A crow cawed outside our tent. Faint rustling sounds and muffled voices filled the air. Some campers were already up and about. I pulled the sleeping bag closer to my shivering body, but just when I had finally started to warm up again, the alarm went off. Slowly, I wriggled out of my cocoon, gave my better half a quick shake and spent the next couple of minutes struggling with the faulty zip of the tent door.
I stumbled out of the tent, my feet sinking into the damp ground. Thankfully, I had the sense to pack an extra pair of socks the day before. I took one glance at the sky and my heart welled up with disappointment.
“Douglas, I don’t think we’ll be able to climb Ben Nevis today. It’s rather cloudy.”
The tent shook, scaring away the crow.
“We call that summer in Scotland,” he muttered groggily.
Taking that as the go-ahead for the day’s expedition, I started putting my shoes on. It was only when I crouched down to tie my shoe laces that I noticed the swarm of tiny flies ganging up on me. I felt a sting on my cheek, and suddenly my whole face was covered in bites. A few colourful swear words escaped my mouth, prompting Douglas to peer out of the tent.
“I see you’ve finally met the midges.”
A good start
Standing at 1,344 metres above sea level, Ben Nevis is the highest mountain in the British Isles and one of the most popular places for hiking in Scotland. In fact, Ben Nevis attracts over 100,000 climbers a year. We decided to give it a try, thinking that the ascent would be do-able without having to do any form of preparatory training.
It started out as a pleasant walk on a muddy path, in the company of sheep grazing on the other side of the fence. I could still feel the occasional bite on my face, but Douglas reassured me that the slightest breeze would make the midges disappear. I prayed for wind, but would end up regretting it later.
The sky gradually cleared up. We were now scrambling over sharp, slippery rocks. As if the steep, never-ending path in front of us wasn’t disheartening enough, we came across a few climbers who were already making their way down the mountain.
“You’re less than half-way up,” a cheerful young couple told us.
My jaw dropped. It was only 10am. I couldn’t help but wonder… at what ungodly hour did they start the ascent?
A wee rest
I sat down on the first rock I could find and dug out a cold Scotch pie from my rucksack. We were only an hour into our trek, but my legs were killing me. The sight of lush green slopes helped me clear my mind of negative thoughts. We were going to conquer this beast.
As we sat there, devouring most of the food we had packed, a couple and their 10-year-old boy walked effortlessly past us and up towards the next bend.
“I read somewhere that the mountain is child-friendly,” Douglas remarked, as if that was supposed to make me feel better.
I had been sitting long enough for the midges to launch another assault on me. It was time to get moving again.
Almost giving up
For the next half an hour we were stuck behind a group of late middle-aged German tourists, who made sure they took their time to climb each and every uneven stone step on the narrow path. My many attempts to overtake them proved futile. One side of the trail was a sheer drop into a ravine, so we had no choice but to prolong the torturous strain on our knees until the path levelled out.
It could have been the crisp wind or the momentary break by a small loch, but I suddenly didn’t feel so dispirited anymore, even though the summit was nowhere in sight yet. I quickened my pace, feeling overly confident that, despite our lack of fitness, we were going to reach the summit by midday.
We were making good timing, until Douglas stopped dead in his tracks.
“Oh bloody hell.”
I had to crane my neck to take in the size of the beast towering over us. The rocky path ahead of us zig-zagged into infinity. A flurry of wind coiled around us, whipping my hair across my face. All of a sudden, I felt like calling it a day.
Nearly getting lost on Ben Nevis
As we approached the summit, dark clouds started to pile up in the sky. I had read that the weather on Ben Nevis could be unpredictable… and dangerous. Hurricane-force winds and heavy rain tend to appear out of nowhere. In fact, the majority of annual deaths on the mountain are caused by ill-preparedness and atrocious weather conditions. So while we were physically exhausted, the real deterrent to reaching the summit was the weather.
We decided to continue our way up the rock-strewn slope. The path petered out, a sign that we were rapidly approaching the summit, but that moment of joy was short-lived. We found ourselves in the middle of a cloud, wind and rain battering our face.
