I followed the A82 south for an hour from Invergarry, all the while looking to the mountains as I passed, all of them hiding their summits in the clouds. I’d lived in Scotland for over 29 years of my life, but it took moving to the other side of the world to make me keen to summit Scotland’s highest peak, Ben Nevis. At 4,414ft (1346m) it far surpasses the minimum requirement of 3000ft to make it a Munro. Munro bagging is a popular past-time for serious hikers and hobbyists alike. I didn’t really get into hiking until I was 25, by then living in Aberdeen in the north-east of the country. I acquainted myself with the eastern edge of the Cairngorm National Park, and whilst I did a good bit of wilderness hiking with my then partner, up peaks that I have no idea what altitude they went to, I’ve only knowingly hiked one Munro, Lochnagar, and this was a favourite hike to head off to on a good day.
So when I took the turn off at the edge of Fort William up through Glen Nevis and into the car park, I was in two minds about what to do. This was my only chance on my trip to get up there, but I wouldn’t normally hike a mountain unless there is a view at the end of it. I popped into the visitor centre to ask their advice. The girl at the desk could only guess where the cloud base was, and advised that the section within the cloud was dangerous with poor visibility, as was the summit due to the potential for losing the path and walking off a cliff edge. Having come this far, I decided to hike up to the cloud base to atleast get some exercise, and make a judgement about going higher based on what I could see. I got chatting to a couple in the car park who had never been up either, and they laughed at me when I said I probably wouldn’t summit because of the warnings. I wondered at their foolishness, or cockiness when they seemed less prepared than me for a mountain hike. There have been concerns in the past that the hike has become rather touristy with people attempting it rather unprepared, and not giving it its due. I could see how this could be the case, and have seen similar issues in the mountains of New Zealand.
From the pay and display car park at the visitors centre, the long ascent starts as an easy riverside walk downstream to a bridge over the river Nevis. On the far side of the river it backtracks before a sign points up between a wall and a fence where it meets the path at the Ben Nevis Inn. Despite the weather forecast, it was a very busy route with a steady stream of people visible ahead and behind me. Early on, the ascent began and as I tracked my way up the hillside and along the glen I could see the clouds swirling around the nearby mountain tops. Even being overcast, it was a beautiful view up and down the glen.
By the time the path from the youth hostel joined the track and a couple of zig-zags broke up the monotony of the climb, I was already feeling the strain of 2 weeks over-indulgence on my road trip. Despite a southern summer of hiking, I was not as fit as I could be. The track is quite uneven and rocky under foot. Some parts of this lower section are a bit uncomfortable as a result, and many footsteps have eroded smoother paths at the side in an effort to avoid this. After crossing a footbridge, the path curves round the hillside to start the ascent up Red Burn valley, and it now became glaringly obvious that the summit was nowhere to be seen within the cloud base.
Having never hiked it before, I had no idea how much altitude was invisible, but I was resolute in my decision to hike to the cloud base and make a judgement call from there. I joined the steady stream of hikers who zig-zagged up the new path route to a low plateau where the dark waters of Loch Meall an t-Suidhe came into view. Several people had stopped here for a snack or a breather, and some track maintenance was being done on the section that passes by the loch’s side. After this short flat section, the path climbs again, meeting a path that heads left round the north face. Turning right, I had to stop almost immediately to kit up as a drizzle was starting. Behind me there were still many people on route up, and as I looked at the path ahead of me, there were several people on their way down.
The route snakes round the contours of the mountainside, crossing the Red Burn before eventually hitting the start of the real ascent. From here upwards, the path zig-zags up the slope, changing early on from a well marked path to a large boulder field and a narrowing of the path. After just a couple of bends I reached the cloud level, and spurred on by the now steady stream of descenders, I pushed into it to assess the visibility. I could see about 3-4m ahead and behind and decided that I’d keep going up until I felt uncomfortable with the lack of visibility.
With no point of reference, the hike became a long trudge upwards across first boulders and then scree. I lost track of how often it curved left then right then left again. There was a constant appearance of figures emerging from the gloom ahead of me and I had no idea how high I was climbing. I just followed the vague figures in front of me, and took reassurance from the regular stone piles that denoted the path route.
