(The Gear Loop) - Ben Nevis. "The Ben". The highest mountain in the United Kingdom. Whatever you want to call it, the draw of this mystical peak propels approximately 100,000 people up its trails every year. Knowing how to summit Ben Nevis before you set foot on solid ground gives you a higher chance of success and will make your experience all the more positive. Many who summit Ben Nevis, suffer Ben Nevis. "Never again!" they exclaim, shattered after an ordeal they weren't quite prepared for. However, follow our guide before climbing Nevis and you'll be wanting to return time and time again.
The hulking lump of granite has something of a Jekyll and Hyde character about it. Its broad, western flank is home to the zigzagging Pony Track, the quickest and easiest way up the mountain, utilised by countless folk eager to attain the summit. To those ascending this way, Ben Nevis might seem like a huge mass, dull even, such is the slog up the almost endlessly snaking path.
However, for those who approach the mountain from the north, it's an entirely different beast. The crags, ridges and buttresses that comprise its spectacular North Face tumble down from the summit plateau with a kind of twisted, gothic majesty. On our shores, this scene is only really rivalled by the Isle of Skye's Cuillin in terms of pure mountain muscle.
The summit itself is a beguiling place, adorned by the ruins of a weather observatory, crowned by the obligatory trig pillar and menaced by sickening drops into the North Face's gullies. It's the site of Three Peaks glory, of realised dreams, of unbelievable feats of fell running and one huge panorama. To stand on top of Ben Nevis is to be the highest person (with their feet on the ground, at least) for over 450 miles in every direction. And that's awesome.
How to summit Ben Nevis: when to go
The best time to hike to the summit of Ben Nevis is between June and September, when daylight hours are long and you are less likely to have to deal with snow or icy conditions underfoot. The mountain's altitude means that it greedily hoards snow and ice for longer than the vast majority of other British mountains and it is not unheard of for there to be a sprinkling of the freezing white stuff on the summit ... even in the height of summer.
Unless you have winter hillwalking or mountaineering experience and the appropriate equipment, Ben Nevis is out of bounds during the winter months. Conditions on Scotland's winter mountains can be brutal and sub-zero temperatures lead to treacherously icy conditions. Cornices - snow platforms that form above huge drops on the edge of cliffs and ridges - pose a serious threat to those caught unaware, while the threat of hypothermia is very real for the under equipped.
That’s not to say that people don't climb Ben Nevis in winter. Experienced mountaineers and ice climbers flock to the Ben's North Face from all over the world, such is the quality and unique challenge of the winter climbing found here. But we recommend taking in those spectacular views when the weather is on your side, the days longer to allow for plenty of breaks and the mountain generally more approachable for the unititated.
How to summit Ben Nevis: which route to take
The Pony Track, often referred to as the Tourist Route or the Mountain Path, is used by approximately three quarters of all those who reach the top. This popularity is down to the route's lack of technical difficulty. Any motivated and reasonably fit person with a little bit of hiking experience can tackle "The Ben" this way. Don't underestimate the challenge though, it is a long outing that typically takes most people about four hours to reach the summit and another three knee-bashing hours back down. It is a steep(ish) trek from Glen Nevis to the "Halfway Lochan", at 600 metres. From here, it's a bit of a slog on a series of zigzags, as the path snakes up The Ben's rocky western shoulder towards the summit plateau.
The more adventurous way to the summit is via the Càrn Mòr Dearg (CMD) Arête. This route first ascends to the summit of neighbouring Càrn Mòr Dearg - Britain’s 9th highest peak - before taking on the Arête, a majestically arcing, narrow rocky ridge that meets The Ben's south-eastern summit slopes. The ridge is a relatively straightforward grade-one scramble and for most of its length there's a bypass path lower down if you don’t enjoy the exposed rocky crest. However, it's not only the more interesting terrain that gives the CMD Arête the adrenaline-inducing edge over the Pony Track, it also enjoys sensational views of Ben Nevis' spectacular North Face, the real guts of the mountain.
