Mountains: Ben Nevis

Posted by BMC on 07/03/2002

As Britain’s highest mountain, and a year round magnet for climbers, hill walkers and mountaineers, 'the Ben' as it is affectionately known, can experience extremes of conditions that make it a far more serious proposition than its modest altitude would suggest.

Too many people have underestimated the Ben and when a blizzard of arctic ferocity strikes an easy day out can turn all too easily into a fight for survival. Many people have died on the Ben and many more have been rescued from its slopes.
The aim of this information sheet is firstly to describe the Ben and its approaches and then focus on the all-important business of getting off the mountain safely.

General Considerations
You should be aware that snow can be present all year round on parts of the mountain and that there are times when a ‘summer’ ascent of the Ben can be no less serious than a ‘winter’ one. A day’s plan should always be reconsidered in light of approaching weather and changing conditions. The great alpine climber Bonatti would famously check his thermometer before setting out for a day’s ice climbing. Too warm and he would go back to bed or go rock climbing instead. Ben Nevis is no less serious than the Alps and you should always be asking whether the conditions and your plans for the day match. Important considerations include:

What is the best estimate of summit conditions (wind speed, visibility, temperature) for when you plan to get there. You need to feel confident that you can navigate precisely in any likely conditions, and that your clothing and equipment are up to the job. This consideration is particularly important in summer when calm conditions in the Glens can lead to a severe underestimate of what will be encountered on top.

Will snow fall and temperature change lead to possible avalanche conditions anywhere on the proposed route.

Do you feel physically up to the proposed plan, remembering that the day can often be longer and harder than expected. Many incidents occur because an individual becomes exhausted as the going becomes unexpectedly hard. Build adequate margins into your planning.

If in doubt, change your plans to account for conditions.

Approaches
Ben Nevis lies 7km to the South East of Fort William, summit GR 166 713. Shown overleaf is a sketch map of the mountain and its approaches.

Walks to the Summit
a) Tourist route: The most common approach is from Glen Nevis Youth Hostel. When not covered by snow a well-defined path leads from here to join the pony track that originates from Achintree Farm (an alternative starting point). The pony track winds its way up to the 'Halfway Lochan', which lies between Maell ant-Suidhe and Carn Dearg, before veering right (south), crossing the red burn and zig zagging up long scree slopes to the summit plateau. The Summit is marked by the survival shelter, which sits on top of the ruined Observatory (GR166713). In good conditions, typically this route will take 3-4 hours.

Via Carn Mor Dearg: A much recommended summer route. Has some high risk areas when icy or under snow cover (which can occur at any time of year). From Achintree or the Youth Hostel follow the tourist route above to the halfway lochan. Where the pony track veers to the south head northwards following an ill defined path which contours the lower slopes of Carn Dearg until
the lip of the Allt a'Mhuillinn glen is reached. Head down to the valley floor and cross the burn in the region of GR 154739. Climb directly up the slopes of Carn Beag Dearg to reach the ridge. Head SSE following the ridge over Carn Dearg Meadhonach to reach Carn Mor Dearg. The ridge now turns S and becomes sharp and exposed (Carn Mor Dearg Arete). Where the arete joins the flanks of the Ben head W over bouldery ground (faint path) to reach the summit. These final slopes can be difficult under snow and many serious slips have occurred from here. Times for this route average 7-10 hours. It is possible to join this route having started from the distillery or Golf Course (see (1) & (2) below).

c) It is possible to reach the summit via a very steep walk starting from the car park at the end of the Glen Nevis road. A number of variations exist but the ‘water slide’ above the car park is NOT an ascent route and has been the scene of many accidents in summer and winter. For a fit walker Glen Nevis can give a quick route to the summit in summer conditions but care should be taken in winter conditions with regard to avalanche threat.

Approaches to the North East Face Climbs and CIC hut.
The CIC hut (GR 168722) is located beneath Carn Dearg and is situated on the crest of a spur just above the junction of the Allt a'Mhuillinn burn and a burn coming down from Corrie na Ciste.

1) Distillery approach:
From the distillery near Lochy Bridge head south east, cross the railway, and continue through about half a mile of boggy land to reach a disused railway track. Follow this for a few hundred metres and, shortly after crossing a small bridge, climb eastwards up the slope to reach the Allt a'Mhuillinn burn where it is dammed. After crossing the dam the track is well marked and follows often boggy ground to the left of the burn for about three miles of gradual ascent after which the CIC hut (constructed in memory of mountaineer Charles Ingils Clark, a convenient ‘gearing up’ spot) is reached. In reasonable conditions, it should take 2-3 hours to reach the hut.

2) Golf Club Approach
At present parking is not allowed at the Golf Club (GR 136 762) and it will be necessary to park some way down the road. From the club car park go under the railway line then cross the golf course heading roughly south east. The greens should be avoided. Aim to pick up a good path that runs up the left-hand side of the burn and keeps to the right of the deer fence. Once found this path leads to the dam.

3) From Achintree follow walk (b) to the lip of the Allt a'Mhuillinn glen. From here a gradual descending North Easterly traverse leads down to the Allt a Mhuillann burn which is followed on its right bank to the CIC hut (the Corrie na Ciste burn is crossed just before the hut). This route is only slightly longer than the distillery approach and can, if the lower Allt a'Mhuillinn is boggy, be more pleasant. However, in poor visibility route finding can be more difficult and it is important to be aware that the slopes below the Castle area are prone to drifting and will present an avalanche risk after heavy snowfall.

