Somewhat random perhaps for this blog, but having climbed Ben Nevis twice I figured I’d share my top tips as someone who is basically a walker rather than a climber. “Ben Nev” is a challenge and not for the faint hearted, but it is a heck of a climb and one you should tick off if you have an interest in the mountains of the UK.
This post assumes you are walking up in a group from Glen Nevis in the summer, and are not the leader, just one of the team that have been asked along (like me on both occasions).
Hopefully this is useful. In no particular order…
Layers – you will be hot at the bottom and cold at the top. If you have too many you can always take one off. If you don’t have enough, you might really feel the cold if it’s not a super-sunny day. On my most recent trip I had a gym-type tee-shirt (workout gear), thin fleece and waterproof jacket and I wish I’d had one more layer. It started to get cold at the lake and I had been sweating so that made me feel chilled (not in a good way).
Hat & gloves. I get super-hot so I also had a “buff” headband thing for a sweatband when I was getting hot and bothered on the first leg, which then became ear warmers and eventually a balaclava at the top. We climbed in mid-July and there was snow on the summit – take gloves!
Boots – I think you have to have decent hiking boots. You will see people doing it in “fashion” trainers but it’s super-rocky in places and you have to cross a waterfall/stream, so if your shoes split/break you won’t be able to walk back down! I like trekking poles too as they take the weight off my knees/hips but they aren’t much use for anything else during the rest of the year.
Food/drink – first time I climbed I took too much water (too heavy), and the wrong food (I found I was too exhausted to eat energy bars and things like that). The most recent time I made sure had a decent breakfast and a drink before we set off, and took 2 litres of water (with added electrolytes) in a backpack bladder (I’m a gear nerd but it also makes it all hands-free and easy to take sips), a packet of chocolate hobnobs (carbs and easy to eat), 5 pepperamis (easy-to-eat protein) and a bag of trail mix stuff (nuts and seeds and raisins etc. also really easy to eat). Obvs. this is all kept in the rucksack. You can of course take what you like but I found stuff that was “little-and-often” suited me better when I actually needed to eat to keep my strength up. Treats like sweets and things can be good for motivation.
Wet wipes/hand gel. If you are drinking enough you or other members of your party may want to go to the loo and…there are no loos, just rocks. You can get biodegradable wet wipes if you are bothered about the environment. You can see a fair amount of trash on the trail so you should consider the environment on the mountain. When you find the “suitable rock” you will probably find others have discovered it before you and gone to all-sorts-of-the-toilet before you, so watch where you step!
Insect repellent. The midges do not go very high but they are down in the leaves and things on the trail up and all over the place if you are camping. Best defence is to cover up but when it is hot you don’t always want to do that.
The first part from the Youth Hostel/Car Park is a steep climb on tall rocks with a lot of zig-zagging. This made me super-out-of-breath and hot and my legs got sore and I wondered if I could carry on. You will see when you look back how high you are climbing and how quickly. It evens out after a while and gets more path-like on the way to the lake (and I found it starts to get colder).
The lake is not halfway – but I think the waterfall probably is. At the lake you will be able to see tiny people walking really high up when you look up towards the top (you can’t really see the top). It will seem impossible but all being well you will be one of them in an hour or so. Not long after the waterfall it starts to get to be just plain rocks and very bleak. This can be disconcerting as it just seems to never end and the zig-zag paths mean you see lots of people ahead of you all the time (meaning you are not there yet).
As you get towards the top (maybe an hour away) you start to see cairns – piles of rocks. By this time I was zoned out psychologically. They feel like false summits but you just have to keep going. We were not really talking to each other by this time, just in exhausted “plod mode” but you will see people just wandering about like they’re out in the Westgate too (I guess what I’m trying to say here is don’t feel bad if you are so knackered you feel like you are a zombie by this point). There are some sheer drops here but it’s unlikely you will fall down them unless you are really confused or dizzy as they are a good few feet from the path.
At the summit is a trig point (the official top), a ruined observatory/weather station and a monument thing (and obviously loads of people saying “we did it!” in all sorts of languages). You will want to stop here to eat and ponder on your achievement etc. take pics, find-the-suitable-rock etc.
Coming back down is really hard on the calves and takes just as long. If the weather is good the views can be great. There is a decent Tandoori in Fort William for the victory curry. If you want to visit the Glen Nevis restaurant (we stayed at the campsite), book ahead for a table (especially on a Saturday; they stopped serving at 9pm each night I think and the queue for the bar was long).
Anyway, above all else, look after each other, have fun and take pics!