For experienced hill walkers, there's the option of starting from Nevis Gorge in Glen Nevis, either ascending to Càrn Mòr Dearg via Coire Guibhsachan, taking on the Ben's subsidiary top of Carn Dearg or by tackling the Southeast Ridge. These routes pose greater navigational difficulty and sections of scrambling, not suggested itineraries for a first acquaintance with the mountain.
Finally, there are myriad climbing routes to the summit that find their way up through the dark labyrinth of the North Face. The Ledge Route is a classic grade two scramble and, in good conditions, is just about the limit of what can be achieved without climbing equipment. Perhaps the most notorious route is Tower Ridge, a grade three scramble with occasional sections of rock climbing, graded as difficult. It's length and spectacular situations, coupled with its level of challenge mean that many consider it as Alpine in terms of its character.
How to summit Ben Nevis: how to prepare
The level of preparation will depend on your chosen route. Nevertheless, whichever way you choose, you will need to be in decent physical shape to be able to be haul a weighty backpack to an elevation of 1,344 metres. We suggest at least a few local hikes with a backpack (and the rest of your kit) to strengthen your muscles and break everything in. If you can get to a mountainous region, like Snowdonia, the Lakes or the Highlands to practise walking on rougher and steeper terrain, all the better.
If you choose to take on the CMD Arête, good on you! Experience of other scrambling ridges, such as Sharp or Striding Edge in the Lakes, Crib Goch (which is much narrower than the CMD) in Snowdonia or the Devil's Ridge on the other side of Glen Nevis will help you judge whether the CMD Arête is for you. If you decide to take on the Ledge Route, experience of other grade two scrambles and a guidebook to help you navigate are recommended.
It's worth brushing up on your navigation while you are out hiking. If you don't know how to take a compass bearing, this is an extremely useful skill to learn, as will become apparent…
How to summit Ben Nevis: how to get there and where to stay
Fort William is the obvious base. The outdoor capital of the Highlands is well stocked with all the amenities you could possibly need. Any drive through the Highlands is an experience in itself and Fort William is on the A82 between Glasgow and Inverness. You can catch a train to Fort William from Glasgow and Edinburgh, while the Caledonian Sleeper even gives you the option of boarding in London, enjoying a good night's sleep and waking up in the Highlands. Magical. The closest airports are Glasgow and Inverness.
The Pony Track starts in Glen Nevis, opposite the excellent Glen Nevis Youth Hostel. You can also use this as the starting point for the CMD Arête and there are plenty of accommodation options in the glen. Approach routes to the North Face and probably the easiest way to access the CMD Arête start from the North Face car park. Deep in the jaws of Coire Leis, below the frowning crags of the North Face, is the Charles Inglis Clark hut, which is owned by the Scottish Mountaineering Club and gives climbers quick access to the crags.
How to summit Ben Nevis: what to pack
You'll need to be fairly self-sufficient on the hill. This isn't Snowdon, there's no cafe awaiting you at the top and annoyingly, Deliveroo doesn't quite strecth this far. Staying hydrated is key and, unless you have a filtration system, drinking water directly from the mountain is not advised. This is simply due to the popularity of the mountain, which leads to illness-inducing drinking water; we won't get into the grizzly details here. Take plenty of liquid, up to 2 litres is recommended. Likewise, you are going to be on the trails for several hours, so take plenty of food and high energy snacks.
Warm layers are absolutely crucial. Even if it's a mild day in the glen, bear in mind that the summit is likely to be around a dozen degrees colder and that's before factoring in wind chill. A base layer, a couple of mid layers (fleece or down) and waterproof outer layers or a warm jacket will keep the elements at bay. It's worth having a spare pair of gloves and a beanie hat too. Sun cream is also recommended, even on overcast summer days. Basically pack for all situations, but do it sensibly and pack light.
