Geoff And Sandy Climb
Ben Nevis (Beinn Nibheis)
20th July 2012
One evening way back in 2011 Sandy and I drew up a 'Bucket List' - this being a list of things to do before we kicked the bucket. On this list was for us to climb Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in the United Kingdom.
We didn't realise what this meant until I worked out that, at 1,344 metres (4,409 feet), Ben Nevis is eleven times higher than climbing from sea level to the top of Portland.
The view from the top of Portland 120 metres above sea level.
I realised that I needed to greatly improve my fitness having, in recent years, had an operation on a knee, broken my neck in three places (click here for the hilarious account of me falling down stairs) and had a double hernia operation. Also I was well into my seventies and really not fit.
And so I started a long-term regime of getting fit by walking the steep hills around Dorset and mainly walking up and down Portland. In fact, I became so used to walking from sea level to the top of Portland and back down that Sandy and I used a unit of 'Portlands' (120 metres) to measure how far we were up Ben Nevis on the actual climb.
Looking at photographs of Ben Nevis and searching the Internet often raised doubts as the wisdom of this challenge.
The pictures above and below (taken from the Wikimedia Commons Archive) show the enormity of our challenge. What didn't help was that the walk started very close to sea level in Glen Nevis. These two pictures don't show the bottom half of the mountain!
Our plan was to climb for 8 kilometres up an average gradient of one in six and then come down again. Other climbers' experience suggested this could take as long as eight hours.
I printed off detailed maps showing the path - click here to see a large-scale map of the start of the Ben Nevis track, here for the central part and here for the route to the summit. I marked the maps with 24 waymarks each with a height and a bearing to the next waymark. Three GPS trackers also were taken to guide us through possible impenetrable fog or two metre deep snow - we left nothing to chance!
There was also the problem of bad weather with the area having four metres of rain a year - five times greater than in Dorset. The summit could have snow until late June and gales were recorded on the majority of days on the summit. We would have to take a set of weatherproof clothing.
We booked a week in Scotland with a window of three days in late July 2012 in which we hoped the weather would be suitable to make an attempt.
What follows is an account of our adventure. After the description of the climb there are a few snippets about the rest of our week in Scotland.
We flew from Bristol to Inverness and picked up a thoroughly unlikable little Peugeot 107 hire car. Trust me - don't buy one of these!
We stayed in Inverness for two nights and travelled to stay in the excellent Achintee Guesthouse at the foot of the Ben Nevis - click here for the guesthouse website and here for Trip Advisor reviews where it earns a well justified 5* rating.
The above pictures show the excellent weather on arrival with Ben Nevis just visible on the right edge of the second picture.
We had three days in which to climb the mountain so we consulted the Weather Forecasting Stone and decided to climb on the next day.
The look of confidence that we can reach the summit and return safely.
It was a hot day at the start - T-shirts and shorts weather in a temperature around 20 C. The view is near the start of the ascent looking down Glen Nevis which we explored later in the week.
Looking the other way towards the campsite and Youth Hostel in Glen Nevis. At this point we were about 240 metres (= 2 Portlands) high. There are several climbers coming down and we asked a group what time they had set off. "5 o'clock - just around sunrise" was the reply. We were having a great cooked breakfast as they were leaving the summit!
Sandy stops for a discrete loo stop in the toilet hut.
Getting higher and the view down Glen Nevis widens out.
Distant mountain peaks to the north start to appear.
Most of the track was difficult to walk on as it was made up of large boulders. These were actually more difficult to cope with coming down as our boots were slippery and we both skidded and were saved from injury several times only by our walking poles.
Sandy stops to talk to Ria - technology invades everywhere these days!
The above spot was near the tarn at an altitude of 565 metres - nearly five Portlands - and 2/5ths of the way to the top - see the map here. The trees were now well below us and the mountain was covered in short coarse grass. We sat for a few minutes and admired the beautiful tarn below us. This is shown in the next four sweeping pictures.
Soon the tracks became much steeper and the grass was replaced by tough lichen. Even these soon disappeared as we climbed ever upwards leaving glaring white rock in the bright sunshine. The temperature was now much lower and we gradually put on more layers. However, being a truly eccentric Englishman I remained in my shorts so that the other climbers could admire my finely structured knees.
This waterfall is traditionally taken to be the half-way point in the climb being at about 750 metres - about six Portlands.
Ever more distant mountains were appearing and we started to see Loch Linnhe in the middle distance. It was still gloriously sunny but getting cold.
Above about 1,000 metres (3,280 feet) the track was very rough stones and boulders and we had to take care not to twist an ankle. The most distance peaks on this photograph are about 80 km (50 miles) distant.
We started to find marker pillars of stones which told us that the summit could not be too far away. Although we still had over 250 metres to climb we were so close to achieving our goal that we ignored the cold air and the ankle-twisting boulders - we now knew that we could make the summit.
A snow field. We thought of stopping for a snowball fight but we were so close to the top that we pressed on.
More snow nestling in the northern face of a gully. The air temperature was now close to freezing and our hands were going dead gripping our walking poles. We tried to ignore the smugness on the faces of those coming down.
As we went over a steep wall of rocks we saw the roof of a derelict building and we knew we had reached the summit.
Our GPS tracker tells the story - we had climbed for 3 hours and 47 minutes to an altitude of 1,343 metres (starting at 20 metres above sea level) and we covered 7.88 kilometres (4.9 miles) of track.
We joined a queue to climb up to the trig point to pose as the highest person in the United Kingdom.
The summit is different from the rest of the mountain for geological reasons described below. The summit is covered in large angular blocks which can so easily twist and break an ankle. It was not an easy place to move around.
There are several derelict buildings on the summit comprising a weather observatory, a shelter hut and - amazingly - an hotel!
