Ben Nevis

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Ben Nevis

Ben Nevis

Ben Nevis from Banavie. The summit is beyond and to the left of the apparent highest point

Elevation 1,344 m (4,409 ft)

Prominence 1,344 m (4,409 ft)

Parent peak: none – HP Great Britain

Listing: Munro, Marilyn, Council top (Highland), County top (Inverness-shire), Country high point

Translation: Venomous mountain or mountain with its head in the clouds (Scottish Gaelic)

Ben Nevis (Scottish Gaelic: Beinn Nibheis) is the highest mountain in the British Isles. Standing at 1,344 metres (4,409 ft) above sea level, it is located at the western end of the Grampian Mountains in the Lochaber area of the Scottish Highlands, close to the town of Fort William.

The mountain is a popular destination, attracting an estimated 100,000 ascents a year, around three-quarters of which use the Pony Track from Glen Nevis. <ref>The Nevis Working Party (2001). "Nevis Strategy" (PDF). Archived from the original on 4 November 2006. Retrieved 5 November 2006</ref> The 700-metre (2,300 ft) cliffs of the north face are among the highest in the United Kingdom, providing classic scrambles and rock climbs of all difficulties for climbers and mountaineers. They are also the principal locations in the UK for ice climbing.

The summit, which is the collapsed dome of an ancient volcano, features the ruins of an observatory which was continuously staffed between 1883 and 1904. <ref>How volcanoes shaped Britain's landscape". BBC News. 5 July 2012</ref> The meteorological data collected during this period are still important for understanding Scottish mountain weather. C. T. R. Wilson was inspired to invent the cloud chamber after a period spent working at the observatory.


'Ben Nevis' is an Anglicisation of the Scottish Gaelic name "Beinn Nibheis". "Beinn" is the most common Gaelic word for "mountain", "Nibheis" is variously understood, though the word is commonly translated as "malicious" or "venomous". <ref>Butterfield, The High Mountains, 96</ref> An alternative interpretation is that "Beinn Nibheis" derives from "beinn nèamh-bhathais", from "nèamh" "heavens, clouds" and "bathais" "top of a man's head". One translation would therefore be "the mountain with its head in the clouds", though "mountain of Heaven" is also frequently given. <ref>Butterfield, The High Mountains, 96</ref> <ref> W. H. Murray, The Companion Guide to the West Highlands of Scotland</ref>

As is common for many Scottish mountains, it is known both to locals and visitors as simply "the Ben". <ref>Ben Nevis, or the 'Ben' as it is fondly known locally". Visit Fort William Ltd. Archived from the original on 18 October 2007. Retrieved 23 October 2007</ref> <ref>Ben Nevis is almost always referred to by climbers as simply The Ben (Ben meaning Mountain)". The Ben Nevis Challenge. Archived from the original on 3 November 2007. Retrieved 23 October 2007 </ref>


Ben Nevis forms a massif with its neighbour to the northeast, Càrn Mòr Dearg, to which it is linked by the Càrn Mòr Dearg Arête. <ref>Ordnance Survey Landranger 41</ref> Both mountains are among the nine in Scotland over 4,000 feet (1,200 m); Aonach Beag and Aonach Mòr are also on the Nevis massif. Ben Macdui, Braeriach, Cairn Toul, Sgor an Lochain Uaine and Cairn Gorm are in the Cairngorms.

The western and southern flanks of Ben Nevis rise 1,200 metres (3,900 ft) in about 2 kilometres (1.2 mi) from the floor of Glen Nevis – the longest and steepest hill slope in Britain- with the result that the mountain presents an aspect of massive bulk on this side. To the north, by contrast, cliffs drop some 600 metres (2,000 ft) to Coire Leis. This corrie contains the Charles Inglis Clark Memorial Hut (known as the CIC Hut), a private mountain hut located at 680 metres (2,230 ft) above sea level, owned by the Scottish Mountaineering Club and used as a base for the many climbing routes on the mountain's north face. <ref>Scottish Mountaineering Club website. "Charles Inglis Clark Memorial Hut (C.I.C.)". Archived from the original on 15 September 2007. Retrieved 12 November 2007</ref>

In addition to the main 1,344 m (4,409 ft) summit, Ben Nevis has two subsidiary "tops" listed in Munro's Tables, both of which are called Càrn Dearg ("red hill").<ref> Derek A. Bearhop (ed.) Munro's Tables. Scottish Mountaineering Club & Trust</ref> The higher of these, at 1,221 metres (4,006 ft), is situated to the northwest, and is often mistaken for Ben Nevis itself in views from the Fort William area. The other Càrn Dearg (1,020 m) juts out into Glen Nevis on the mountain's southwestern side. A lower hill, Meall an t-Suidhe (711 metres (2,333 ft)), is located further west, forming a saddle with Ben Nevis which contains a small loch, Lochan an t-Suidhe. The popular tourist path from Glen Nevis skirts the side of this hill before ascending Ben Nevis' broad western flank.


