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Is Ben Nevis Worth Climbing?

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Is Ben Nevis Worth Climbing?

Gilbert Summers

Climb Ben Nevis - or, preferably, don't.

You know how Google Photos sometimes makes panoramas out of your photos, in that ‘Google knows best’ kind of way? It’s perhaps the least annoying of the awfully clever things it does to your collections. Or at least it does to mine.

Anyway, while searching for some Scottish mountain photographs - ‘Ben something’ - can’t remember exactly what, though probably not ‘Hur’ - my attention was caught by the search results.

They included a panorama Google had made, from photos I had taken from a day climbing Ben Nevis, which is Scotland’s (and hence in this case Britain’s) highest mountain, as some of you may know.

Ben Nevis panorama. Well, it looked a bit like this but Google Photos stitched this pic together.

Ben Nevis panorama. Well, it looked a bit like this but Google Photos stitched this pic together.

I reproduce the panorama here. Looks a bit weird to me but, heck, who knows what Google’s trying to do with our reality? Anyway, it took me back to that summer day in 2005. I’d hardly looked at the photos since.

Why? Because the day I climbed Ben Nevis was one of the least pleasant days I have ever had on Scotland’s hills.

Why, again? You can probably guess this one. Because of the sheer number of folk who were on the hill. I have never walked up a Scottish hill and found it so crowded. I have never been on a big hill here and had people in view all the time, all day. Now, you can call me anti-social if you like.

On the tourist path, Ben Nevis.

On the tourist path, Ben Nevis.

And it wasn’t as if they were all the serious, head-down, well-equipped walking fraternity. Sure, there were a few of those. And several more of that Scottish hillwalking visual cliche of the jeans and trainers couples - low-level strollers taking on something more ambitious.

But what struck me that day was that many of ‘The Ben’s’ assailants had t-shirts with logos...teams of them in a variety of colours, sweating and struggling their way up and down the footpath. They didn’t look like your usual hill folk at all. Then it dawned on me.

This was just a typical summer day on the Ben and we were encountering several sponsored or charity walk and earnest fundraisers.

An emotional ambush on the summit of Ben Nevis

I suppose it was ironic that I was only on the hill because a friend had wanted to climb it simply because it was the highest. And I was there just to keep him company.

Anyway, we made it to the top: up the grey screes, the path zig-zagging up into the cloud. And I remember ‘way back then, we found the broad summit plateau was festooned with memorials, plaques and poignant messages - actually a bit of an emotional ambush, so heart-rending were some of the sentiments. Just what we needed.

So much public grief on the highest point in Britain. And then, inevitably, there was the rubbish - of all kinds. I truly do not wish to elaborate.

Ben Nevis litter

Usually I go into the hills just to...well, get away. Don’t most walkers? Instead, I remember us standing in the swirling cloud and waiting our turn to pose on the summit cairn...never had to do that before. Never done it since...oh well, that’s the Ben…

But, remember, this was 2005. (Eeek.) The John Muir Trust had bought it from some guy called Mr Duncan Fairfax-Lucy (who he?) in 2000. And, as a conservation body, in the intervening years they have tried to improve the Ben Nevis experience.

By 2010, for example, they had publicly stated that they reckoned that at any one point, the summit had, for instance around 1000 banana skins slowly - oh, so slowly - rotting away. There are, naturally, even less savoury things left up there. Well, it’s a lot of people, isn’t it? 20,000 a month in high season, they say.

Anyway, also by 2010, the John Muir Trust was sending up work parties ten-strong at least four times a year, with each member carrying down a full sack of rubbish. And even then they were hardly keeping up.

Guess which one is Ben Nevis? Yup, the tallest one, right of centre of horizon. Summit plateau showing prominently.

Guess which one is Ben Nevis? Yup, the tallest one, right of centre of horizon. Summit plateau showing prominently.

Ashes to ashes - and then more ashes on Ben Nevis

Right, so we have all sort of litter, human waste, and fruit peel in variety all up there on the summit plateau. What else? Oh, I almost forgot: people’s ashes.

Yes, it’s apparently a favourite place to leave a loved one behind - after cremation, you understand. Well, it’s the highest spot in Britain, innit? And grandad used t’ come oop t’ Scotland every year...

