Ben Nevis is the highest mountain in the United Kingdom, at 1344.527 m / 4413 ft - it gained about a metre during a 2016 official survey. It's near the town of Fort William in the Scottish Highlands, at the southwest end of the Great Glen. It's reckoned that over 100,000 people climb it each year, usually by the straightforward "Mountain Track". The North Face has 700 m cliffs, with routes only suitable for skilled mountaineering and rock- or ice-climbing. There's a ski resort on its north flank, Aonach Mor.
The mountain's Gaelic name Beinn Nibheis is variously translated as "venomous mountain" or "mountain with its head in the clouds". In the Devonian era 400 million years ago it was a volcano, then in the Carboniferous 350 million years ago its inner chamber dramatically imploded. What's left is the imploded dome, much weathered by glaciation.
Ben Nevis is on the outskirts of Fort William, which is reachable by road from Glasgow (105 miles) or Inverness (65 miles) via the A82. Fort William has a three times daily rail service from Glasgow, and an overnight sleeper train from London Euston. There are also regular buses from Glasgow, Inverness, Oban and Portree on Skye.
Shiel Bus N41 runs between Fort William and Roy Bridge, via Torlundy (for the North Face route), Nevis Range Ski Centre and Spean Bridge. It runs seven times a day M-Sat. Twice a day (at around 09:00 and 17:00) year round, it extends from Fort William to Glen Nevis Youth Hostel. May to Oct it's supplemented by Bus N42, which run six times daily to the Youth Hostel, with three buses extending to the Lower Falls. This means that if you use the bus to start and finish your walk, the earliest you can reach the foot of the ascent is 09:00 M-Sat and 10:00 summer Sundays, and your last bus back is around 17:30 M-Sat and 17:00 summer Sundays. It's barely enough to climb up and down again, and you don't want to be hurrying downhill when you're tired.
Parking around the mountain: please don't use Achintree Lane (north bank of Glen Nevis) unless you've accommodation there. It's so cramped and limited, you'll end up reversing a mile to let a tractor past.
- 1 Braveheart one mile up Glen Nevis Lane is handy for the West Highland Way, but a mile short of the path up the mountain. Free, space for 30 cars.
- 2 Glen Nevis Visitor Centre near the start of the usual mountain path has toilets. Cars £4 per day.
- 3 Nevis Gorge is at the top of Glen Nevis Lane. A tough ascent of Ben Nevis starts here, and the four-munro "Ring of Steall". Free, space for 40 cars.
- 4 North Face car park is off the A82 at Torlundy. Free, space for 30 cars.
Glen Nevis is the valley on the south and west flanks of Ben Nevis: see Fort William for accommodation here. It's the usual access route to the mountain, but it's also worth visiting in its own right (and not just as a fall-back if you called off a climb). Two roads run up it from Fort William but do not connect. North bank of the River Nevis is Achintree Road: from town take Claggan Road and turn right just before the Spar supermarket. It runs for three miles, past the football ground as far as Achintree Farm and the Ben Nevis Inn. Here a footbridge crosses to the south / west bank, the road ends and the path up the mountain begins.
South bank of the river is Glen Nevis Lane - this is the N41 / 42 bus route. It starts in town from the A82 roundabout just south of the river bridge. It winds past "Braveheart" car park to Ben Nevis Visitor Centre (park here and cross the footbridge to ascend Ben Nevis). It continues past the Caravan & Camping Park, Youth Hostel and Lower Falls to end at Nevis Gorge car park. From here a path goes up the scenic rocky river gorge, until the scenery opens out in the broad upper glen. A wire bridge crosses the river - grab two wires firmly and balance on the third - and a path leads up to Steall Falls, a 120 m three-tiered cascade. The nearby Steall Hut is a mountain cottage available to long-distance walkers (see Landranger sheet 41, grid ref 178684) - call Ewen Kay on 01224 587390 if you plan to use it.
The ridge above the glen to the west / south of the river, opposite Ben Nevis, is the most northerly section of the West Highland Way, a 15-mile hike from Kinlochleven. The mountains to the south are the Mamore range.
Climbing Ben Nevis
- The Mountain Track (aka the Pony Track or Tourist Route) is the usual route. Start from the Visitor Centre in Glen Nevis, all of 20 m above sea level, so you've only 1324 m to climb. Cross the footbridge to Achintee Farm and head up along the traverse. Another start is from the Youth Hostel, crossing the footbridge there; this is initially steeper then the two paths join. From here it's a relentless slog along a path much eroded by tens of thousands of people every year. The route is steadily uphill through a couple of small zigzags, curving left at a cleft in the hill before levelling out at "Halfway Lochan" at 570 m, Lochan Meall an t-Suidhe. (The big rock below the path here is the only cover on this bare mountain if you need the loo . . . but it gets kinda gross back there.) Cross the Red Burn waterfall.