Getting Down
Getting off the Ben on a calm clear day is pretty straightforward and you will wonder what all the fuss is about. However, in bad conditions, it’s a very different story and good navigation skills are essential if the mountain’s accident black spots are to be avoided. The summit plateau, which is really a broad ridge, has numerous gullies cutting into it. In winter cornices may conceal the edges of these gullies and it is in order to avoid falling through these that precise navigation is required. In particular Gardyloo gully, coming in from the north just to the west of the summit and Five Finger Gully, which cuts in from the SW some 1km from the summit and often has an avalanche risk, are to be avoided.

A descent plan should be made before setting out. Sorting out maps and calculating bearings on the summit plateau whilst being blasted by wind and snow is an unpleasant business and can easily lead to errors. If walking to the summit consider turning back if conditions and visibility are deteriorating and you have difficulty making out the terrain ahead.

In winter in particular in bad visibility, because of the risk of wandering over the plateau rim or into Five Finger gully, if you have a rope you should be tied on and move as if on an alpine glacier (10-15m apart). Ideally, all members of the team should be navigating to help avoid errors.

The following are the descent options:

Descent from the Summit
a) Back to the Halfway Lochan-Red Burn descent.
This is likely to be the safest way off in bad conditions. It is important to be aware that in certain conditions the Red Burn area can be seriously avalanche threatened and if in doubt the direct line down the burn should be avoided.

From the Summit, the first requirement is to avoid the top of Gardyloo gully. From the summit (Observatory) follow a bearing of 235 (magnetic)* for 150m. The next bearing, 290 (magnetic)*, aims for the top of the Red Burn which is reached after about a 1km and avoids the entry to Five Finger Gully. This Gully is on the left after about 800m, it appears innocuous and the entry is not steep and it is easily mistaken for the descent and has been the scene of many accidents.

*NB magnetic bearings have been given which are correct for 1997. Magnetic variation changes with time and should be calculated from the relevant information on the map.
b) In good conditions and if you fancy a long day out ascent, route b) over Carn Mor Dearg can be reversed.

Descent after having climbed a route on the NE face
a) In poor conditions, the descent is as above (Red Burn) but remember to adjust the bearings to take account of your position relative to the summit. Come well in from the cornice before setting off on a bearing.

b) Number 4 Gully. In good visibility a route parallel to the rim of the plateau can be followed northward (keeping well back from the edge to avoid cornice collapse) to reach the top of number 4 gully after about 2/3 of a mile (from the summit). The gully may be corniced and is steep and requires care at the top, however the angle soon eases.

c) Carn Mor Dearg arete. In good visibility, and taking great care on the initial slopes, a descent can be made to the Carn Mor Dearg arete. From here, it is possible to descend into Corrie Leis or to descend to the car park at the end of Glen Nevis (as ascent c) taking care to avoid the ‘water slide’.

At any time of year climbing, hill walking and mountaineering requires the proper use of skills, techniques and equipment. If a mistake is made in winter, the consequences can be tragic. As a reminder try and take a ‘SANE’ approach in winter conditions:

S Self arrest ability
A Avalanche awareness
N Navigational skills and experience
E Equipment suitable for the objective

Further Information
Scottish Winter Climbs - SMC Guide
Ben Nevis Rock and Ice - SMC Guide
Ben Nevis - SMC, by Crockett
Rock Climbing in Scotland - SMC Guide
Mountain Navigation, by Cliffe
Safety on Mountains - BMC
A chance in a million (Scottish Avalanches), by Barton
Mountaincraft and Leadership, by Langmuir
OS Landranger (1:50,000) 41

Outdoor Leisure Mountain Master (1:25,000) 38
Harveys Walkers Map (1:40,000), and Superwalker (1:25,000) Ben Nevis - this includes a 1:12,500 enlargement of the Ben's summit.
Ben Nevis - Trail Magasine Jan 97 pp14-20
Also consult Cordee catalogue, 3A DeMontfort Street, Leicester, LE1 7HD, 0116 2543579 and Stanfords International Map Centre, 12-14 Long Acre, Covent Garden, London WC2E 9LP.

Accommodation
Fort William is well equipped to deal with all your needs, several supermarkets, many outdoor shops, pubs etc. For bad weather days, Lochaber Leisure centre has a climbing wall, pool and sauna. A variety of Accommodation is available, ranging from the youth hostel and campsite in Glen Nevis, to B&Bs and hotels in Fort William and Glen Nevis. The CIC hut (GR 168 722) and the Steall Hut (GR 178 684) are locked private huts, contact the SMC.

BMC/MC of S members: Alex McIntyre Hut, Onich-Contact Brent Eggo 01324 554452
Tourist Information, Fort William - 01397 703781
Scottish Youth Hostel Association 01786 451 181 Reservations 08701 553 255 Website www.syha.org.uk
Glen Nevis Hostel YH 01397 702 336
Newtonmore independent hostel, GR713990, tel/fax: 01540 673360,email: newtonmore@HighlandHostel.co.uk website www.highlandhostel.co.uk



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