Ben Nevis is all that remains of a Devonian volcano that met a cataclysmic end in the Carboniferous period around 350 million years ago. Evidence near the summit shows light coloured granite (which had cooled in subterranean chambers several kilometres beneath the surface) lies among dark basaltic lavas (that only form on the surface). The two lying side-by-side is evidence the huge volcano collapsed in on itself creating an explosion comparative to Thera (2nd millennium BC) or Krakatoa (1883). <ref>How volcanoes shaped Britain's landscape". BBC News. 5 July 2012</ref>

The mountain is now all that remains of the imploded inner dome of the volcano. Its form has been extensively shaped by glaciation.<ref>Geology of Ben Nevis". Retrieved 5 July 2012</ref>Research has shown igneous rock from the Devonian period (around 400 million years ago) intrudes into the surrounding metamorphic schists; the intrusions take the form of a series of concentric ring dikes. The innermost of these, known as the Inner Granite, constitutes the southern bulk of the mountain above Lochan Meall an t-Suidhe, and also the neighbouring ridge of Càrn Mòr Dearg; Meall an t-Suidhe forms part of the Outer Granite, which is redder in colour. The summit dome itself, together with the steep northern cliffs, are composed of andesite and basaltic lavas.<ref>McKirdy, Alan Gordon, John & Crofts, Roger (2007) Land of Mountain and Flood: The Geology and Landforms of Scotland. Edinburgh. Birlinn. Pages 114–6</ref><ref>Gillen, Con (2003) Geology and landscapes of Scotland. Harpenden. Terra. Page 80</ref>


Ben Nevis under snow

Ben Nevis' altitude, maritime location and topography frequently lead to cool and cloudy weather conditions, which can pose a danger to ill-equipped walkers. According to the observations carried out at the summit observatory from 1883–1904, fog was present on the summit for almost 80% of the time between November and January, and 55% of the time in May and June. <ref>Marjorie Roy (2004). "The Ben Nevis Meteorological Observatory 1883–1904" (PDF). International Commission on History of Meteorology. Retrieved 27 November 2006</ref>

The average winter temperature was around −5 °C (23 °F),[16] and the mean monthly temperature for the year was −0.5 °C (31.1 °F)<ref>Murray, W. H. (1977). The Companion Guide to the West Highlands of Scotland. London: Collins. pp. 218–221</ref>In an average year the summit sees 261 gales, and receives 4,350 millimetres (171 in) of rainfall, compared to only 2,050 millimetres (81 in) in nearby Fort William, 840 millimetres (33 in) in Inverness and 580 millimetres (23 in) in London. Rainfall on Ben Nevis is about twice as high in the winter as it is in the spring and summer. <ref>Murray, W. H. (1977). The Companion Guide to the West Highlands of Scotland. London: Collins. pp. 218–221</ref>

Snow can be found on the mountain almost all year round, particularly in the gullies of the north face – with the higher reaches of Observatory Gully holding snow until September most years and sometimes until the new snows of the following season.


The first recorded ascent of Ben Nevis was made on 17 August 1771 by James Robertson, an Edinburgh botanist, who was in the region to collect botanical specimens. Another early ascent was in 1774 by John Williams, who provided the first account of the mountain's geological structure. <ref>Hodgkiss, The Central Highlands, 117</ref>John Keats climbed the mountain in 1818, comparing the ascent to "mounting ten St. Pauls without the convenience of a staircase". <ref>Hodgkiss, The Central Highlands, 117</ref> It was not until 1847 that Ben Nevis was confirmed by the Ordnance Survey as the highest mountain in Britain and Ireland, ahead of its rival Ben Macdhui.

The summit observatory was built in the summer of 1883, and would remain in operation for 21 years. The first path to the summit was built at the same time as the observatory and was designed to allow ponies to carry up supplies, with a maximum gradient of one in five. <ref>Marjorie Roy (2004). "The Ben Nevis Meteorological Observatory 1883–1904" (PDF). International Commission on History of Meteorology. Retrieved 27 November 2006</ref>The opening of the path and the observatory made the ascent of the Ben increasingly popular, all the more so after the arrival of the West Highland Railway in Fort William in 1894. Around this time the first of several proposals was made for a rack railway to the summit, none of which came to fruition.<ref>Hodgkiss, The Central Highlands, 117</ref>

In 2000, the Ben Nevis Estate, comprising all of the south side of the mountain including the summit, was bought by the Scottish conservation charity the John Muir Trust.

