I’ve just got back from climbing Ben Nevis, the tallest mountain in the UK. In this article, I detail my experience and give top tips for making the most out of a Ben Nevis climb. Enjoy.
Why did I climb Ben Nevis?
It’s August 2020. It’s been 4 months since the whole Coronavirus pandemic led to confinement, lockdown and the UK population staying in or close to their houses. Such a strange time.
I’m someone who loves travelling and exploring new places. I hate staying in one place for too long, and 4 months in my hometown of Maidstone in Kent has been too long.
I knew I needed a big change from my new daily life of working from home, seeing friends digitally, running and studying. I needed an an adventure, yet a productive one. If I could do something that be physical and demanding, it would improve my running.
So, what did I do about it? I decided to drive almost 10 hours to Scotland’s Fort William with my brother and climb the tallest mountain in the UK. As you do!
Having climbed Wales Mount Snowdon in March, just before the national lockdown, I knew climbing mountains is something I just love and would recommend to anybody. I love climbing mountains because:
- It’s a massive challenge
- It’s a great workout for us runners
- Mountain landscapes are beautiful
- You exit your comfort zone
- You discover a new place
- Amazing memories are created
- It will teach you a lot about persistence and strategy
- It’s a great workout
The benefits of climbing mountains for runners
I know what you’re thinking. This is a running blog, and here I am talking about climbing mountains. There’s a perfectly good reason for this.
Climbing mountains is an exceptional workout for runners.
The ascent raises your heart rate, pushes you to your physical limits, challenges your balance and agility, tones your leg muscles, burns plenty of calories and engages the upper arms and core. A mountain climb is a power workout for us runners.
If you’re a runner whose in need of something different and fun to spice up you’re training regime, look no further than scaling a mountain. Seriously. Give it a try.
7 fun facts about Ben Nevis
1. Ben Nevis is really called Beinn Nibheis
In Scottish Gaelic, Beinn means mountain and Nibheis means malicious. Bein Nibheis can also mean the famous Scott god Lugh, who was well known to have spent his time on tall mountains.
2. The first recorded ascent of Ben Nevis was in 1771
James Robertson, an 18th century botanist, was in the Scottish highlands on a mission to collect specimens for Edinburgh’s College Museum. One day, he decided to climb to the top of Ben Nevis and wrote about it in his journal.
His entry read: ‘I ascended Ben Nevis which is reckoned the highest mountain in Britain. A third part of the hill towards the top is entirely naked, resembling a heap of stones thrown together confusedly. The summit far overtops the surrounding hills.
3. Ben Nevis was once a volcano
Ben Nevis what remains of a Devonian volcano which collapsed in on itself. According to Wikipedia, ”evidence near the summit shows light-coloured granite (which had cooled in subterranean chambers several kilometres beneath the surface) lies among dark basaltic lavas (that form only on the surface). The two lying side-by-side is evidence the huge volcano collapsed in on itself creating an explosion. The mountain is now all that remains of the imploded inner dome of the volcano.
4. On a clear day you can see Northern Ireland up to 120 miles away
When the infamous Scottish weather of rain and cloud subsides, those who reach the summet enjoy a beautiful panoramic view from the moutain’s peak. If the conditions are particularly nice, it’s possible to see the Northern Ireland mountain of Knocklayd. That’s a long way.
5. There are ruins of a meterorological survey on the summit
In the late-1870s, the Scottish Meteorological Society built an observatory for studying the weather at a high altitude. The observatory was staffed full-time until 1904 when funding dried up. To this day, the ruins of the observatory can be viewed upon reaching the summet.
6. There’s a distillery at the foot of the mountain
The Ben Nevis distillery is a single malt whisky distillery at the foot of the mountain. Founded in 1825, it’s one of the oldest distilleries in Scotland and attracts many visitors all year round.
7. People like doing sports on Ben Nevis
From skiing, ice-climbing and running, the mountain hosts many sporting events and is used for a variety of sporting purposes. In 2018, BASE jumper Tim Howell jumped off of Ben Nevis which was covered by BBC Scotland. In 2019, a team of highliners crossed Gardyloo Gully (4,000ft up) on a piece of cable. Brave!
What gear did I use for the Ben Nevis climb?
