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Summit Buildings on Ben Nevis - Great Britain's Highest Mountain

Updated on August 3, 2012
The Interior of the Observatory when it was in operation in 1885
The Interior of the Observatory when it was in operation in 1885 | Source
Observatory perched on the summit of Ben Nevis
Observatory perched on the summit of Ben Nevis
Ben Nevis Observatory
Ben Nevis Observatory
The Temperance Hotel at the summit of Ben Nevis
The Temperance Hotel at the summit of Ben Nevis

Ben Nevis is the highest Mountain in Great Britain and is an arduous climb for most people. The main route to the summit is via the Tourist Track, as it has been called for many years. Originally called the Pony Track in 2004 it was renamed the Mountain Track as it was felt the name ‘Tourist’ would suggest it was too easy a walk! Although many people make the summit each year, it is a fairly inhospitable mountain, which makes it strange to find ruins of buildings at the top.

The first recorded climb to the summit was by a botanist named James Robertson in 1771. In 1818 poet John Keats climed to the top and noted the ascent was like ‘mounting ten St Pauls without the convenience of a staircase’. It probably was even more difficult in those days, as the track (whatever name you wish to call it) had not yet been built).

The height of Ben Nevis and its position near to the west coast of Scotland and beingdirectly in the path of Atlantic storms made it an ideal place for an observatory. Originally government funding was refused, but Clement Wragge, who had been running meteorological stations in Cheshire, offered to take daily weather readings from the summit. In 1882 He climbed the mountain each day from the 1st June to the middle of October, and due to the fact he would climb in all weathers he earned the nickname ‘Inclement Wragge’. Meanwhile his wife would take comparative readings in Fort William below.

An observatory was to be built at the summit and the building work necessitated a track for ponies to take materials to the summit, and so the original Pony Track was constructed with a gradient of not more than 1/5 along the way. The information that Wragge collected showed that the proper observatory would have to be very strong, as the weather conditions at the summit were more severe than had previously been thought. Severe icing could occur at any time of the year and wind speeds were far greater than ground level sites. Undeterred the work went ahead, and the observatory opened on the 17th October 1883.

Unfortunately Wragge, after all his efforts the year before, did not get the position of Superintendent of the Observatory, and he left for Australia – however he shortly after came into an inheritance so it is believed he didn’t regret not getting the job, and in 1886 he was the founding member of the Royal Meteorological Society of Australia.

The observatory continued to operated for 21 years. During the first winter there were days when the men in the observatory couldn’t dig themselves out of the building, or could not attempt to read their instruments as the weather was too dangerous for them to venture out so the following year a wooden tower was added to make an exit in deep snow.

One thing that was noticed was the hill fog at the summit – this appeared with very high frequency. In winter it was foggy for 80% of the time, and only falling to 55% in May and June. There was significant useful information that was produced from the instruments in the observatory at the top of Ben Nevis. Even modern automatic instruments cannot maintain uninterrupted operation in conditions like those which are found on the Scottish Mountain summits in winter, so the observations taken by the observatory on the top of Ben Nevis still today provide the most complete set of mountain weather data for Great Britain.

By the early 1900’s the annual running costs of taking weather readings at the summit had risen to £1000, but only £350 was available from the government grant. This caused the observatory to be abandoned in 1904 and the staff dismissed.

The remains of another building can be found at the summit - the Temperance Hotel. This was opened in 1894 and included a place where you could buy lunch for 3 shillings (15p) and had the four highest bedrooms in the UK which you could stay in the 10 shillings a night (50p). Visitors did not even have to climb the mountain – 21 shillings (£1.05p) would get you a pony and guide to take you to the top.

When the observatory was abandoned the hotel extended to serve refreshments from the now disused building until just after the first World War. The buildings were then left to decay – there was a fire at the observatory, and (said to be for funding an Everest Expedition) in the 1950’s climbers stripped lead from the roof.

Nowadays if you reach the summit of Ben Nevis by the Mountain Track you will be taking advantage of the work of over a century before, but you won’t have the benefit of being able to take refreshment at the summit, and an overnight stay at the top would have to be in the open, exposed to the elements. But spare a thought, as you look at the derelict remnants of the summit buildings, for the intrepid builders and weather observors of the past, and of course, for Wragge who climbed the mountain every day for six months. Ask yourself, having made the climb today - would you volunteer to do it again tomorrow? 


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