Ascent Routes

Old postcard showing routes up Ben Nevis

The 1883 Pony Track to the summit (also known as the Ben Path, the Mountain Path or the Tourist Route) remains the simplest and most popular route of ascent. It begins at Achintee on the east side of Glen Nevis about 2 km (1.2 mi) from Fort William town centre, at around 20 metres above sea level. Bridges from the Visitor Centre and the youth hostel now allow access from the west side of Glen Nevis.<ref>Butterfield, The High Mountains, 97</ref>

The path climbs steeply to the saddle by Lochan Meall an t-Suidhe (also known as the 'Halfway Lake') at 570 m, then ascends the remaining 700 metres up the stony west flank of Ben Nevis in a series of zig-zags. The path is regularly maintained but running water, uneven rocks and loose scree make it hazardous and slippery in places. Thanks to the zig-zags, the path is not unusually steep apart from in the initial stages, but inexperienced walkers should be aware that the descent is relatively arduous and wearing on the knees.

A route popular with experienced hillwalkers starts at Torlundy, a few miles north-east of Fort William on the A82 road, and follows the path alongside the Allt a' Mhuilinn. It can also be reached from Glen Nevis by following the Pony Track as far as Lochan Meall an t-Suidhe, then descending slightly to the CIC Hut. The route then ascends Càrn Mòr Dearg and continues along the Càrn Mòr Dearg Arête ("CMD Arête") before climbing steeply to the summit of Ben Nevis. This route involves a total of 1,500 metres of ascent and requires modest scrambling ability and a head for heights. In common with other approaches on this side of the mountain, it has the advantage of giving an extensive view of the cliffs of the north face, which are hidden from the Pony Track. <ref>Butterfield, The High Mountains, 97</ref>


A meteorological observatory on the summit was first proposed by the Scottish Meteorological Society (SMS) in the late 1870s, at a time when similar observatories were being built around the world to study the weather at high altitude.<ref>Marjorie Roy (2004). "The Ben Nevis Meteorological Observatory 1883–1904" (PDF). International Commission on History of Meteorology. Retrieved 27 November 2006</ref>

In the summer of 1881, Clement Lindley Wragge climbed the mountain daily to make observations (earning him the nickname "Inclement Rag"), leading to the opening on 17 October 1883 of a permanent observatory run by the SMS.<ref>Crocket, Ken (1986). Ben Nevis : Britain's highest mountain. Glasgow: Scottish Mountaineering Trust, 41–44</ref> The building was manned full-time until 1904, when it was closed due to inadequate Government funding. The twenty years' worth of readings still provide the most comprehensive set of data on mountain weather in Great Britain. <ref>Crocket, Ken (1986). Ben Nevis : Britain's highest mountain. Glasgow: Scottish Mountaineering Trust, 41–44</ref>

In September 1894, C. T. R. Wilson was employed at the observatory for a couple of weeks, as temporary relief for one of the permanent staff. During this period, he witnessed a Brocken spectre and glory, caused by the sun casting a shadow on a cloud below the observer. He subsequently tried to reproduce these phenomena in the laboratory, resulting in his invention of the cloud chamber, used to detect ionising radiation. <ref>Nobel Foundation (1965). "C. T. R. Wilson Biography from Nobel Lectures, Physics 1922–1941, Elsevier Publishing Company, Amsterdam". Retrieved 27 November 2006</ref>

The Summit

Summit and survival shelter

The summit of Ben Nevis comprises a large stony plateau of about 40 hectares (100 acres).<ref>Ben Nevis". Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved 25 November 2006. (Subscription required for full access.)</ref> The highest point is marked with a large, solidly built cairn atop which sits an Ordnance Survey trig point. The summit is the highest ground for over 400 miles (644 kilometres), before the Scandinavian Mountains in western Norway are reached, which contain many peaks higher than Ben Nevis. The summit is much higher than the Faroe Islands, Belgium, the Netherlands as well as the rest of the British Isles.

The ruined walls of the observatory are a prominent feature on the summit. An emergency shelter has been built on top of the observatory tower for the benefit of those caught out by bad weather, and, although the base of the tower is slightly lower than the true summit of the mountain, the roof of the shelter overtops the trig point by several feet, making it the highest man-made structure in the UK. A war memorial to the dead of World War II is located next to the observatory.