People had even managed to drive to the summit.
Whilst on the summit the cloud base enveloped us and we decided to start back down before the visibility became too restricting. In fact, the cloud base was going down almost as fast as we could go down.
Sandy sends messages of success and receives congratulation messages back.
The rough steep descent from the summit was not helped by the thick cloud that quickly came down. Luckily, there were so many other climbers going up and down that it was not difficult to find the path.
As we descended we met climbers coming up. "Not far now - nearly half-way!" I cheerily lied. One exhausted young lady replied "That's not f***ing funny!"
Is that really the tarn so far below us that we stopped to admire on the way up? Notice the very rough, ankle-twisting rocks that we are having to walk over. Without my walking poles I would have fallen several times.
Time for lunch.
It was much more difficult going down most of the mountain than going up, as shown here.
Steady! This is no place to break your leg!
This is no place to play the fool with about 2 hours of descent ahead of us.
"Look! A flock of wild Haggis!"
"Look! A Golden Eagle"
"Look! My groin just ruptured!"
"How many ruptures? Two!"
"I've had enough! I'm just going to jump!"
Sandy still has enough energy left to show off her dancing ability.
At first it seemed like a cruel mirage but, right at the foot of the trail down the mountain was a brilliant pub. Miles from anywhere but just right for us.
The story of our descent - 3 hours 57 minutes meaning that we had been on the mountain for over eight hours including the time spent exploring the summit.
Refuelling with the local brew.
A two minute stagger from the pub to the Achintee Guesthouse and a bath. What a perfect day!
THE GEOLOGY OF BEN NEVIS AND THE GLENS
Maybe you are not fascinated by the remarkable story of how Ben Nevis was formed over 400 million years ago. If so click here to skip to the next part of our holiday story.
The rocks that make up Ben Nevis and the surrounding mountain range were laid down hundreds of millions of years ago as the skeletons of dead sea creatures fell on the floor of a now-vanished ocean, the Iapetus Ocean, and silt was washed down ancient rivers.
Over time, the closure of the Iapetus Ocean by the massive movement of continental plates resulted in rocks on the ocean floor being dragged beneath the surface and buried 20 kilometres beneath a newly created continent. Subjected to enormous pressures and temperatures they were changed.
As rocks were dragged deep into the Earth, increased pressure led to extreme heat that melted the rocks. The resultant molten rock is more buoyant than its surroundings and rises again.
Around 425 million years ago, this occurred at what is now Ben Nevis. A large chamber of molten lava formed and fed a huge highly active volcano which threw out unimaginable quantities of lava onto the Earth’s surface.
The volcano was large and active – so active that it eventually "blew its top" in a way similar to the explosion of Krakatoa in 1883, and collapsed inwards. As much as 2.5 kilometres height of the volcano collapsed into the underlying magma chamber.
The original volcano was possibly as high at the peaks of the Himalayas - such as Mount Everest - before it exploded.
Erosion over the next 400 million years by glaciation and erosion through rain, wind and frost, have removed most of the mountain. What is visible today is effectively the root of the volcano, with many kilometres of the overlying rock that was once on the mountain having been eroded away.
What we see - and climbed - today is a very small part of what was once a huge explosive volcano.
Over the last 2 million years ago the Ice Ages covered the Highlands of Scotland with ice over one kilometre thick. In fact, at times only the extreme tip of Ben Nevis would have poked out of the ice sheet with the surrounding mountains buried in ice.
As the last Ice Age retreated about 20,000 years ago the glaciers and floods of water carved out the Glens and reshaped Ben Nevis.
We visited the Visitor Centre at the site of the Battle of Culloden. This was excellent and perhaps the best historical interpretation centre I have ever visited. Shame about the gale force winds and rain but - this was Scotland in July and at least the midges were not around.
Loch Ness with no monster in sight.
A warning poster about dog fouling - but with a sense of humour!
Glen Roy - a very remote area but with a central place in the geological history of the world. Unfortunately, the geological feature we travelled many miles down a winding single track lane to see don't show up in my pictures so the picture below is taken from Wikipedia.
Glen Roy in the Lochaber area of the Highlands of Scotland is a National Nature Reserve and is noted for the geological puzzle of the three roads ("Parallel Roads") seen as lines following the contours of the hills.
The "Parallel Roads" of Glen Roy are the three shorelines of a vast lake created during the last Ice Age when a huge ice dam blocked off the end of the Glen.
It was the sight of these ancient shorelines that convinced Louis Agassiz in 1840 that the Earth had suffered many severe Ice Ages in the past two million years.
From a distance they resemble man-made roads running along the side of the Glen, hence the name. In ancient time the local Celts believed they were the paths worn out by a giant.
Whilst in Fort William we travelled by train to Mallaig and back. This passes over the Glenfinnan Viaduct used several times in the Harry Potter films when the Hogwarts Express in travelling to the school.
This picture from the Wikipedia Commons Archive shows a steam train on the viaduct.
The above picture shows the Hogwarts Express being buzzed by a Ford Anglia car from the Harry Potter film.
On the day we travelled on the train it was so miserable and wet that the view of the viaduct from the train window, as seen below, was a disappointment to say the least.
There is really very little see in Mallaig although we did have a good seafood meal.
The Mallaig seagull seen below was looking particularly wet and miserable as well as aggressive.
Our hotel room in Inverness was unusually furnished in a Black and Gold theme. As soon as Sandy saw the four-poster bed her eyes lit up but I then remembered what I had forgotten to pack and there was no Anne Summers shop in Inverness!
The evening was not entirely wasted however as Sandy enjoyed her treat.
On the flight home to Bristol we got a great view of both Severn Bridges.
We now have to think of the other items on our 'Bucket Lists'. I intend to learn to ride a unicycle whilst juggling five raw eggs.