Ben Nevis (Scotland), Scafell Pike (England), Snowdon (Wales)


By: Paul A. Bloland

The fog on the summit of Ben Nevis was so thick, that we could scarcely see from the summit cairn, with its triangulation pillar, to the emergency hut, barely 25 yards away. Around us ghostly figures loomed up in the mist and conversations sounded muffled. Ruth Bloland and I were there partly because some years ago I had read Burton Falk's Sierra Echo account(1991, Vol. 35, No. 6) of the three attempts he had made on Ben Nevis, at 4406' Scotland's and Great Britain's highest mountain. Bad weather had driven him off the mountain during his first two attempts. His third try was the charm.

Ruth and I were going to spend some time at Oxford University in the summer of 1996 and wanted to see something of Britain while we were there. In fact, we had decided to do what we later learned was the National 3 Peaks Walk, beginning with Ben Nevis. The other two peaks are Scafell Pike. England's highest at 3,206', and Snowdon, the highest peak of Wales, 3,560'. For the truly masochistic, there is also the 3-peak challenge, all three peaks in 24 hours.

Ben Nevis
Although racing around Great Britain was not our idea of an inspiring holiday abroad, we did begin with the highest and most challenging - Ben Nevis. We had traveled up to Fort William from Edinburgh and Glasgow via the West Highland Line, a railway through the spectacular highland scenery of mountains and moors, lakes, and forest.

To climb the peak, we left our Fort William hotel. the Imperial, to catch the 8:00am bus to the Youth Hostel in Glen Nevis. At 8:15 we were headed directly up the path in front of us to intersect the route coming in from the left from Achintee Farm, where many climbers begin their ascents. We were now on the Tourist Route, a very rocky and uneven path and one that climbed rather steeply. At about 1500 feet we entered a thick cloudbank that restricted our views of the scenery and our route most of the day.

The track wound up around a minor peak, Meall an Suidhe, at 2,322'. It then continued past a small tarn to where it crossed the Red Burn, a small stream. We then entered a series of switchbacks that brought us out on the broad summit plateau. Here we followed a line of large cairns to the Triangulation Column, rescue hut, and the Old observatory ruins that told us that we had finally arrived, at 12:30pm.

It was damp and cold on the summit, which made lunch a hurried affair. It would have been easy to become disoriented on the flat and featureless summit in the gray blanket of fog that enveloped it. However, there were a great many people climbing that day, so we simply followed several seemingly knowledgeable groups through the fog. As we came down, very carefully now because of the wet rocks, the clouds parted momentarily. In the opening we could see not only the small tarn and the Lochson Meall and Suidhe below us, but far in the distance and across a range of low mountains. Loch Linnhe, on which Fort William is located. We were back at the Youth Hostel and out of the clouds in 3 hours and 50 minutes, not bad for us.

They say that Ben Nevis is obscured by clouds for over 200 days a year, so one's chances of making the climb in clear weather are few. The route is wide, well marked, and difficult to miss in rare clear weather, although in heavy fog the many cairns and alternative routes could cause problems, particularly as Ben Nevis, except for our route. is surrounded by some of the most spectacular rock climbing cliffs in Great Britain. Our climb took place on August 2. 1996, the gain was about 4,100', and the round trip mileage is about 8 miles.

Scafell Pike
Headquartering in the interesting but heavily touristed Village of Keswick in England's beautiful Lake Country, we took a taxi to Seathwaite in the lovely Borrowdale Valley. Notorious because it has the highest rainfall of any inhabited place in England, we lucked out with a fine day. Our indispensable guide was one of those delightful hand written and illustrated guidebooks to the Lakeland Fells by that indefatigable fellwalker and author, A.W. Wainwright.

The well-marked track took us up through sheep pastures and stone fences along Grains Gill, below the beetling crag of Great End, and up to Esk. At this broad and windswept pass where we turned west and up to the wide ridge connecting Great End, Broad Crag, and our objective, Scafell Pike (3,206'). We reached the huge summit cairn at 11:00 am and had lunch while admiring the expansive view of the Lakeland peaks. The view included: Great Gable across the way, the remote lake of Wastwater right below us; Scafell, a slightly lower but much more difficult peak which is close to Scafell Pike; Conniston Old Man; Helvellyn; and even Skiddaw above distant Keswick and its lake of Derwentwater.

We took the same route down off the summit but detoured over to Sty Head, a low pass, and Sty Tarn, descending Sty Gill to Stockley Bridge and the River Derwent, arriving back at Seathwaite about 3:30pm. Seeing no taxis about, we were forced to hike back to the main road to the little village of Seatoller where a Canadian couple we had met on the mountain gave us a ride back to Keswick. It is worth noting that one can reach Seatoller by public bus.

We walked about 10 miles. round-trip (including the Seathwaite to Seatoller extension) and gained about 3,200. The trail is easy to follow although rocky but there are so many trails leading up every valley and mountain that a good map and compass are absolutely necessary, should the weather turn bad as it very frequently does. We left Seathwaite at 7:15am and returned at 3:30pm, including a long luncheon on the summit. It being a weekend, there were many people on the trails and summits. Our ascent was made on August 5, 1996.

Two down and one to go. The highest and most famous peak in Wales, Snowdon, was next. We staved at an attractive little hotel, the Gwynedd, in Llanberis, which has excellent pub meals. Wandering around the town the night before, we noted that Snowdon's summit was clouded over and continued to be obscured as we started out the next morning at 8:40am.

The tourist route begins in town, Just past the terminal for the Snowdon Mountain Railway. The Llanberis path is wide enough for a jeep, smooth, and well graded. It roughly follows the railway tracks up a gigantic ridge but not so closely that the frequent trains become a nuisance.

Looking forward to a hot drink at Halfway House, we found it had been burned down It was here that we noticed that the heavy fog was changing to rain, so we donned our Gore-Tex and trudged on. The wind and rain became more and more severe until our vision was severely limited and intermittent gusts of wind buffeted us about.

We welcomed the sight of the summit restaurant (yes, there is one up there) and train station and after a short climb of the final pyramid we were on top of our third peak, Snowdon, at 3,560' Descending immedlately, we were met by hordes of tourists (which we were not, of course), who had just piled off the train and were clambering up the final 100' in the rain. Ruth and I retreated to the crowded restaurant for hot coffee and scones.

On the off chance that one-way railway tickets might be available, I inquired of the stationmaster. Yes, he had two. Now came the ethical question: should we be pure and walk back down as hard-core mountaineers ought to do or take the train? As the rain increased, the decision became easy.

Halfway down, the clouds parted and we were treated to marvelous views of the surrounding green mountains and the famous rock climbing crags of Clogwyn du'r Arddu. We were back at the Llanberis tram station in an hour and spent the rest of the day dodging rain showers as we explored the old mountain town and climbing center.

The gain for the day, August 8, was about 3.140' from the Llanberis railway terminal to the summit of Snowdon, and the mileage was about 4.5 miles, one-way. The trail as noted above is excellent, by far the best of the three summits, and, of course, one always has the option of riding the tram - even both ways!

While these British mountains are not high by California standards, the 3,000 plus feet of gain is respectable, and the weather can be formidable. Although we took seven days to accomplish the feat (instead of 24 hours), Ruth and I are now both eligible for the National 3 Peaks cloth badge to wear with our HPS, DPS, and SPS regalia!

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