Then come the main zigzags, a series of eight switchbacks, over scree. The path is less distinct here, you could lose it on a foggy day, and those crosses dotted about are where bodies of climbers have been found. There's a lengthy straight up the last slopes before veering left onto the summit plateau. If the path here is obscured by snow follow the line of little cairns, don't shortcut straight to the summit else you'll plunge into a snow-filled gully. At the 1 summit is a cairn, the ruins of a weather observatory (active 1883-1904, now used as an emergency shelter) - and a cliff edge. Ice here may form a cornice - an overhang - unsafe to stand on.
The track is 7 km / 4 miles, reckon four hours up and two to descend. Newcomers to the mountain must descend by the same path, because other routes have hidden pitfalls which you won't have had an opportunity to check out on the way up. To descend in fog, start from the summit cairn and walk 150 m on compass bearing of 231 degrees, to avoid the abyss of Gardyloo Gully on your right. Then hold a bearing of 282 degrees, which will take you down to the zigzag path clear of hazardous Five Finger Gully.
- The CMD route involves climbing Càrn Mòr Dearg (say "karn mor jerrack" or just "CMD"), then traversing an arete to Ben Nevis. This route is longer and tougher, and only suitable for hardy adult hill-walkers, but has great views of the North Face cliffs. Start from the North Face car park above Torlundy. Ascend the lane which becomes a path climbing alongside the stream, Allt a' Mhuilinn, up to the Charles Inglis Clark Hut. This is about halfway; the water pipe here draws from above the sheep grazing, so you can refill your bottle in relative safety. (Walkers on the Mountain Track can also branch north at Halfway Lochan to reach the hut.) There's now a choice of routes, all involving a very steep climb - rated a "scramble" in summer but technical "Grade 2 mountaineering" in winter. These ascend Carn Dearg Meadhonach to reach the summit of CMD, a Munro of 1220 m. Here you teeter along the arete (the narrow sharp ridge) onto Ben Nevis, for the last stiff climb to the summit. It's 1500 m to ascend as there's a bit of up-and-down along the arete, reckon six hours up and three to descend. The CMD descent is tricky, bail out onto the Mountain Track if you're running out of daylight, weather or stamina.
- From Steall Falls: park at Nevis Gorge and follow the trail up the gorge to the cable bridge. Now turn north into Alt Coire Ghiuthsachan and up the grassy slopes of Bealach Cumhann. This leads to the west end of the CMD arete, then up the steep scree to the summit.
- The Three Peaks Challenge involves climbing Ben Nevis (Scotland and UK's highest mountain), Scafell Pike (978 m, highest in England) and Snowdon (1085 m, highest in Wales), usually in that order, and as a charity dash. The record for up and down all three is just under 12 hours, by Joss Naylor in 1971. He used a rally car & driver between peaks so in the age of the speed camera this may never be bettered. You must have a non-climbing driver, as falling asleep on the soporific M74 / M6 is all too likely.
- Consider the weather, and specifically check the Ben Nevis forecast. Expect it to be cold, windy and foggy up there - it's seldom above 10 C even in mid-summer. A glorious day can turn to fog or lashing sleet very quickly. Also consider the hours of daylight available: they shorten rapidly in late August. If avalanche warnings are in effect, do not climb the mountain. People who have ignored such warnings have been killed.
- Clothing: you will need strong walking boots (ideally broken in) and try and avoid trainers. Wear water & windproof outer gear plus gloves and a warm hat.
- Take high-energy food and plenty of water. There is no fresh water on the mountain itself.
- Maps: Ordnance Survey Landranger Map 41 covers this area. Carry a compass and know how to use it.
- Let someone know your plans (e.g. at the visitor centre) and check in with them once you're back. Don't rely on your mobile phone since coverage is limited.
Walk a long distance path:
- The West Highland Way starts or finishes at Fort William, running 154 km to Milngavie, near Glasgow
- The Great Glen Way also starts or finishes in Fort William, going 127 km to Inverness
Climb some more of the Munros - hills over 3000 feet (914 m) in Scotland. There are 282 listed Munros, as well as 227 subsidiary tops. Though not as high as Ben Nevis, many of the hills are interesting in their own way - many are more scenic or more of a challenge to climb.