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Foreword by
Andy Cave

Ben Nevis, or “The Ben” as it is affectionately known, is the highest mountain in the UK, but there’s far more to this Scottish hulk than simply being the highest point in Britain.

The Ben, like many mountains in Britain’s larger ranges is actually the remains of a volcano. Millennia of erosion have exposed its granite core meaning that the thousands of people who bestride The Ben’s summit every year are actually walking within the remains of an ancient volcano. Its grim, snow-spattered countenance belies this more exotic past and it is perhaps unsurprising that few visitors are even aware of the geological history on which they walk.

In more recent history, the first recorded ascent of Ben Nevis was made in 1771 by Scottish botanist James Robertson. While the actual first ascent would have taken place long, long before this, it is Robertson who history remembers. Perhaps the first great example of the importance of publicising your ascents! Today, most people looking to stand atop The Ben make their way to the summit via “The Pony Track”, a technically easy, if somewhat gruelling, walk up the mountain’s West flank. The track was built in 1883 to enable the construction of an observatory on the mountain and takes its name from the ponies that were used to ferry building materials to the summit.

There are of course more challenging ways to scale The Ben and as well as additional walking routes its North Face is home to a number of fine rock climbs including Tower and Observatory Ridge. However, Ben Nevis is perhaps best known for its winter climbing and for decades, it has attracted climbers and mountaineers from across the globe to sample its unique style. It has been a training ground for many great British alpinists and climbing history has been written on its walls with first ascents from Robin Smith, Jim Marshall, Ian Clough and in more recent years Ian Parnell, Andi Turner and Dave Macleod.

Logistics

Most visitors to Ben Nevis stay in nearby Fort William which can be accessed by both road and rail. Though remote, the town itself is a popular tourist destination; positioned as it is both on the coast and within striking distance of Scotland’s other famous mountain town – Glencoe. It is therefore not difficult to find accommodation in Fort William with a youth hostel, campsite and numerous B&B’s located within the town. However in peak season you would be well advised to book in advance.

Those wishing to take The Pony Track to the summit will approach the mountain through Glen Nevis and while the route officially begins at Achintee, many now join the route from the west of the glen; following a short track from the visitor centre. From the base of the mountain, the path is initially fairly steep, but becomes less so after the saddle by Lochan Meall an t-Suidhe. While the path was long known as “the tourist route”, this is now discouraged as, even in fine weather, the mountain should not be attempted by the unprepared. The Ben sees a high number of Mountain Rescue callouts each year and at its worst it can be home to some of the fiercest and most unpredictable weather anywhere in Britain. For those with a penchant for etymology, a warning is clear in its name, with Ben Nevis being derived from “Beinn Nibheis”; Beinn meaning “mountain” and Nibheis “malicious” or “venomous”.

For those undeterred by The Ben’s reputation and interested in repeating the many fine climbs on its Northern buttresses, the Charles Inglis Clark (CIC) Memorial Hut is still a popular choice with many climbers and is often lauded as “the only true alpine hut in Britain”. It is situated brilliantly for climbing with the walk-in from the hut offering the easiest access to the mountain’s North face short of a helicopter ride in. The hut is incredibly popular during the winter season and though it can hold up to 24 people at any one time, advance booking is highly recommended.

 

Very few people can claim to have done as much climbing and mountaineering as Andy Cave.

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