What climbing Ben Nevis is really like...
Bring a woolly hat they said!
First of all I'd like to start with a thank you to all who donated! we're so close to our £5000 target for The Brain Tumour Charity so please keep donating at www.justgiving.com/moneyforbrains
Okay, so it does usually rain in Scotland, especially up high in the clouds...but we had a fluke day of perfect clear skies and 20 degrees Celsius at base. In the above picture it is 8am and we're in full weatherproof gear for the predicted thunderstorms on Saturday 10th August 2019! I've even got my waterproof trousers on.
We set off from the Tourism Centre at the base of Ben Nevis (Glen Nevis) at 08:30, here, there are toilets and the opportunity to fill up your water bottle. You start off in a farm field track amongst the mountain sheep which prepares you for the loose rocky path that continues for the duration of your climb. This route is called the Mountain Path or Tourist Path; it is considered easy/mild for novice climbers like us. One thing I will say from the offset is that, I don't think this would be enjoyable if it was pouring with rain.
Seeing the lake is a marker that you have climbed 1/3 of the route.
After around 2/2.5 hours of climbing you will come across a beautiful waterfall where you can refill your bottles with crisp fresh water. It's important to continuously drink fluids and snack as you always dehydrate much quicker than you can keep hydrated; the last thing you want is a headache on this climb! It's also very important to mention that wherever there was water there were tiny biting insects called midges that would stick to the sweat on your skin; it's so important to cover any exposed flesh with insect repellent as these really stung both instantly and even after a few days!
After around 3.5 hours the rocks start to become smaller and looser, this is where your hiking boots do a lot of the work for you. Ankle strength plays a big part in the climb and in some wet areas (as a stream is often running down the path) slipping might occur. We had a number of slips but luckily no rolled ankles...in the rain I assume this is a real issue...take it slow, this climb is a marathon and not a race.
You start to lose visibility as you reach the last 1/3 of the climb, mist and fog roll around your group quite frequently so carrying a radio might be a good idea if you're planning to walk in a big group. The path could be easily lost near the top but if you keep a good pace you should be able to stay comfortably on the path with other walking groups, dogs and climbers similar to your ability. You hit a real mental wall at this point, a lot of climbers genuinely consider turning around but quite honestly you've truly done the hard work already at this point. The image below shows how it looks. I think once you lose the view you start to lose the motivation so it's important to group together and get everyone encouraged to continue.
As you can see I've donned my thermal vest and t-shirt as it does become quite chilly as you're approaching the top; even though you're still sweating like mad, you will catch a cold if you don't layer up! If you look at the rocky terrain in the image, this is the kindest it gets on the climb. This was probably the flattest area before the summit.
SummitingDuring our climb I would say we took around 7 short breaks and 1 long one for a sandwich...it's important to pace yourself but try not to lose the heat you've built around your organs and muscles. It took us 5 hours to summit and the best way I can describe the climb was like using the Stairmaster in the gym for 5 hours in a row. You should stop at the top for at least 30 minutes on a good day and refuel yourself. A stretch would have gone a long way in hindsight too!
The mist can roll away if you're very lucky as we were and you get a crystal clear view from the summit; even if it is mostly more hills and clouds! Make sure you bring your favourite beverage to the top to celebrate your climbing efforts. It's a great moment for reflection of what motivated you to climb Ben Nevis. Cheers!
The DescentI was prior warned about the descent being more of a mental battle than a physical one but I found it challenging in equal parts. I had a knee reconstruction done in March of 2019 and walking downstairs was challenging rather than painful, thankfully. I made sure to tread carefully as it is much harder to navigate your strides on the way down...a fall would really hurt. Thank God it wasn't raining as it would have taken hours!
It is at this time that you are pleased you set off early because 8am very quickly becomes 4pm. You do not want to be starting this climb any later than 10am if you're a novice climber.
When you're descending a lot of the track feels quite new so it's reassuring to have the small reminders along the way that mark how far you have to go. I remember being extremely relieved to see the water fountain again as I'd just ran out of water.
As I am a nurse on my feet all day, I did not experience ANY foot pain whatsoever but nearly 100% of my group were in agony with their feet. I would highly recommend doing long walks in your boots before this climb and getting used to climbing stairs. For me, it was my calves that were on fire!
Seeing the lake once more for the final 1/3 of the track (you ascend and descend on the same path throughout) was reassuring but I have to say, the last hour was total meltdown. You are, without question, absolutely exhausted and running on reserve energy. We were also mildly sunburnt! So I believe on reflection that we were probably experiencing a small amount of sun stroke at the same time.
The descent took around 3.5 hours with one of them spent slowly stepping whilst crying so I imagine this could be done in around 2.5 hours by a normal group of novice walkers.
The views and the gratification of the challenge are absolutely worth the muscle ache and the fatigue by the end of the day. If you're lucky enough to have a sunshine day like us then it will be really enjoyable. I can't speak for those who climb in the pouring rain but, either way, Ben Nevis is a really exciting challenge.
Whilst climbing you have a lot of time to think and observe; it's quite a tranquil experience if the weather is on your side. There are a lot of charity walkers up there too so you can chat and offer them words of encouragement too. Hopefully my bright red Brain Tumour Charity t-shirt caught the attention of other walkers; one man in the pub gave us a donation afterwards too!
Top tips for climbing Ben Nevis:
- Set off early, it takes around 8.5 hours all in all.
- Take a large water bottle and more snacks than you'd eat on a normal day
- Pack ultra lightweight waterproofs, you will sweat even in bad weather
- Take painkillers and plasters
- Cover your ears near the top to prevent windburn
- Lather yourself in insect repellent & sun cream throughout the walk
- Wear in your ankle boots before you go
- When you feel like giving up remember who you're doing it for even if its just for the challenge!