Date: 20th July 2019. Accompanied by Vicki Lee, my sister.
Weather conditions: Up until about 12.30, rather cruddy; clamped under low grey cloud, with some drizzle. However, after then we emerged from under the cloud into a tolerable day, dry, still and a comfortable temperature. The summit was covered in mist all day, however.
County Top bagged: Ben Nevis, which at 4,413ft/1,345m is the highest mountain in the historic county of Inverness-shire, in the modern authority of Highland, in Scotland, and the whole of the UK. The summit lies at grid reference NN166712 (not that you are likely to need an OS map to find it) and, obviously, it ranks 1st in altitude of all the 91 historic county tops, the 172 modern Tops and the full list of 196.
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Start and end point of walk: Started at the foot of the ‘Mountain Track’, near Achintee Farm, south-east of Fort William along the Glen Nevis road. You are not going to struggle to find this; on the evidence offered by this Saturday in July, several hundred people each day may be embarking on the climb from here. The owner of our B & B gave us a lift to this point but if you want to warm up for the climb ahead by walking it, it’s about 1.5 miles from Fort William station.
Finished where the access road for the North Face car park meets the minor road east of Torlundy. This is several miles fron the starting point, and from Fort William, so to return there, we phoned a taxi.
Pub at end: Nothing at our finishing point. If you come down the Mountain Track there is the Ben Nevis Inn at the bottom. In Fort William there are several pubs, ranging from the rather surreal Maryburgh Inn (genuinely a hole in the ground) to Brewers’ Fayre type establishments and upmarket bistros. You’ll find something to suit I am sure.
Distance walked: By the route we took, 15.2 miles/24.5km approximately. To get up and down via the Mountain Track would be about 11.5 miles/18.5km.
Feet of ascent: 4,340 feet/1,320m approximately.
Difficulty: ★★★★. Not five stars? No… while the ascent is a stiff climb for sure, I have done longer, steeper and/or more difficult ones (like Scafell Pike via Esk Hause for a start). Anyone with the ability to keep putting one foot in front of the other should be able to get up via the Mountain Track in more-or-less the three hours that it took Vicki and I, without inordinate grief. Our descent was also not too arduous. But all the same, it’s a long walk up the highest mountain in Britain, and the legs will feel it at the end of the day.
Ease of access: ★★★. Despite its altitude, Ben Nevis is a relatively accessible mountain. It lies right outside Fort William, which is the biggest town for some distance around. There are four trains a day from Glasgow, although unless you are willing to get on the 5.48am service you won’t be doing the summit in a day trip on public transport even from there. But as long as you spend at least one night in Fort William it is not hard to reach.
Scenic qualities: ★★★★★. As you would expect from the highest point in the UK, there are some cracking views to be had on the walk. But bear in mind that if you were to stick to the Mountain Track I would reduce this to four stars. The scenic highlight is the view of the tremendous North Face, not seen at all from the MT.
The area: Fort William has a magnificent setting and all necessary amenities, but it won’t win any town planning awards, with its chunky 60s shopping centre and concrete dual carriageway separating the town from the loch. But at a functional level it hosted us well.
Inverness-shire is the second-largest of all the historic counties of Britain after Yorkshire, and the largest in Scotland. It is also one of the most sparsely populated, with about 68,000 people living across a vast swathe of the Highlands that also sweeps out to sea and incorporates the Isle of Skye and much of the Outer Hebrides. Ben Nevis’s presence in the county explains why famous peaks like the Cuillins of Skye and Braeriach, Britain’s third-highest mountain, are not themselves County Tops. In administrative terms Inverness-shire hasn’t existed since 1975, being now part of the even vaster Highland council area, one of the largest local administrative areas in Europe. Of which, obviously, Ben Nevis is still the modern Top.
Map: The OS Explorer map is 392: Ben Nevis and Fort William. Though on this occasion I picked up a competitor’s map, the Superwalker XT25 (Ben Nevis), which did just as good a job (although cost more).
I couldn’t get a summary map to come out at this scale that included both the summit and the terminus, but never mind. As I note below, bearing left later on would have returned us to the town instead of ending at the North Face car park.
