Ben Nevis — 56.7969° N, 5.0036° W

How to Climb Ben Nevis


, by Charlie Boscoe

Ben Nevis from Corpach Sea Port in Scotland. Photo: Harry Feather, Shutterstock

The Scottish mountains are genuinely unique. Barren, tree-less mountains descend into deep valleys ("Glens" in local parlance), giving it an ambiance and atmosphere all of its own. To say there is nowhere quite like Scotland is not just hyperbole - it's entirely accurate. Most mountain ranges on Earth are higher than the Scottish Highlands, and virtually all have better weather, but stand in one of those glens as the clouds swirl around the brooding peaks above, and you'll understand for yourself why people travel from around the world to experience them.

Britain’s highest person! Tom Grant on the summit of Ben Nevis at sunset in the depths of winter. Photo Boscoe Collection.

When planning your first trip to Scotland, the purists might send you to the Torridon peaks, the area around Ben Lawers, or - for the truly adventurous - the wilds of Sutherland. However, many hikers head to Scotland with their eyes set on the country's highest mountain, Ben Nevis, and with good reason. "The Ben" (as it's affectionately known) is just above Fort William, one of the Highland's largest towns, and is easily accessed from multiple directions, making it a logistically simple peak as well as a coveted one. Fort William is a bustling little town, bordered on one side by the Lochaber mountains and on the other by the shores of Loch Linnhe. If you need to pick up any last-minute gear or have just descended from the mountain and are hunting for some traditional fish and chips - Fort William has you covered!

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Ben Nevis is the most famous mountain above Fort William, and it can be climbed in any month of the year, but - without wishing to state the obvious - winter conditions will change the peak beyond all recognition. Even summer days can be wild in Scotland, and it can snow on the summit any day of the year, so be prepared for bad weather regardless of which month it is! Saving your ascent for a sunny day is strongly advised, but such things are a rarity in the Highlands, so at least aim for the least terrible weather possible. Even if you set off with a perfect blue sky above and a forecast for it to continue all day, carrying some emergency gear is still recommended because running into trouble anywhere near the summit of Ben Nevis is a serious situation.

Looking up towards the summit of Ben Nevis from the top of the north face. Photo Boscoe Collection.

The most popular route to the summit of Ben Nevis is via the "Mountain Track" (formerly called the "Tourist Path"), and it's a technically easy but physically challenging hike in good conditions. The trail is well-marked and easy to follow, but it leads you onto the barren summit plateau, which can quickly become a brutal place to be if the weather turns. The trail might seem obvious in good conditions, but downloading the relevant part of the FATMAP map and keeping an eye on your location as you climb is strongly advised. 

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The journey up the Mountain Track is popular, so don't expect to have it to yourself, but the views from it are utterly spectacular. The trip begins with the gentle climb out of Glen Nevis and then follows a steepening ascent up to the gentle hillside, which overlooks Lochan Meall an t-Suidhe - a stunning mountain lake. The climb continues onto the scree-covered upper slopes, where the trail becomes much rockier and requires far more concentration. The vistas improve as you get higher, but stay focused on the trail and keep on grinding!

The scree slopes gently ease as you approach the summit, and the trail leads past the (often corniced) top of Gardyloo Gully to reach the famous summit hut. The hut is only for emergencies (so please don't stay in it) and provides some shelter in bad weather. 

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Hopefully, you find yourself on the summit under a blue sky, and if you do, you're in for a treat! The view is absolutely magnificent, with the Lochaber mountains disappearing off into the distance, broken only by the region's many lochs (lakes) and the North Atlantic Ocean stretching off to the horizon. If time allows, simply sit and take it all in before descending back the same way you came up.

Hikers above Gardyloo Gully, with the wilds of northwest Scotland stretched out below them. Credit Kyle J Little Shutterstock.

For the more adventurous hikers and mountaineers out there, Ben Nevis is a playground! The mountain bristles with ridges, gullies, and buttresses, and there are over 500 recognised climbs on the mountain. Virtually all of these lie on the mountain's looming and legendary north face, which is home to everything from cutting-edge mixed climbs to classic ice routes and rock walls. Climbers from across the world have heard of and traveled to the north face of the Ben, and it remains one of the best ice climbing destinations on the planet.

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If all that sounds too serious, but you'd still like something more challenging than the Mountain Track, the Carn Mor Dearg (CMD) Arete is one of the best ridge journeys in the UK. There are other terrific options, such as the North Face Path and the journey over from Aonach Mor (1221m) and Aonach Beag (1234m). Other classic scrambles on the mountain include Tower Ridge, Ledge Route, Castle Ridge, and Northeast Buttress. There are mountain guides and amateur climbers who spend a lifetime exploring Ben Nevis and are still making new discoveries every year. 

Climbing Ben Nevis might be a once-in-a-lifetime experience, or it might start a lifetime of exploration! Either way, a trip to the highest point in the UK is a must for any adventurous hiker.

Check out our guidebook to some of the finest hikes in the Ben Nevis region:

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