It has been one of those mountains that has held a mystical fascination since childhood. It was time to see it for myself while I still could. So, along with collogues who travelled all the way up from Wicklow, we headed up from deepest Norfolk. We took a chance that the begining of September could be our best option and the weather remained thankfully excellent with clear sunny days and hardly a midge in sight. We camped at the excellent Gen Nevis Camping and Caravaning site which is only a stones throw from the start of the Ben Nevis track.
From early morning we could look up at a steady string of people heading up the incline. Following a good breakfast we started out at 10am with reasonably light backpacks and a pair of walking sticks each. The weather forecast was good so we only needed wind-cheaters and some warm layers. There is no clean water available along the way, unless you can filter the water from a couple of streams along the way. Be aware that there are no toilet facilities either along the way, so you use the water coming down from above at your own risk!
Unlike the avearge weather expected here in September it was hot on the first half of the climb until the saddle between Meall an t-Suidhe and Carn Dearg. Even though there is an constant even gradient, it is not a gravel track but a stone path with regular stone steps. Luckily we were climbing on a Wednesday and the traffic on the track was pleasant. Looking later on at the traffic on the Bank Holiday Weekend it was hard to see how you could have an had enjoyable time considering the volume of traffic in both directions.
It was not until the final quarter of the track that the conditions started to change. Up until then I only had a base layer on top but now needed to add a layer and put on the wind-cheater. On the final kilometer the mist or low cloud swirled about and the gloves and a hat had to come out. The track is well trodden on the ground and marked by tall stone cairns on the higher reaches (providing you can see the next one!). In very poor weather conditions it would be difficult to follow either and extreme caution would be required as there are two vertiginous gullies quite close to the northern side of the track.
The summit is covered by rough boulders with no definite indication on the ground as to track direction other than the odd momentory glimpse of a cairn exposed in the swirling mist. There is limited shelter provided by the ruins of some old stone buildings. Given the hot conditions at the start it is still a revelation how quickly you cool down once you stop the exertion of climbing. The other revelation is how utterly discusting some climbers can be in leaving cans, sandwich wrappings and other detritis lying around the sheltered areas. Why is it so difficult to carry down your own garbage? Why come up here in the first place! It must be because it is a nice/challenging place to visit. So why are they such mean uncaring individuals that they leave the place in such a filthy slovenly condition for the next visitors that are hoping to enjoy the experience.
While I am on the subject - why are there so many white tissue papers deposited in little nooks about the wilderness? Yes, they may biodegrade in time but it is a most unsightly view. What is the problem with keeping your damp tissue on your person? Why is some urine contamination that abominable even when it is your very own? Why not bring a zip-lock bag with you to containg the offending matter? Go out prepared. Would you set out without food, water or proper clothes? Walkers and climbers should grow up!
In no time my temperature was dropping fast and exposed hands were getting stiff. We headed back against the steady stream of walkers still on the ascent. What was a surprise was the arduous job of heading back down the steps. In Ireland we are used to a normal stride on open ground. Here you are mincing your way down step by step. We decided to take the shortcut just as we reached the saddle. It is quite steep and rough and no quicker that the usual route but it gave us a chance to avoid the steps. Even though I would consider myself fit for this climb, I had quite an ache in my calf mussles by the end of the track. This is attributable to the constant stepping. Also, as soon as you emerged from the cloud cover the temperature rose once again and it was quite hot towards the finish. Therefore it is essential to have sufficient water to last the whole journey.
While there are some good car parks in the area, they fill up from early morning on the busier days and at weekends. There is a very nice restaurant (The Glen Nevis) just south along the road heading into the valley, but it is not really suitable for tired and scruffy walkers until cleaned up. However, the same fare is served in their Bar, at the same prices, but without the need to book in advance. Otherwise there are numerous eating places in Fort William, just 2 kilometeres into town.
A truly magical area - going on the excellent conditions we all enjoyed.