I came upon a junction and turned right like everyone else, and a little further on I became aware of a large group of people emerging from the cloud. I was surprised to find them standing at the bottom of a large patch of snow. The path led right up to it, and I paused briefly to watch people gingerly pick their way up, several people slipping on the way up and down. The main ream of footprints seemed to have resulted in an overly packed icy zone, so I tried to pick a path through fresher snow, still briefly sliding a few times before reaching the top. From the top of the snow, the bottom was barely visible through the cloud.
After the snow, the path continued to climb, although the gradient began to level off, and I surmised I must be near the summit. But emerging from the cloud was stone cairn after stone cairn, and still the path continued. Eventually I had to ask a descending hiker how close I was, and was relieved to discover I’d reach the summit in another 10 minutes. The visibility remained the same, and with no other reference than the regular stream of fellow hikers and multitude of stone cairns I pressed on wondering if I’d know when I got there.
But despite the lack of visibility, the summit became very obvious when I finally reached it. Emerging from the gloom, the ruins of an old observatory appeared, and behind that a rudimentary hut shelter raised up on boulders. I looked for an obvious summit marker, and soon found two of them, the higher one up on a plinth with a queue of people waiting to have their photo taken. It was cold and damp, but there was no way I was summiting Scotland’s highest mountain and not getting a photo to prove it.
I didn’t want to wander too far with no idea where the gullies or cliffs were so I stuck to the obvious landmarks. Sheltered spots were in high demand, and I couldn’t believe how many people were out hiking that day in such poor weather conditions. I hunkered down in as sheltered a spot as I could find free, leaning against the wall of the old observatory, to enjoy my lunch. It wasn’t long until I was joined by other hungry hikers and I noted several that had come up with their dogs. It was a convivial gathering of like-minded people, but the coldness and drizzle meant that nobody wanted to hang around longer than necessary to refuel.
Just past the observatory is an official cairn with a plaque denoting it as a war memorial. Once more I followed the figures disappearing into the clouds, able to make out the well trodden track across the many boulders of the summit plateau. Finding myself back at the snow bank I watched as nearly every single person on the descent fell over. I decided that there was no better way for it, and swiftly sat down on my butt and pushed off, tobogganing gleefully down to the bottom with ease. Further on, I kept an eye out for the junction, knowing that this would be the one place I could go awry in the poor visibility. Thankfully there was still a steady stream of ascenders and right where I thought it was, I got confirmation from some figures emerging below me from the cloud.
I felt an overwhelming sense of achievement as I picked my way back down the zig-zag, still with no reference to gauge how far I was travelling. I was in a world of boulders and scree, the mountainside barren around me. I noted that the cloud base had dropped lower whilst I’d been at the summit, as I returned to the wider path near the base of the zig-zags and couldn’t see the loch.
Finally the surrounding mountains broke through and I could see Glen Nevis again. The loch reappeared, and shortly after, the relentless zig-zags came to an end. I crossed back over Red Burn and at the junction by the loch, I looked up at the summit to see nothing but cloud. Retracing my steps past the loch and down into Red Burn valley, I was able to take in the scenery a bit better. The burn itself tumbles down the mountainside in a succession of waterfalls from high up the slopes of Ben Nevis.
I didn’t realise it at the time, but looking across Glen Nevis to the far side of the valley, I was staring at the final descent of the West Highland Way, a multi-day hike that I would be walking in a few weeks time. As the valley opened up in front of me again, I trudged past the turn off for the youth hostel and made my way to the Ben Nevis Inn where several hikers sat outside in the beer garden enjoying a drink. Down the hill, and back along the river, I crossed the bridge back to the car park and eagerly took off my hiking boots ready for the long drive back to Glasgow. There are varying reports about the time needed to summit Ben Nevis, and had it been a better day I would have spent a lot more time at the summit. In the end, I summited in 3 hrs and descended in 2.5hrs, satisfied to knock off the King of all Munros.