Ben Nevis (Scotland)

In High Places

By: Burton A. Falk

Civil engineers hold that the three most important considerations in building a new road are 1.) drainage, 2.) drainage, and 3.) drainage. Home buyers claim that location, location and location come first.

Applying the same sort of logic, I contend that the three major factors to consider when planning a climb of Ben Nevis, the United Kingdom's highest peak, are 1.) weather, 2.) weather, and 3.) weather. It rains a lot in the Scottish Highlands. Take it from me.

My wife and I pulled into the town of Ft. William, Lochaber, Scotland, lying just four air miles from the summit of Ben Nevis, one wet July evening, planning to climb the peak the following day. Ha! We idled away the next three days waiting for the rain, which varied in intensity from cats and dogs to ark alert to let up. On the third evening, my wife suggested, rather pointedly, I thought... that it would be nice to see more of the Scotland than just the mildewed walls of our motel room. Something about it being her vacation, too. We left the following morning in a driving rainstorm.

Not easily discouraged, I persuaded my entire family to return with me to Ft. William the following summer, to once again have a try at the peak. On our arrival, not to my wife's surprise, it was raining. That first evening, I noted in my journal "it has rained more than 12" in July alone in Ft. Bill, and Scotland is having the wettest July since weather statistics have been kept, beginning in 1869." I remained unfated, though. The peak would be mine even if I had to swim to the top,

By United States standards, Ben Nevis, at 4,406', is not much of a mountain. Because of its prominence, however as the highest point in both Scotland and the United Kingdom, it has become a Mecca for hundreds of climbers and walkers each summer. Runners, too...more than 400 each year...converge on "The Ben" for a foot race run up its slopes.

Although most of Beg Nevis' slopes are either sheer cliffs or otherwise dangerously steep, there is a hiker's route to the summit called the old Pony Track. This is the same route that was followed during the 1911 automobile ascent of the peak--a five-day climb by means of a twenty-horsepower Model T Ford. In 1928, the feat was repeated with a Model A Ford, and that year, thanks to the miracles of modern technology, it took only one day to make the summit.

The climbing party for my second year's attempt of the Ben consisted of my two sons, a daughter-in-law-to-be and myself. My wife figuring she could be wet in comfort, opted to spend the day in Ft. William's municipal plunge. Knowing that a third return to Scotland would be entirely out of the question, I attempted to ensure that we climbers were prepared for any eventuality. On our the morning of our-departure, for instance, we were dressed in polypro underwear, wool sweaters, wool hats, wool pants and plenty of Gortex...we could have been heading for Mt. McKinley. Tucked away in a plastic trash bag in our community backpack was a large store of dry socks and enough food for a troop of famished Boy Scouts.

At 10 a.m. in a light rain, we started hiking at a well- marked trailhead on the Glen Nevis road. Crossing a footbridge almost immediately, we then mucked along a muddy path beside the stream and through a farmyard, heading toward the slope to our north. When we reached the base of the mountain, we discovered that we could have avoided our sloppy start by driving directly to the north side of the stream and parking there at Aichintee Farm. Ten minutes of walking time and one change of dry socks would have been saved if had known of this shortcut beforehand.

Starting up the Old Pony Track, we found that the trail was rocky and a bit slippery, but, like a well-engineered road, it had good drainage. We met no other hikers during the hike except for, about a half an hour out, a discouraged family from Los Angeles who were in the process of turning back. They had underestimated the weather and started out with only light slickers and Dodger hats as rain protection. Mad dogs and Englishmen may go out in the mid-day sun, but neither turn out on rainy days in the Highlands. An hour and a half from the car and approximately 1/2 way to the summit, we entered a thick cloud layer, which surrounded us until we broke out again at the same elevation on our return. Climbing on, the weather grew colder and wetter, and the last vestiges of vegetation disappeared entirely. At 1 p.m., three hours after starting, a concrete pillar marking the summit suddenly loomed through the mist ahead of us. Because of the cloud and the fact that the trail fades away on the rather flat summit surface, it would have been difficult to locate the exact high point if it hadn't been for the monument.

We took a few photographs, ate a quick snack, then we walked over to gaze down through the drizzle at the Ben's precipitous north face, a favorite route for rock climbers. Earlier that morning, when we had stopped at Nevisports, a Ft. William mountaineering shop, one of the personnel there had assured us that no one would be climbing the face that day because of the inclement conditions. He also said that it often snowed on the Ben in the summer, and that if the peak was only a few hundred feet higher there would be a permanent glacier on its slopes.

In my journal I noted that "the hike back down was uneventful and we reached the car about 3:00 p.m. I washed a layer of mud off my rain pants and boots in a nearby stream, then the four of us drove back to Ft. William, where we enjoyed a bowl of hot soup and coffee in the upstairs restaurant at Nevisports." As we sat there in the warm, dry cafe, our wet hair steaming, we agreed that the climb had been worthwhile and, yes, even a lot of fun.

In recent winters, Ben Nevis has become a popular site for ice climbing. All too frequently the climbers involved have been injured or trapped on the treacherous slopes, and as a result many desperate midnight search and rescue operations have been launched in the near-arctic weather conditions. Most of the more than twenty fatalities recorded on the mountain during the past fifty years have occurred during the winter months. In the summer, however, if you are properly equipped and stay on the trail, even in the worst of weather you should return safe and sound to enjoy an evening of bagpipe music, haggis and Scotch whisky in Ft. William.

Along the south side of Hen Nevis lies the pleasant, wooded 22 mile-long valley, Glen Nevis. For those preferring a tent to a motel, many private campgrounds can be found in this area. The Glen is also the starting point for a 26 mile hike around the base of Ben Nevis and for a network of trails leading into the surrounding mountains.

For an interesting book concerning the area, try Hamish MacInnis's "Callout," which records several daring rescue efforts on the Ben and in the surrounding Highland mountains.

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