The gloom of the morning had stayed with us during our drive south to Fort William from the cottage in Drumnadrochit. The sky remained bullet grey from which a steady drizzle descended, the waters of Loch Ness, Loch Oich, Loch Lochy and finally Loch Linnhe looked cold and uninvited, the peaks of the surrounding peaks remained shrouded under a clag of leaden cloud. Of Gaelic origin of the name Ben Nevis (Beinn Nebheis) is a little obscure perhaps meaning venomous hill, or quite appropriate on a day like this, cloudy hill.
At the visitor centre in Achintee we parked the car and climbed into our waterproofs to keep us dry against the now steadily falling rain -I don't mind the wet and getting wet it's just a bad way to start the day. The plan was to follow the tourist 'mountain footpath', according to the guide books its an ascent of 1370m, a distance of 14.90km and a route time of four hours up and three hours down. We had all day to do the walk so time wasn't going to be factor; fatigue and my ability to navigate on a cloud enveloped summit plateau would be.
On August 2nd 1895 a local man William Swan recorded a time of 2 hours and 41 minutes as he ran up and down 'The Ben'. It was with the presentation of the MacFarlane cup in 1937 by the late George MacFarlane, former provost of Fort William, that the modern Ben Nevis Race began. Today the race occurs on the first Saturday in September and up to five hundred entries are accepted from suitably qualified hill runners. The record for men stands at 1 hour, 25 minutes and 34 seconds and is held by Kenneth Stuart of Keswick AC and for ladies it is 1 hour, 43 minutes and 25 seconds, held by Pauline Haworth, also of Keswick AC.
It is an odd fact that we met nobody running up or down 'The Ben' that day. Elsewhere in the country hoardes of super fit athletes would be running up and down mountains, some of them I believe carrying piano's on their backs.
We set off at a walking pace accepting that today we would break no records. Crossing over the River nevis by way of a wooden bridge we walked a short distance along the river bank and then skirted about some fields within sight of Achintee House and the carpark. The 'mountain footpath' was gained and steadily skirted about the flank of Meall an t-Suidhe, at about the junction of the path from the youth hostel in the valley below the rain ceased and I took the oprtunity to shed my waterproofs. Into view came the great cleft in which the dashing waters of Red Burn ran, and then its waterfalls tumbling from cloud covered Ben Nevis itself. A final treat came with a view of the deep blue Lochan Meall an t-Suidhe, on a sunny day it would have been a treat to rest a while at its shores.
From our vantage point we could see the path zig-zag its way up 'The Ben' disappearing into the thick cloud beyond, we ate chocolate bars and then pressed on. Frequent falls of cold fine rain showered upon us as we zig-zagged our way up the track, although the visibility was poor the path was clear through conservation and erosion that it made a good 'handrail feature.' We frequently met other walkers coming down and occasionally overtaking us but no 'crocodile' formed and it was still a pleasure to bid these fellows hello and chat to them without a feeling of monotonous repetition.
Many bad things are said about this 'tourist path' up Ben Nevis but I didn't find it overcrowded, the people seemed well equiped and the litter wasn't to bad. Perhaps I have low standards but these are things I couldn't say about Scafell Pike or Snowdon for example. The mountain track has been used to reach the summit of 'The Ben' in a variety of ways. The first ascent by a motor car was made in 1911 This was a publicity stunt to promote the Model T Ford. The ascent took several days and involved the use of planks and ropes. The 'mountain track' was followed from about half-way up. The second car ascent in 1928 was completed in one day and there have been numerous other motorised ascents over the years.
The incline of the zig-zags levelled out as we reached the summit plateau and the well constructed path split into two at a junction. Here a German couple were pouring over a GPS reader, the woman looked cold and the man puzzled by the reading he was given. From what I could understand from the display it was prescribing a route between the two footpaths, I showed him the routes on my old fashioned paper map and we set of on the left hand track, the most direct route. The cloud was thick and visibility poor, we caught a glimpse down the chasm of Number 2 Gully as we passed by.
The summit of great Ben Nevis is either a building site or a demolition site, I just can't decide which, just as I can't decide whether this is character or an eyesore. the summit is marked by an Ordnance Survey trig point, about it are scattered various cairns, an emergency shelter and the ruins of the meteorological observatory. Opened on the 17th October 1883, the Ben Nevis Observatory provided invaluable meteorological data for 20 years on a continuous hourly basis. Funded mostly from a list of private donations which included Queen Victoria the Observatory was managed by the Scottish Meteorological Society and the Royal Societies of Edinburgh and London. The building was manned by a superintendent and two assistants who were responsible for taking readings. During the long dark days of winter, staff would brave gale force, icy winds and driving snow to carry out their labours. Inside heat was provided by an open cooking stove in the kitchen and a closed one in the office - fuelled mostly by paraffin coke. In the mist and cloud these ruins and cairns gave a feeling of antiquity like those stones, walls and bee-hive huts I had seen in Ireland.
We posed for photographs resting against the summit trig point, on a clear day the views across to Glen Coe are stunning:- Beinn a' Bheithir, Bidean nam Bian (the highest peak in Argyll) and the famous notched ridge of the Aonach Eagach. It was getting cold and to cold to hang about and explore the summit ruins properly; I spotted snow and ice amongst the boulders and rocks. We departed but not before stopping at the nations highest war memorial and discovering a connection to home:
Britains Highest War Memorial
Fort William - Dudley (Worcs) Cairn Of Remembrance
Erected to the glory of God and in memory of the fallen of all races on VJ Day, August 15th 1945. By members of Vicar Street Bible Class, Dudley. Who were then enjoying the hospitality of their Scottish friends at Fort William. From this mountain memorial the affectionate of friendship is extended to the youth of every nation in the world. Dedicated by the Rev A. MacLean M.A. August 9th 1949. Unveiled by the provost Donald Cameron both of Fort William.
The rocks and boulders of the summit plateau are composed of Andesite and other volcanic lavas, as we walked down the zig-zags these gave way to granites and schists just as the clag of thick cloud gave way to sunshine. The descent in the afternoon sun was pleasent and the views far reaching and spectacular. At the car park of the visitor centre we ate apples, fed finches with bread crumbs and reflected upon a great day on 'The Ben.'
Ben Nevis, the highest peak in the British Isles.
Grid Ref: 41/NN166712
Summited: 19th September 2007