Navigation apps and GPS are no substitute for a map and compass and the skills to use them. Ideally, a combination of the two covers all bases. Map wise, OS Explorer 392 covers the Ben Nevis region. It's shrewd to carry a head torch with spare batteries in case of getting caught out at night. Emergency kit wise, your group should have a first aid kit with a whistle to attract help, while an emergency foil blanket will retain a person's warmth in the case of an accident.
How to summit Ben Nevis: on the mountain
We hate to sound like an old PE teacher, but remember that it's a marathon, not a sprint. Take your time, plan in rest stops, rehydrate regularly and just enjoy the experience. The main hazard Ben Nevis poses to hikers, other than the effects of extreme weather, is the danger of getting lost on the summit in poor visibility and taking a tumble down the cliffs of the North Face, particularly into Gardyloo Gully.
On the Pony Track approach to the summit, follow the line of cairns until you reach the last one. From here, take a bearing of 75 degrees and after about 75 metres you will arrive at the observatory ruins on the summit. Even if your compass skills aren't up to scratch, you can use a smart phone compass find 75 degrees.
Coming off the summit is also tricky in poor visibility and a mistake could have nasty consequences. Having solid navigation skills is a real help here. From the summit trig point, take a bearing of 231 degrees and walk on this bearing for 150 metres. This takes you beyond the grasp of Gardyloo Gully. However, there’s work to be done yet, as Five Finger Gully lies in wait. Take another bearing, this time of 282 degrees, and walk on it until you eventually meet the Pony Track once more.
Our pick of the best gear for summiting Ben Nevis
Salomon Quest 4 Gore-Tex
Designed for long backpacking trips and rough ground, the Quest provides excellent support and protection for your feet, while giving you confidence on challenging terrain thanks to its grippy sole. However, it achieves all this while still being super comfortable and, as you might expect from the Gore-Tex tag, keeping your feet dry in wet conditions.
Petzl Actik Core
A favourite among mountaineers across the world, the Petzl Actik Core gives you 450 lumens and weighs in at just 75g. In other words, it's bright and it's light. You also get several output levels, which is handy when you don't want to blind the poor soul trying to have a conversation with you at the campsite. Best of all is the rechargeable CORE battery, which plugs in via USB for quick charges from portable battery packs.
Berghaus Fellmaster InterActive Waterproof Jacket
As its name suggests, the Fellmaster from British stalwarts Berghaus is designed for the UK;s fells and mountains. Gore-Tex fabric keeps the wind and rain at bay, while also boasting breathability. The InterActive front zip means you can add in compatible mid layers when the conditions turn to the colder end of the spectrum.
Tips from the Pros
James Forest, multi record-breaking speed hiker who recently broke the record for ascending and hiking between the National Three Peaks in one go, shares his tips for summitting Ben Nevis. See more about James and his adventures at his website.
"Climbing Ben Nevis, the highest peak on our little island, is almost like a rite of passage for British hillwalkers. There are two main options: the CMD Arête scramble, which is an adrenaline-inducing, hair-raising way to the top via a rocky ridge; or the easier Mountain Track starting in Glen Nevis. For the CMD Arête, you'll need a good head for heights and sure-footedness over rugged terrain. It's a route best-saved for great conditions, both for safety reasons and because you'll enjoy it so much more if you can see the views.
The Pony Track is a simpler, less hardcore way up The Ben - but don't get the wrong impression. While the path is well-maintained and pretty easy to follow, it's still a long, steep, tough climb and a real achievement to make it to the summit. If you're a beginner, take your time, drink lots (carry at least 2L of water), snack regularly and remember to enjoy the experience. Make sure to pack warm layers and waterproofs, and whatever you do make sure you've broken-in your footwear. The biggest mistake people make is to buy a sturdy, stiff pair of hiking boots and wear them for the first time up Ben Nevis. That's a recipe for painful blisters."