade here is about the steepest anywhere on the whole mountain. These steps will completely knacker anyone of less than moderate fitness but set you up for the next 4000 feet.
Once up to and on the Ben path it is plain sailing. In semi-decent weather you cannot get lost, though it may be possible to do so in bad weather - when on the summit. You basically follow the path up. From where you have joined the main path it switches back a couple of times and then follows round into a cleft between the hill you are climbing up and Ben Nevis itself. Follow this and switch back on to a saddle between the two summits. Passing a lochan, or small loch, on your left the path takes you to where someone has built a cairn, or wall, or windbreak. This is good a place as any for the first stop.
After this wee rest say goodbye to flat ground, say goodbye to vegetation, say hello to rocks. Lots of rocks. Looking up from your resting point you can see the rocky path stretch up the flank of Ben Nevis, switching back five or six times. You may see tiny ant-sized people struggling up the higher stretches. At the resting point the path being followed there climbs up the side of the Ben; another route circles round the back, and eventually takes you on a trek of five munros. However this climb is just Ben Nevis, so lift your backpack and continue climbing.
As you leave the rest spot, and continue up the Ben, you quickly come across the only place on the whole climb where you can refill your water. A small burn4 trickles down the side of the hill and down into the cleft between the Ben and the hill the path started on. Once refreshed it is time to continue. This part is the killer. You just follow the path up, the path has lots of small rocks and stones, and can be dusty, making it slippery. There is no break for the wind whistling round the shoulder of the Ben, so it can get cold and the gusts can be very strong, even on otherwise decent days. Looking up you can see the path stretch on above you, and the top seems to be just at the end of the switchbacks.
Once you have climbed to the end of the switchback the landscape changes. Though from below the summit seems to at the end of these switchbacks, the full truth5 is that there is still far to go. The terrain from here is moonscape, lots of rocks and nothing much else. The path is laid out, but the main difference between 'on the path' and 'off the path' seems to be the colour of the rocks. The path has a paler colouration than the surrounding rocks. This means that in poor visibility it could be easy to stumble off the path. This section of the Ben is flatter than the preceding switchbacks, but it still climbs, and it is fairly common to have to climb through snow at this level, no matter the time of year. There are several cairns built here, some still with crosses sticking out of them, from where they have found the bodies of climbers.
Yet again the advice is to stick to the path and head for the summit. The top of Ben Nevis is deceptively flat and large. From the bottom you would not guess the summit plateau was so large. As you follow the path, to the left you can see the top of the five finger gullies, more snow, and ahead the very top. The remains of the observatory and the hotel tell you that you have made it to the summit. There is a large cemented cairn on the top, about ten feet above the rest of the summit. Climb this and everyone in the British Isles is below you. Congratulations, you have reached the top. Another break, some lunch, phone some friends and say that you are on top of Ben Nevis and then you have the exquisite joy of the climb down.
...and Back Down
So you've reached the top, taken in the view - on a clear day you can see the Mountains of Mourn in Northern Ireland and equally far in the other directions - but now you have to come back down. The route is simple, it is the way you came up, which makes for less interesting scenery, but more time to look for landmarks. On the opposite side of the Glen you can see the West Highland Way joining a forestry track. The first part is fairly simple. The plateau is not that steep, so it seems easy going; however, this section is soon over, and your legs, which are probably feeling the effects of the climb up, now have to stop you tumbling down the hillside.
The next section is the series of switchbacks - steep and slippery - and by the first turn your legs will be feeling the slope. The easiest way down is to choose a large rock that looks stable and then let your legs catch the slope, and use the rock to stop yourself before you loose control. It is probably best to choose a rock only four or five steps away. The other choice is to try and maintain control over each and every step. Even with the first method your legs are going to be sore at the end, but with the full control method, they would be agony.
Once the switchbacks are over, and you have rested by the river to refill your water, it is time to finish of this climb. It may be your last stop on the route, or maybe you won't want to stop, having got into a rhythm that would hurt too much to change. Walking past the lochan is a joy, with springy peat and soil cushioning your poor battered feet. Enjoy it while you can. Soon the path becomes more rocky as you fall from the lochan to the final section - where the steep steps meet the path.
Though blessing these on the way up, at this last obstacle your poor abused body will be cursing them with each and every step. However, you must use them as the hill is too steep to use the lovely soft grass and heather. By now your legs will be screaming at you and you'll still have those terrible steps to go down. Once down you have 100 yards of bliss, grass, mud, soft ground, then you have the bridge. The bridge has five steps up to it. The five hardest steps in the known universe. After going down continuously for so long, these steps can be the straw that breaks the camel's back. Luckily there is a handrail to help you out, and it could be needed. Once across the bridge you have finished the walk. You can stop by the shop, buy souvenirs, ice cream6 or a T-Shirt to prove that you have been to the shop.
Hikers of less than superhuman fitness will find that the recuperation time needed to fully recover varies. It depends on the starting fitness, how hard the hiker pushed themselves, how old they are and how often they walk this sort of distance and incline. On average it takes about a week to get rid of all stiffness, with the first couple of days spent avoiding stairs, due to severe pain - a fairly fit hiker on a recent expedition leapt up the hill like a mountain goat, with no great heaving gasps for air and seemed able to take it all in his stride, but was unable to climb any stairs the next day.
Ben Nevis and the surrounding area is a maniac magnet. The reason for this is unclear, but on any summer weekend you are bound to come across at least two species, if not more, not including the bog standard hill-walking maniac. They all do something that on the face of it appears unreasonable, but careful observation shows that there are two sub-species, a local variety and a tourist variety. The most dangerous - to themselves and others - is the tourist variety.
The tourist maniac can easily be spotted on the hill because they stand out a mile. Their main predilection is to be doing something without sufficient preparation. They are easy to spot because they are doing something daft. The following are actual first hand versions of what these particular people get up to.
Climbing, or trying to climb, The Ben in stiletto heels.
Throwing away their trainers at the start of the climb.
Climbing the Ben carrying all their equipment in two plastic carrier bags.
Somehow making it up to the lochan, but needing help to climb over step-sized rocks because they are 'too high'.
People who obviously never walked further than the distance from the front door to the car attempting to climb it.
Local loonies are not as easy to spot, normally because they are away before the hiker realises they were there. The actual Ben mainly collects a particular kind of maniac, but Glen Nevis has another two distinct kinds. All will be explained here.
The Ben Nevis Race - contestants this event are the true maniacs of the hill. Every year, in the first weekend of September, there is a hill race, up to the top of the Ben and back down. The first recorded run was in 1895 - taking 2 hours and 41 minutes - but has been a regular event since 1937. In the modern day there are up to 500 runners trying to beat the record of 1 hour, 25 minutes and 34 seconds. Injuries are common and many of the runners will have gashed knees and blood running down their legs by the end of the race. The local participants can be found all summer, training by running up and down the Ben.
The Glen Nevis Lilo Race - this race involves maniacs starting at the top of the glen, launching themselves on lilo's7 down the river. Now sailing down the river may sound not too mad, but the race traverses the whole river - including the rapids and waterfalls. Some of these waterfalls are large, at least 30 feet tall. So this race is definitely only for the certifiable.