The West Highland Way & Great Glen Way

Walked in August 2010

Day 8 - Sunday 22nd August

Climb of Ben Nevis
9.5 miles

I woke at around 6.45 and was up and about by 7.30. The sky was grey and there were a lot of clouds hovering around the higher reaches of Ben Nevis. Despite a decidedly grim weather outlook, we left the camp at about 9.30 hoping the weather would improve, and turned right at the main road to walk down to the youth hostel, opposite which was the steep path that climbed up to join the main tourist path up the ben.

The path first crossed a bridge then started winding up the steep side of the mountain. It consisted largely of rocks and wasn’t too kind on the feet or the knees, but we pressed on, telling ourselves that the main tourist path couldn’t be too far up, and then things should be easier. The tourist path was further up than we thought though, and things didn’t improve that much when we reached it, though the gradient was a little easier. There were a number of people about, all climbing the ben with us, and we overtook a few as we went. As we pushed on to the halfway point we saw very few people coming back down, perhaps indicating that most people had set out at around the same time as us, probably wary of the weather higher up. Wherever you are on the long (4 mile) path up the side of Ben Nevis, you should be able to see other people, depending on the visibility. Some sections will have long strings of people stretched out, all following in each other’s steps and all asking each other how far they are from the top.

On busy days the number of visitors tops a thousand, sometimes much more, but on dull misty days like this, a lot of people decide to give the climb a miss, choosing to stay indoors or potter around Fort William depending on their schedule. We however didn’t have a lot of choice, so today was the day, and although the weather could indeed have been worse, it would have been nice to have a proper view of the surrounding terrain, especially since we’d be reaching the highest point in Britain.

We made good time reaching the halfway lake (Lochan Meall an t-Suidhe) and proceeded to climb the second lump of the ben which would lead us to the summit. The beginning of this second section climbed in long zig-zagging stretches, the path still consisting of rocks which eventually gave way to smaller scree and less sure footing. The mist soon swallowed us up and we could see little more than the ground and the occasional indistinct figure above or below us.

My feet grew tired and painful from the hard, uneven ground, and from carrying the pack which I had intended to keep light but which was instead heavy from water, food and waterproofs. My leather boots which had been a long way past their prime when we started the walk, were now hanging on for dear life and threatening to fall apart before my very eyes. I should have bought new boots before the trip and broken them in. I’d have definitely had a much more comfortable experience if I’d done this. Still, it’s nice to know that the boots got me through three long-distance walks, and they’ve now been given a well deserved retirement.

My right foot in particular was hurting, but I pushed on, wondering where the hell the summit was since we seemed to have been ‘approaching’ it for the last half an hour. Eventually it did appear though just as a light but cold rain started to fall.

Despite the near white-out we were able to see the summit cairn with its trig point and the summit shelter built from the remains of the old observatory, but we didn’t stick around long enough to really investigate either one. I took some photos and video, then we hunkered down for a minute or two in the remains of the observatory for a quick bite to eat and a drink. It was cold, wet and uncomfortable and the only real option now that we’d reached the summit was to walk all the way back down again. In better weather I’m sure the views from the top of Ben Nevis could occupy a visitor for the best part of an hour, but in these conditions you don’t really have that choice.

We turned and began the descent back down the mountain, passing large numbers of people struggling to get to the top on aching feet. Getting down was certainly quicker than getting up, but it was no easier. At one point as I stopped to take a photo I stumbled, hopping from one rock to the next and narrowly avoiding hurting myself and/or falling down the side of the mountain. The mist remained where it was, so it wasn’t until reaching the halfway point again that we could see views of the valley (views we’d already seen), and could only take the same photographs. We eventually reached the path to the hostel, and after further abuse to the feet got back to the main road, and then the campsite where we were very happy to collapse.

I washed some more clothes in the sink, then had a coffee (with whiskey) in Darryl’s tent along with some food. I was surprised when Darryl went off for another run, but was happy to leave him to it while I read.


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