- Garmin Forerunner 735XT
- Karimor Running Jacket
- SALOMON Men’s Trailblazer 20 Backpack
- Ben Parkes ‘#gettingitdone’ hat
- Science in Sport Energy Gels
What route up the mountain did I take?
Having driven all the way to Scotland, we wanted to tackle the longest path so we could soak in all the sights. After a bit of online research, the ‘Mountain Path’ appeared to be the longest option described as the most straightforward.
The terrain is steep path throughout. The upper section is rough and stony, so vigilance is required when navigating the latter stages of the route. Never the less, the Mountain Path made for a beautiful and challenging first time up Ben Nevis.
On the walkhighlands.co.uk website, here’s some quick stats about the Mountain Path route for ascending Ben Nevis.
If you want more information about all the other possible routes scaling Ben Nevis, check out this useful article article.
Climbing Ben Nevis
My brother and I arrived at the Glen Nevis visitor centre at about 10:00 AM, paid for parking and headed towards the start of the Mountain Path.
Despite the weather forecast looking bleak with rain, fog and wind on the horizon, things were holding up and we were dry. We set off at 10:30AM.
We crossed the metal bridge over the river Nevis and started to climb the conveniently provided rock steps for 10-15 minutes. After an initial steep incline on these steps, the path gradually evens out and becomes a steady ascent through comfortable trail. It was a busy day for climbing so my brother and I found we were overtaking many others during this stage as we like to go at a decent pace.
As the path starts to climb the mountain, the views become more and more beautiful. There are photo opportunities at every second up the mountain so make sure your phone/camera is charged and ready to snap at a moments notice.
After crossing a conveniently placed bridge, traversing a trail of steps and hopping over stones in the stream of a waterfall, you’ll come to a long zig zag section. At this point, you ascend a straight on the mountain top before changing direction and ascending the next straight in the opposite direction and so on until you arrive at the last section of the mountain which is characterised by the lunar landscape towards the summit.
It was during the zig zag portion of the mountain that the rain started to fall, with the blowing wind ensuring we got a good soaking. Thank you Scotland!
Upon arriving at the lunar landscape section, we continued on the path and headed for the summit. The conditions were particularly treacherous at this point. As the foggy, cloudy and rainy conditions made it hard to see more than 5 metres in front, we were careful to stick to the path and not stray off course.
The rocks and pebbles in this section make it hard to get a solid footing so we were sure to be careful about where we were stepping. My legs got the most tired in this section due to the steep incline and rocky conditions.
After a physically taxing 25 minutes climbing the last section, we arrived at the summit. The top of Ben Nevis is surprisingly flat and huge. Though we couldn’t see very far in front of us, on a clear day you can see for miles and miles around. Maybe next time we climb the mountain, the conditions will be a bit nicer!
There is a platform at the mountain’s summit which we quickly ascended with a fellow climber being kind enough to take our photo. As you can tell by the picture, we were happy to be standing on the highest natural point within the UK despite the wind, fog and rain!
Following a successful summit we were quick to head back the way we came and rapidly descend the mountain. After forgetting our waterproof coats (rookie mistake, I know) the wind started battering our rain soaked skin and we began shivering pretty bad. Not wanting to contract a case of hypothermia, we warmed up by getting our blood pumping with a light jog down the mountain.
After reaching the end of the zig zag section and into the long rocky step section of the mountain, we felt much warmer and no longer feared for our lives (dramatic, right?!)
During the final 30 minutes of the descent, the rain picked up once more and we received another battering of Scottish rain before reaching the solace of the car. I’ve never appreciated a car’s heating system as much as I did following the descent!
After we warmed up, changed and had a bite to eat, we bought an obligatory Ben Nevis fridge magnet from the gift shop before hitting the road to Edinburgh (where we stayed).
What an incredible, eventful, briefly frightening and life changing experience.
Strava breakdown of the ascent
- Distance: 4.58 miles
- Elevation gained: 4,358 feet
- Ascent time: 2:18:16
- Calories burned: 968
- Average moving pace: 30:11 minutes per mile
- Average heart rate: 119
Top tips for others climbing Ben Nevis
1. Start early
Get to the mountain as early as you possibly can for the climb. An early start means you can take your time without worrying about the day turning to night during the climb, and you’ll be able to find a parking space. Particularly important during busy periods of the climbing year like in summer when conditions are less treacherous.