Route: For all its popularity this is a significant expedition so don’t commence it without proper footwear, clothing and supplies of food and drink. The weather on Ben Nevis can be dreadful at any time. On this Saturday in July, while it was reasonably warm in Fort William, I was wearing fleece, hat and gloves on the summit. I would also bring insect repellent.
No one is going to get lost on the way up the Mountain Track from the car park at the bottom. There can be few more-travelled paths in Britain. What you do, with everyone else, is climb continuously upwards for six miles, three hours and some 4,300 feet of vertical distance. It’s never excessively steep, however.
Vicki and I did it in the mist, and as this blocked the views we lost our sense of how far up we had come. The most obvious landmark, the lochan (small lake) of Meall an t-Suidhe, was invisible, and we realised we had passed it and were gaining height more quickly than expected. The infamous zigzags were a bit of a drag, but then we were on the plateau and following the line of cairns through the thick mist, still with little sense of distance passing and then there we were — the summit of Britain. Up there are the ruins of an old weather observatory, and a couple of platforms with the OS trig station on one, and an emergency shelter on the other. And people. There will be lots of people.
You have to descend the same way at least as far as the junction just past the crossing of the Red Burn. But at this point there is a choice. Continue down the Mountain Track back to Achintee if you wish, but those who would like a) more solitude and b) a proper view of the tremendous North Face — at the price of about another three miles on the length of the walk — these more discerning types will do what we did, and go straight on. Ignore the next turning on the left, and follow this path which then curves around the shoulder of the Ben and brings the North Face into view. This is awesome in scale, and, far more than the ascent of the pedestrian motorway that is the MT, truly gives you the feeling that above you rises the highest land in the country.
The path deteriorates, so how far up it you go is your decision. Take it all the way to the Charles Inglis Clark (CIC) climbing hut if you like, but visible across the river below (the Allt a’Mhuillin) is the path that you will take back down to valley level, either way. We established our own fording point, and with frequent looks back at the receding view, headed down valley. As you drop down to the level of the forests, there are a couple more spectacular viewpoints, over Lochs Linnhe and Eil. (This would also be a good time to apply the insect repellent.)
Had we taken a left turn a bit further down, in the higher reaches of the forests, I think we would have come back direct to Fort William, past the aluminium smelter, but in the end we followed signs pointing to the North Face car park, and ended the walk at the start of its access road, near the railway bridge.
Sibling commentary: I can’t honestly remember whose idea it first was to climb Ben Nevis together — mine or my sister’s. I admit, though, that it was I who suggested doing it this weekend, as a conference in Edinburgh gave me the chance to travel halfway there on the company. We came up to Fort William yesterday, Friday, and will head back tomorrow.
This was a commitment made some time ago, and it’s been since then that the idea of the County Tops project became fully formed. That I didn’t start with Ben Nevis was, in the end, an accident provoked by my being in Holyhead last month — but as I said on that page, that was a more esoteric but still very fine place to start, and I knew that today would follow right along.
This might have been a disappointment. We looked out of the B & B window in the morning and saw the mountain cloaked in mist from a few hundred feet up. Off we set anyway — after all, what else were we going to do? we’d come four hundred miles for this — but that cloud held down on us all the way to the summit. It was a fine achievement to make it to the top, but with no view to greet us and a sense that the ascent hadn’t been special… there were times where I reckoned the best thing would be to come back and do it again at some later date.
But then, a few hundred feet above the Red Burn, when we were stopped for lunch, Vicki claimed to be able to see caravans below in the glen. Imagination? No, there came a hint of a hill or two on the skyline…. and suddenly the whole cloud base lifted, some change in the temperature or relative humidity, perhaps. Below us, the lochan that, in the morning, we passed without glimpsing, and all around, a panorama of lochs and mountains that made me recall why I wanted to do this in the first place.
When I looked at the map beforehand the idea of ascending by the valley of Allt a’ Mhuillin had occurred to me. Now, with the clouds gone, it became the ideal descent. Not just for the views but a chance to get away from the people. Of course we were part of the throng but that doesn’t mean we had to stay within it. I highly recommend taking the chance to see the North Face, which, even in fine weather, you will only have hints of on the Mountain Track.
A day well spent in the end then. As it should be, for the highest mountain in what still, for now, remains my country. And in Scotland, a fine part of the world that I have given myself reason to explore further over the next few years of my life.
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