There is nothing I love more than the warm-muscle satisfaction that comes from climbing a mountain. After first tackling Snowdon to take in the sunrise at the summit in 2019 (pictured below!), my Mom and I made a pact to do a mountain a year together. I’m not sure if it was a helpful suggestion or not, but my Dad recommended we do Ben Nevis next, as (in his words) Mom wasn’t getting any younger (I’m sure Nick Gardner would disagree!). Sentiment aside, I was more than happy to get planning a trip and for her Christmas present, I booked us onto a Ben Nevis Challenge weekend package run by Large Outdoors.
Unfortunately, then Covid-19 hit and our trip was cancelled, but we quickly took the opportunity in the brief relaxation of restrictions in September 2020 to make our way up to Scotland and tackle the Ben.
Planning the Trip
Rather than risking an organised weekend trip being cancelled again, I decided it would be best to just book a day walk for Ben Nevis, benefitting from the knowledge and experience of a guide whilst having full control over the rest of our weekend and our accommodation. I asked for some hostel recommendations on a Facebook group and quickly booked a room at Corran Bunkhouse whilst they had availability. To break up the journey, I also booked a hotel in the Lake District for an overnight stop to break up the driving. I had hoped we might venture out for a morning kayak or walk before completing the drive to Fort William but in the end, we were just eager to get on the road and arrive.
A brief stop off at Loch Lomond couldn’t have been better timed, as a beautiful rainbow stretched overhead and made for a magical memory, before having to dash back to the car as the rain soon poured! I couldn’t resist another photography stop off as we drove the remainder of the way though – when that sun broke through the clouds, the view looked stunning.
Whilst Snowdon has a multitude of popular route options, Ben Nevis’s Pony Track (also known as the Mountain or Tourist Track) is the main route up to the summit, starting at the Ben Nevis Visitor Centre car park, which is where we parked.
Parking Postcode: PH33 6PF
The Ben Nevis Visitor Centre (formerly known as the Glen Nevis Visitor Centre) has space for around 80 cars and 4 coaches. Parking is Pay and Display, and currently (as at February 2022) costs £1 for an hour or £4 for the whole day. There are toilets available, but not 24/7. The opening hours of the toilets match the opening hours of the Visitor Centre. Find out more at the Ben Nevis Visitor Centre website.
It’s a straight forward and very popular route, with a clear path that includes the infamous zig-zags nearer the top. More experienced hikers can attempt the CMD arete route which allows for great views of the North Face, but we were more than happy to play it safe.
Our weather was mixed – we were lucky to get some gorgeous views across the lower valleys, but for the majority of the route, it was pouring with rain. As such, a lot of the walk involved just keeping our heads down and continuing to move: one foot in front of the other. I really enjoyed the first half of the climb, enjoying the wooden bridges and hopping across the large boulders that made up the track. There were plenty of other hikers tackling the Ben too but it didn’t feel too crowded or overwhelming. We saw some groups that were obviously tackling the Three Peaks Challenge, and I did not feel envious of their enforced pace at all. Although we ended up walking at a very similar pace, it felt nice to know we were under no pressure.
Before we knew it, we’d passed the halfway loch and were approaching the Red Barn, which offered an opportunity to refill our water bottles (if you’re happy drinking natural water) and attempt to cross the river. Groups before us were trying different routes to traverse the water, no one keen to get their feet wet – although, with the amount of water flowing through, it was pretty inevitable no matter how or where you decided to cross. I remember stopping for a sandwich but can’t remember if this was on the way up or the way back down! Either way, there are some rocks you can perch your bum on if you fancy a snack here.
And it’s here that the zig-zags begin. I’d been warned it was a relentless and not a very rewarding part of the route and so my expectations were very low. I was anticipating it to feel tough and long but in reality, it wasn’t too bad! There’s something to be said for setting the expectation bar low… I’m always happy to be pleasantly surprised. We snaked our way up and I enjoyed some lovely chat with another member of our small group, and we enjoyed the opportunities to take a few selfies or snaps of the view whilst we waited for our guide and my Mom to catch up.
I was glad I layered up as the temperature soon began to drop as we ascended. I wore my trusty ACAI hiking trousers (I’d bought myself a new pair of Bottle Green skinnies just for the occasion) although you can’t tell as I added waterproof trousers over the top for a bit of extra protection. With the onslaught of the wind and rain, I was glad for the uphill climb to keep my body nice and warm. My main kit regret here was that I didn’t have any proper waterproof gloves.
I only wore some cheap woolly type gloves (you know the type… probably cost £2 in Primark!) which were not suitable for this hike at all. They soon got soaked and did nothing to help keep my hands warm and dry. Thankfully, our guide had a HUGE supply of better gloves with her, which she kindly dished out to us and they made SUCH a massive difference. Just need to remember to tuck them inside the cuff of my coat sleeve next time so the water doesn’t seep in.
The further we climbed, the more snow we encountered. What first began as little clusters of icy sparkles clinging to the edges of rocks or nestled in sheltered corners soon became larger snowy expanses. As the gradient began to level off, we marvelled at the sight of the North Face before heading up to the summit, passing lots of very cold people already making their way back down.
The BEST thing we did once we’d reached the summit (before we joined the thankfully small queue for a summit photo) was pop on an extra layer under the advisement of our Guide. It felt a bit counter-intuitive to take off our outer-layers to pop on another mid-layer underneath but I was SO grateful that we did. The exposure at the summit was considerable and although we didn’t stay up there for long, it’s possible to get cold very quickly. I didn’t think I needed another layer, but by the time we left and headed back down, I did feel rather smug that I was still feeling comfortable whilst everyone else around us was complaining about the cold.
The weather was also turning too… the journey down was extremely wet and windy. It was just a case of putting one foot in front of the other and getting the job done. Thankfully, by the time we hit the Red Barn again on the descent, we’d ducked under the cloud level again and conditions were a lot more pleasant. Just a LOT of slippy rocks to contend with underfoot.
Before we knew it, and not before I slipped on a wet rock and fell pretty much flat on my face, we were back at the Visitor Centre car park and very much looking forward to some dinner (which was a fish and chips takeaway!).
Would I recommend climbing Ben Nevis? Absolutely. Not because it’s a particularly rewarding route but because it’s a huge mountain milestone. And the sense of achievement afterwards was pretty epic. I am very glad we did our walk with a qualified Mountain Leader guide, as although the route was fairly straight forward, I am not comfortable with my own skills to feel safe on my own, especially if the weather were to have gotten any more adverse.