And, there are the odd items that just make you wonder. At the top, the Trust folk once found a wheelchair. And a piano (though I gather the two things were not connected). I think these artefacts run a close second to the sentence quoted in full here from Grough (link below) “Previous oddities found by volunteers included an octopus on England’s highest mountain.”

Year after year, volunteers try to keep the mountain experience as unspoilt as possible. And does it get any better? Well, not really, it seems.

The Herald Scotland (9 Feb 2016) carried an item based on a Sportscotland Avalanche Information Service (SAIS) blogger who was rightly ranting about the quantity of orange peel still to be seen on the paths. (Wait...I hope he wasn’t implying that there was danger of avalanche from orange peel, was he?)

In fact, all you have to do is put the term ‘Ben Nevis litter’ into your favourite search engine to read reams of stories.

I rather liked the one from the Press & Journal 12 Jun 2014 about a bunch of guys who carried a bench all the way to the top and cemented it in place! They then left behind 10ft lengths of wood and a big bag of rubbish behind. All material was soon removed - actually sawn up into small pieces - by outraged conservation-minded walkers and climbers.

But the funniest part is that the group responsible for putting the bench there in the first place thought that its prompt removal was completely unreasonable because they did it for charity. It sounded like quite a fit of self-righteousness.

Ben Nevis, on an October evening, from Torlundy. The summit is NOT in cloud!

Ben Nevis, on an October evening, from Torlundy. The summit is NOT in cloud!

And that’s the Ben Nevis paradox. Walking, hiking, climbing of all grades is very popular in Scotland. The Scottish hills are treated with some respect by that group of outdoor folk (well, give and take the odd bit of orange peel perhaps).

But then there is an equally large group of people for whom Ben Nevis is nothing more than just the place for a stunt or a sponsored walk - just because it the highest...well, you know the rest.

Organisations like The Three Peaks Partnership for example are there to facilitate the use of Ben Nevis (and the highest hill in England and in Wales) as a venue for challenges - but they certainly do emphasise the need to be conservation minded, tidy, organised and, well, use the bathroom a lot before you start out.

Glentower Lower Observatory bed and breakfast, Fort William

Glentower Lower Observatory bed and breakfast, Fort William

So Ben Nevis becomes the platform for charity activities and fundraising challenges. It’s a great card to play. What’s one more banana skin? It’s all in a good cause (apparently).

Not that the banana skins are discarded only by sponsored walkers. No, it’s just that all kinds of folk want to climb to the highest point in Britain. And there is an easy path to get them there, marked and obvious on all kinds of Lochaber maps and guides.

Accommodation for Ben Nevis in Fort William?

Glentower Lower Observatory B&B is where we stayed. (Pictured here) It's still on the go and gets great reviews.

And if you stay there you can find out why it's called the Lower Observatory - the place was built to handle all the reports and data  from the mountain-top station - the reason that the path was built in the first place.

There's a whole other story to tell some other day, about the mountain-top hotel - and even the proposal to run a railway to the top of Ben Nevis. Anyway, to emphasise, relating my unhappy experience on the Ben should not stop you from visiting Lochaber, one of the most scenically spectacular areas in Scotland.

In summary, that’s my curmudgeonly take on Ben Nevis. It’s not a walking experience like anywhere else in Scotland.

Remember I am talking about the Ben Nevis tourist path - which is constantly maintained and fairly-easily-graded. I fully appreciate that Ben Nevis offers a completely different set of magnificent encounters for serious climbers and walkers who take other routes.

My conclusion? Vita brevis est and Scotland has lots of great hills to climb. I wouldn’t go back. But there's a ton of other hills to climb and places to see from a base at Fort William. 

By the way, you will need a Ben Nevis map, if I haven't put you off. 

How high is Ben Nevis?

In March 2016, came the announcement that high-tech surveying equipment had accurately measured the height of the Ben as 1344.527 metres, a little higher than previously measured. Magically, this meant it could be rounded up to 1435m, instead of the usual 1434m.

There was an outbreak of headlines along the lines of ‘Ben Nevis gains a metre’. I expect the orange peel made all the difference.