I turned around to speak to Douglas, but he wasn’t there anymore. The visibility was so poor that I could hardly discern the path. I made a few cautious steps forward before realising that the path didn’t exist.
I stopped near a cornice, waiting for Douglas to catch up. For a good few minutes, I was the only soul on the vast tundra of stones.
Just when I was about to go into panic mode, I spotted a few climbers emerging from the fog. Feeling reassured that I was on the right trail to the summit, I followed them into the dense cloud.
There are over a 100 cairns dotting the summit of Ben Nevis; mounds of rock built by climbers as a memorial for completing the ascent. Originally, cairns were built to guide walkers along the path to the summit, especially in thick snow, but the high number of cairns scattered around the summit are now misdirecting climbers.
I could only glimpse a small number of cairns. The rest were shrouded in thick fog. I wondered if they served as a memorial for those who perished on the mountain, becoming increasingly nervous at the fact that I couldn’t make out my surroundings – and I couldn’t see Douglas.
Reaching the summit
“Whose bright idea was it to climb Ben Nevis?”
I hadn’t even noticed the neon green jacket approaching me through the clouds. Another spatter of rain hit us, but it didn’t matter anymore. We were on the summit. Together. All we needed to do now was to find shelter and refuel our body with whatever food was left in our bags.
The stone huts on the summit did little to protect us from the heavy rain. I tried to ignore the agonising pain in my icy fingers and the cold wind seeping into my bones, and instead entertained myself with the thought of having a hot shower later that day.
The descent turned out to be tougher than we had expected, but we took comfort from the fact that we were now the ones telling other climbers that they were almost halfway through.
They say that mountains teach us insightful lessons about ourselves and our potential. Well, Mount Toubkal had taught me that willpower overrides physical barriers. Meanwhile, Ben Nevis taught me that attempting to scale a mountain with zero training is stupid. Just plain stupid. And yet, we made it. Once again, it was a case of mind over matter.
Climbing Ben Nevis: What you need to know
When to go
The best time to climb Ben Nevis is from late spring to early autumn. Summer days are quite long in Scotland – the sun comes up around 5am and it gets dark around 10pm. However, the summer months can be quite wet, and Scotland gets some bad storms in June and July.
We climbed Ben Nevis in early September. The weather tends to be quite mild around this time, with brief rain showers and longer sunny spells.
Please avoid climbing Ben Nevis in winter. Every year, several climbers have to be rescued from very bad weather conditions. Others go missing.
Where to stay
We set up our tent at the Glen Nevis Caravan and Camping Park. If you can’t take your own tent, you can stay in a camping pod or a holiday caravan. This campsite is located right at the foot of Ben Nevis.
Not a fan of campsites? You can stay at one of the guesthouses near Ben Nevis, though you’ll probably need a car to get there. You could also stay in Fort William, a picturesque town which is only a short drive away from Ben Nevis.
How to get to Ben Nevis
Ben Nevis is about a 4-hour drive from Edinburgh, and a 3-hour drive from Glasgow.
If you can’t drive to Ben Nevis, you can get a bus or train from Edinburgh or Glasgow, to Fort William. From there, you can walk to the start of the climb (45 minutes) or get a taxi (5-minute drive).
Skill level and difficulty
While Ben Nevis is not a very challenging climb, it can be quite exhausting, especially for a non-experienced hiker. Some parts of the trail are smooth, while others are quite rocky. The path gets very steep towards the summit.
Exercise extra caution when you get to the summit, especially in poor visibility.
It takes about 4 hours to climb Ben Nevis, and another two hours to climb down. The rocky path can be very painful on the knees, so try not to rush.
What to pack
There are various fresh water streams along the way where you can stop to fill up some water.
The weather may seem promising, but the weather changes constantly in Scotland, especially in summer. Carry a waterproof jacket in your bag – just in case!
Check out this list of hiking essentials.
Advice for climbing Ben Nevis
Make sure to check the weather forecast before climbing Ben Nevis. The weather can be very unpredictable, so don’t rely on the previous day’s forecast – check the forecast again right before you head up.
Pack some food for the climb. I recommend doing a spot of food shopping in Fort William.
Check out these tips for hiking in Scotland.
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