Highest mountain in Scotland and the UK
At 4,406 feet above sea level Ben Nevis is the highest mountain in Scotland and the UK and the highest of the 3 peaks challenge. It's a huge mass of a hill and on the national 3 peaks challenge you climb almost the full height of the mountain, starting from nearly sea level. You'll climb 1,300 metres (4,265 feet) and you'll walk about 17 kilometres (10.6 miles).
The name Ben Nevis gives an insight into the character of the mountain. The Gaelic form of the name, 'Beinn Nibheis' is linked to various Gaelic and Irish words meaning 'terrible' and 'poisonous'. The most probable interpretation of the name is 'venomous'.
Often referred to as 'The Ben' the mountain experiences extremes of weather. It can be warm and sunny in the lower reaches but higher up it can be blowing a gale and freezing. During Winter the mountain is for experienced and well equipped walkers and climbers only. There can be snow and ice on the summit area well into June and if the mountain was a couple of hundred feet higher it would probably have a permanent snow cap.
On the summit of Ben Nevis are the remains of a weather observatory and a small hostel. The observatory was opened in 1883 and was in use for about 20 years. The main track up the mountain was originally constructed in 1883 by a local contractor named James MacLean as a supply route for the observatory. The last rise before the summit was named 'MacLean's steep' after him.
With the building of the supply route Ben Nevis became a popular tourist destination and the supply route became known as the 'tourist path'. Permits had to be obtained to climb the mountain, costing walkers one shilling!
The observatory was built to obtain records of weather conditions at height to compare with conditions at sea level, hourly readings being taken in all conditions. The observatory stayed open for almost 21 years but eventually closed due to lack of funds.
The vertical cliffs on the North face of Ben Nevis are famous throughout the international climbing community for the sheer variety of quality Summer and Winter climbing routes. This side of the mountain is for experienced climbers only. Walkers doing the 3 peaks challenge must satisfy themselves with the tamer side of the Ben and reach the summit via the Tourist path.
We start this stage of the challenge from the Ben Nevis Inn at Achintee and follow the tourist path all the way to the summit. The route from the Ben Nevis Inn begins gently and makes for easy walking until you climb steeply to reach Lochan Meall an t-Suidhe (pronounced Meal an T) at 570m. This is often referred to as 'half way lochan'.
You aren't quite half way yet but it provides a convenient place for rest and refreshment. The path from here to the 'zig zags' has had a lot of restoration work carried out on it recently - it's easy walking for the next couple of kilometres and good progress can be made on this section.
Then we hit the 'zig zags', a sequence of long and rocky sections of path that zig and zag, apparently endlessly! Love them or loathe them they certainly take out the steepness from this section of the climb towards the summit plateau of Ben Nevis.
We eventually reach the summit plateau where great care is needed. In poor conditions it's notoriously difficult to navigate this summit area, with vertical cliffs to the North and steep ground to the South that gets even steeper! The route passes close to the top of Gardyloo Gully a notorious death trap!
Large cairns have recently been built to guide people across the summit plateau, avoiding the danger areas.
On arrival at the summit you will find the ruins of the observatory and small hostel built over a hundred years ago. An emergency shelter has been built on part of the ruins. It's in an elevated position to avoid being buried in the deep snow that can cover the summit area in Winter.
The summit plateau can be covered in snow until June or July. It's not uncommon to be standing in deep snow on the summit under a baking hot sun in May or June. Quite a surreal experience!
The summit is in cloud for 4 days out of 5 so, if you get a clear day on your visit make the most of it and get snapping!
Despite being such a hostile environment the Ben is home to a variety of birds and animals. Stoats and weasels have been seen on the summit and a badger was once sighted by walkers on the lower slopes. Sightings of Pine Martens have more recently been reported. Ravens and Buzzards are common sights performing their aerobatics on the winds and Snow Buntings nest high up the mountain sides.
Small lizards can sometimes be seen basking on the rocks in sunny weather and you may see voles scuttling through the tussocky grass. Wheatear's and the Ring Ouzel are two summer visitors to the mountain. One of the most famous residents of the Ben, the Ptarmigan is a hardy little mountain bird similar to a grouse, but identified by it's white wings. In summer it's a mottled brown colour but in Winter it turns completely white.
The lower slopes of Ben Nevis are covered in grassland and heath vegetation. As you continue onto the higher slopes you'll see less common arctic alpine plants including the Alpine Lady's Mantle, Yellow Mountain Saxifrage and the Golden Saxifrage.
Mosses are found on most parts of the mountain indicating wet, peaty soil beneath the surface which is poor in nutrients, not the ideal habitat for most plants. Bog plants however thrive in these conditions and two common ones - the Sundew and the Butterwort - are unusual in that they are insectivores - they trap insects on sticky secretions and slowly digest them in order to survive.
Fastest time up and down Ben Nevis!
The fastest time up and down Ben Nevis is an amazing 1hr 25mins 34sec and is held by a man from Keswick in Cumbria. There is an anuual race up Ben Nevis so if you think you can beat this time or simply just have too much energy why not have a go!
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