2. Bring waterproof clothing
Our biggest learning experience from climbing Ben Nevis is to bring waterproof clothing. Being the absolute rookies we are, my brother and I purchased a range of waterproof clothing for the trip but forgot to pick up the bag that it was stored in from our home in Kent. Absolute fail. As a result, we had to climb the mountain without waterproof clothing and only a few layers of running gear. Not good.
Not having proper waterproof clothing meant we quickly became soaked from the rough Scottish weather, started to shiver and worried we might be in serious trouble at the summit when conditions turned particularly bad.
Though we were able to handle the situation by spending only 5 minutes on the summit gently jogging down the first half during the descent, it could have been a lot worse. Please don’t make the same mistake!
Pack a waterproof coat, trousers, shoes, gloves and hat and remember them. You’ll thank yourself when the wind is hammering the rain into you and you’re able to stay dry. Seriously.
3. Pack plenty of food and water
Make sure you bring plenty of supplies to sustain yourself for the voyage.
Being approximately 4.5 miles on the popular mountain path each way, you will spend a lot of time on the mountain as you cover 9 miles. Not only that, you’ll also burn loads of calories and lose lots of fluids as you power up the taxing slopes.
4. Bring sunscreen
Due to the lovely weather of the Scottish highlands, sunscreen wasn’t necessary for our climb. However, it’s always worth bringing a bottle just in case the sun decides to make a guest appearance.
The weather at Ben Nevis is notorious for suddenly changing at the drop of a hat so make sure you’re prepared. The last thing you want is to be stuck 1,300 metres above sea level with the sun beating down on you with no means of protecting your skin.
5. Check the weather in advance
Knowing what the weather will be like during your climb is key for physical and mental preparation. Having looked on the Met Office’s website, we were primed to take on the wind and the rain.
6. Take your time
The normal time taken to climb the mountain path is 3.5 hours. My brother and I treated the climb as training for our running so we powered ahead and were able to get it done in about 2.5 with only one small stop for water. However, that’s not to say you need to do the same thing.
Take your time climbing the mountain. Listen to how your body reacts to the steep ascent and adjust accordingly. If you’re panting viciously, your legs are screaming in pain and each step is gruelling, you should probably slow down. On the other hand, if your goal is to climb the mountain for training and you’re not feeling any bodily resistance from the climb you should probably speed up.
7. Climb the mountain with others
Ascending and descending Ben Nevis is a journey filled with highs and lows. The initial excitement of crossing the metal bridge to the start, the challenge of hopping across the waterfall stream, navigating through the reduced visibility of the foggy summit and enduring the gruelling weather conditions were all highs and lows of my climb.
Having others you like and respect climb the mountain with you will make it an incredibly rewarding, fulfilling and wholesome experience you will remember for the rest of your lives. You could climb Ben Nevis with your romantic partner, family members, work colleagues or your mates. It’ll make it a more fun climb.
Being with my brother made the climb up Ben Nevis enjoyable because there was somebody else I knew going through the same struggles and emotions. When we almost encountered a brush with hypothermia due to being absolute idiots and not bringing our waterproof clothing, we were able to motivate each other to keep pushing ahead to warm up.
8. Have fun
Having just returned from Scotland after the Ben Nevis trip, I can confidently say that climbing Ben Nevis was the most fun I have had in months. If you’re going to climb Ben Nevis, make sure you have fun!
The doom and gloom of the Coronavirus has made 2020 a challenging year for many in terms of physical and mental health, trust in the world, feeling safe, work and employment, going on holiday and so on.
Wanting to briefly get away from thinking about what I can and can’t do in face of Coronavirus, I decided to go to the Scottish highlands for the challenge of climbing Ben Nevis in an effort to improve my running.
Climbing a mountain takes you out of the artificial walls of the modern world and thrusts you into the sheer might and beauty of nature. I loved scaling up rocky slopes, seeing sheep on the Scottish hills, motivating other runners to persevere, pushing my limits, experiencing different parts of the mountain. It was an incredibly fun experience like no other and I’d recommend it to anyone.