Ben Nevis. Hiking the U.K.'s Highest Mountain.
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Ben Nevis. Hiking U.K.’s Highest Mountain.
Any trip to Scotland is incomplete without a trip to the Scottish Highlands. Not particularly lofty, these mountains are better known for their mystifying beauty and ruggedness. The combination of high latitudes, above the 56th N. parallel, and centuries of grazing in the Highlands has left them with a noticeable absence of trees. But the rocky slopes and fertile valleys play host to a range of changing hues that hardly makes them colorless. The highest peak in the Highlands is Ben Nevis at 1344 meters/4409’. Also known by the nickname ‘Big Ben’, or ‘The Ben’, it approximates the height of Vermont’s Mount Mansfield (4393’). Yet Ben Nevis is the highest point in Scotland, Great Britain, The British Isles, and the United Kingdom, whichever way you want to cut it. It rises from sea level, give or take, so its shear bulk and vertical scale can be appreciated at any angle. It is one of 283 so-called Munros, or mountains in Scotland that top 3000 feet above sea level. Of these only nine are higher than 4000 feet and about half of these are within ten miles of Ben Nevis which is composed of a weather-resistant volcanic rock surrounded by granite. Related to the Appalachians, Ben Nevis was formed about 400 million years ago.
The Munros were named after Hugh Munro (1856-1919) who compiled and indexed the list of peaks. The name stuck and climbing all of them has become the pathological craze of the dedicated British peak-bagger. It doesn’t stop there as there are the Corbetts: a second tier of peaks in Scotland numbering 219 depending upon which list you read. The Corbetts are between 2500’ - 3000’ and were named after John Rooke Corbett (1876-1949) who compiled that list. Whether it is these various lists or their sheer beauty the temptation to climb and hike Scotland’s peaks is difficult to resist. As a result the Highlands are well-wired with a great network of hiking trails. The appreciation of hiking and climbing in Scotland, as in England and Wales, is certainly not lost on these peaks.
I too couldn’t resist and when I traveled to Scotland in July 2001 with my wife I made the time to climb Ben Nevis. Since I had only one week in-country I headed to its highest peak. We arrived in Glasgow after a short lay-over in Keflavik, Iceland. It was nice to get off the plane for a couple of hours but it also prolonged the trans-Atlantic trip. Upon arrival in Glasgow we caught the first bus we could to Fort William. I don’t recommend heading to the hills with such haste but again, our time was limited. I was barely able to keep my eyes open during the bus ride, suffering from jetlag, but the scenery was stunning, especially around Glen Coe. It’s no surprise that this location was used to film a number of scenes in movies such as Rob Roy and Braveheart. Glen Coe was also the scene of the infamous Massacre of Glen Coe which occurred here in 1692 when Highlanders were massacred by British Grenadiers. Despite the bloody historical episode this beautiful spot would have to wait until our return trip. After arriving in Fort William, three and a half hours after leaving Glasgow, the Scottish weather did us no favors, and it began to drizzle. Not sure where the Youth Hostel was we eventually caught a van that brought us to the YH in Glen Nevis, across the street, almost, from the trailhead leading up to Big Ben. This was the summer of 2001 and if any of you remember there was a nasty outbreak of hoof and mouth disease in Great Britain. This almost jeopardized our chance to do any hiking as many of the trails were closed. The tourist industry suffered considerably that summer as did the farmers. We got to the YH in a cold drizzle and found our rooms full of bunk mates and crowded chaos. Youth Hostels are not the best place to check in to on the first day of a trans-Atlantic trip. I didn’t sleep well and my wife told me she fared no better. The following morning we got up early and headed out the door towards Ben Nevis under a steel-gray ceiling. The trail was open to hikers although we had to wipe our boots in one of the government-supplied boot baths.
Most of the trail up to Ben Nevis is easy if you take the standard “tourist track”. It was at one time a mule path and in many stretches it is wide enough to accommodate an off-road vehicle. The first part proved otherwise. It was more typical of your trail in New England switching back often to gain elevation. It was also, for the most part, devoid of trees which made the views up Glen Nevis remarkable as the sun broke the cloudy ceiling. After the first section the path leveled out and widened. It is here that it approaches the tarn, Lochan Meall an t-Suidhe, a beautiful lake that fills up the length of a hanging valley. A nice waterfall also comes into view before the mountain track meets up with another trail at about the 615 meter contour. If you continue to the right, a number of long switchbacks take you to Ben Nevis’s broad summit. If you go left you will loop around the mountain and eventually reach the CIC Hut below the craggy north face, which holds the highest cliffs in the U.K. We took the right hand path to the summit. Passing an occasional patch of snow we eventually spotted the ruins of the old observatory which mark the otherwise non-descript summit. The observatory was active between 1883 and 1904 but now is marked by a few stone circles. We rested, ate a snack, and peered over the forbidding abyss into the north gullies which dropped more than two-thousand feet in one kilometer. There are plenty of warnings to get off the mountain in inclement weather and cairns mark the way every few meters as the track approaches the summit. Despite its benign appearance and relatively easy climb (about 100,000 or so people climb Ben Nevis yearly), weather in the Scottish Highlands can change quickly even in the summer. Ben Nevis is no place where you want to be when it does. We made our descent as soon as the clouds rolled up from the north gullies; indeed temperatures dropped the warm sunshine to near cold. The 4300 vertical feet of downhill did our weary, jetlagged bodies no good and we were sore for a week to come. We rested better that night and headed towards Glen Coe the next day. Barely able to walk as we straggled to and from various bus stops, we cancelled plans for another hill walk in Glen Coe. Our trip eventually settled mostly in the Central Belt, Scotland's populated valley guarded by Glasgow and Edinburgh on either end, and a side trip to the Isle of Arran. One week just wasn’t enough but I had at least done some hill walking and climbed the highest peak in the land. Aside from bragging rights, Ben Nevis is something that many visitors to Scotland can and should do, but most don’t make it beyond the roadside tourist kiosks and overlooks.
Other hiking climbs by jvhirniak: