Climbing Ben Nevis, the UK’s tallest mountain

I just turned 41, so it’s time for my annual long-distance hike in order to prove I’m not as old as the numbers say. Last year I spent six days walking the 84-mile Hadrian’s Wall Path. This year I’m in Scotland to tackle the region’s newest trail, the East Highland Way, stretching from Ft. William on the west coast 76 miles inland past lochs, mountains, and castles to Aviemore.

Before heading out into the countryside I want to defeat Ft. William’s greatest challenge–a grueling climb up Ben Nevis, the UK’s tallest mountain at 4,409 ft. (1,344 meters). While there’s a trail all the way up, it’s faint in places and there are sheer drops that have claimed more than a few lives. With the summit usually shrouded in mist and the trail fading to near invisibility at the top, I’ve come prepared with a map and compass as well as wet-weather clothing, a sweater, food, plenty of water, and all the usual emergency gear.

I walk the three miles from my B&B to the trailhead, where a youth hostel and information center are covered in posters warning hikers to be prepared. Ben Nevis and other peaks loom over the valley. It’s sunny at the moment, but I can’t see the summit of Ben Nevis because it’s blocked by its lower slopes. The start of the Pony Trail, the most popular way up, is almost at sea level, so we’re going to earn every one of those 4,409 feet. The first thing I see is a search and rescue helicopter coming down off the summit. Propitious!

The trail is hard right from the beginning. Uneven stone steps lead up a steep slope on long, winding switchbacks. The sun is strong and my t-shirt is soaked in sweat. The whole of western Scotland seems to be at my feet. Ft. William is visible in the distance, on the shores of Loch Linnhe. Several other lochs and rivers makes deep cuts into the surrounding hills. Water and land are a patchwork of blue, green, and gray smudged by shadows from the scattered clouds. Further up I come across a small mountain loch nestled in a little valley and fed by the numerous little streams that trickle down the slopes. I’m tempted to take a drink–I do this all the time in the Sierra de Guadarrama near Madrid–but the piles of sheep dung make me think twice.

There are plenty of others on this trail, either huffing and puffing their way up like me, or staggering their way down with wasted expressions on their faces. As I continue upwards, the short grass gives way to bare rock splotched with green and yellow lichen. The sky darkens and thin wisps of cloud descend over the slope. Soon visibility is down to fifty yards. The crowd thins out too, and at times I am alone in a weird, colorless landscape of pale broken rock and thickening mist. Cairns positioned at regular intervals mark the trail. I can faintly see other cairns on either side. Some of these mark where search and rescue found dead climbers. Others have been built for seemingly no reason, although they could easily mislead the unwary, leading to the creation of more memorials. It’s cold now and I’ve put on my sweater and raincoat. Freezing rain needles my face.

%Gallery-99558%The summit appears as a surprise. One moment I’m walking alone up a gentle grade, the next moment the land flattens out and I see a summit marker and emergency hut with several silhouettes cavorting around it. I’ve made it!

The ruins of a weather observatory built in 1883 sit to one side. Even back then Ben Nevis was a popular climb, and the scientists were often bothered by exhausted hikers begging for food. The observatory posted suggestions about climbing the mountain, advising healthy men to neither rest nor drink water while climbing, but to bring a lemon and some biscuits or sandwiches. They also advised that, “The fair sex, the broken-winded, and the rheumatic must do their own sweet will on Ben Nevis.” While I’m not a woman, broken-winded, or rheumatic, I have to admit that I drank water and rested on my way up, and you should too. I wonder what other bad exercise advice was popular in Victorian times.

While I’ve made it up, coming down is where most climbers get lost, hurt, or killed. I’ve taken compass bearings and the line of cairns is visible enough to confirm my reading. It’s vital not to stray off the path as this surreal terrain all looks the same. In several places funnels of slick grass and rock lead to sheer drops.

A part of me wishes some of my fellow hikers would fall down them. Litter is scattered everywhere. Why would someone take the trouble to slog up the tallest mountain in the British Isles only to leave behind a plastic bottle? I pick some of them up, but I’d need a thirty-man crew with garbage bags to get it all. Ben Nevis is the perfect example of a scenic location that’s become too popular for its own good. I head back down with mixed feelings.

I navigate through the mist with no trouble and as I get on the clearer part of the trail the diaphanous curtain of clouds lifts to reveal the surrounding countryside. It’s only a trick, however, and soon a bitterly cold rain pelts down. More people are struggling up, including one bedraggled guy wearing only a long-sleeved shirt and carrying only a small bottle of water. I’m tempted to tell him to turn back but he’s already proven he won’t listen to reason. The descent is a long. slow slog down innumerable switchbacks that seem to last forever, but eventually I make it to the bottom and spot what should be at the end of every difficult hike–a pub. I go get a pint. I’ve earned it.

Next time: Starting on the East Highland Way!