On 17 May 2006, a piano that had been buried under one of the cairns on the peak was uncovered by the John Muir Trust, which owns much of the mountain. <ref>"Piano found on Britain's highest mountain". The Guardian (London). 17 May 2006. Archived from the original on 15 July 2006. Retrieved 22 June 2006</ref> The piano is believed to have been carried up for charity by removal men from Dundee over 20 years earlier. <ref>Trust names Ben Nevis 'piano men'". BBC News. 19 May 2006. Retrieved 15 August 2006</ref>

The view from the UK's highest point is extensive. Under ideal conditions, it can extend to over 190 kilometres (120 mi), including such mountains as the Torridon Hills, Morven in Caithness, Lochnagar, Ben Lomond, Barra Head and to Knocklayd in County Antrim, Northern Ireland.<ref>Viewfinder Panoramas: North, South. Retrieved 25 November 2006</ref>

Navigation and Safety

Ben Nevis' popularity, climate and complex topography contribute to a high number of mountain rescue incidents. In 1999, for example, there were 41 rescues and four fatalities on the mountain. <ref>The Nevis Working Party (2001). "Nevis Strategy" (PDF). Archived from the original on 4 November 2006. Retrieved 5 November 2006</ref>

Some accidents arise over difficulties in navigating to or from the summit, especially in poor visibility. The problem stems from the fact that the summit plateau is roughly kidney-shaped, and surrounded by cliffs on three sides; the danger is particularly accentuated when the main path is obscured by snow. Two precise compass bearings taken in succession are necessary to navigate from the summit cairn to the west flank, from where a descent can be made on the Pony Track in relative safety.<ref>Mountaineering Council of Scotland. Navigation on Ben Nevis. Retrieved 21 June 2006</ref>

In the late 1990s, Lochaber Mountain Rescue Team erected two posts on the summit plateau, to assist walkers attempting the descent in foggy conditions. These posts were subsequently cut down by climbers, sparking controversy in mountaineering circles on the ethics of such additions.<ref>The Mountaineering Council of Scotland (1997). "Ben Nevis—The Future". Newsletter 33</ref>

Critics argued that cairns and posts are an unnecessary man-made intrusion into the natural landscape, which create a false sense of security and could lessen mountaineers' sense of responsibility for their own safety.<ref>The Mountaineering Council of Scotland. "Summit Safety and Ben Nevis Cairns: The MCofS seeks a resolution" (also see sub-pages). Archived from the original on 27 September 2006. Retrieved 26 October 2006</ref> Supporters of navigational aids pointed to the high number of accidents that occurred on the mountain (between 1990 and 1995 alone there were 13 fatalities, although eight of these were due to falls while rock climbing rather than navigational error), the long tradition of placing such aids on the summit, and the potentially life-saving role they could play. A series of solidly-constructed cairns currently (September 2009) marks the upper reaches of the Pony Track.

Environmental Issues

Ben Nevis' popularity and high profile have led to concerns in recent decades over the impact of humans on the fragile mountain environment. These concerns contributed to the purchase of the Ben Nevis Estate in 2000 by the John Muir Trust, a Scottish charity dedicated to the conservation of wild places. The Estate covers 1,700 hectares (4,201 acres) of land on the south side of Ben Nevis and the neighbouring mountains of Càrn Mòr Dearg and Aonach Beag, including the summit of Ben Nevis.<ref>John Muir Trust. "Ben Nevis owned by the John Muir Trust". Archived from the original on 25 October 2006. Retrieved 5 November 2006</ref>

800px-Allt a' Mhuilinn.JPG

The John Muir Trust is one of nine bodies represented on the main board of the Nevis Partnership. Founded in 2003, the Partnership, which also includes representatives from local government, Glen Nevis residents and mountaineering interests, works to "guide future policies and actions to safeguard, manage and where appropriate enhance the environmental qualities and opportunities for visitor enjoyment and appreciation of the Nevis area". Its projects include path repairs and improvements and the development of strategies for visitor management.<ref>The Nevis Partnership". Archived from the original on 29 May 2009. Retrieved 2 June 2009</ref>

One of the Nevis Partnership's more controversial actions has concerned the large number of memorial plaques placed by individuals, especially around the summit war memorial. Many people believe that the proliferation of such plaques is inappropriate, and in August 2006 the Nevis Partnership declared an intention to eventually remove these plaques (after making efforts to return them to their owners), as part of a wider campaign to clean up the mountain.<ref>The Nevis Partnership (17 August 2006). "Removal of artefacts from Ben Nevis". Archived from the original on 27 September 2006. Retrieved 26 October 2006</ref>

In 2005, the amount of litter on the Pony Track was highlighted by national media, including BBC Radio 5 Live. Robin Kevan, a retired social worker from mid-Wales who is known as "Rob the Rubbish" for his efforts to clean up the countryside, then drove to Ben Nevis and cleaned the mountain himself, resulting in much media coverage and a concerted clean-up effort. <ref>The Nevis Partnership (17 August 2006). "Removal of artefacts from Ben Nevis". Archived from the original on 27 September 2006. Retrieved 26 October 2006</ref>

The Glen Nevis Centre have introduced a booking and charging system to groups undertaking ascents of Ben Nevis. The charge is being disputed.<ref>Mathew Little (12 January 2010). "Charging charities fees to climb Ben Nevis 'breaks access laws'". Third Sector. Retrieved 12 January 2010</ref>