350 million years ago a huge active volcano exploded spewing hot lava, ash and gases from the earths crust into the atmosphere. The explosion was so violent that the volcano collapsed in on itself. The remains of that volcano, today, form Britains highest mountain, Ben Nevis, standing at 1,345 metres above sea level.
The Ben (as it is often referred) is part of the Grampian mountain range in the northwest highlands near Fort William. It towers above locahans and deep glacial valleys, attracting 100,000’s of visitors each year with hopes of reaching the summit and the breathtaking views that under ideal conditions can extend over 190 kilometres (120 miles).
The majority of people attempting Ben Nevis will walk up and down the strenuous mountain track, its path is steep throughout, the upper section is rough and very stony and the summit is often snow covered. It is normal for people to take between five and nine hours to walk this route. In 1895 a barber called William Swan set off on the first recorded timed ascent and descent of the same route. The current record stands at an astonishing 1h 25m 34s by Kenny Stuart, Keswick AC in 1984.
The mountain track is not the only way up, the more experienced walkers and scramblers may attempt the spectacular Carn Mor Dearg Arete that along its route provide sensational views of the Ben’s north face. Ben Nevis is also a climbers paradise with over 120 years history of ground breaking routes in both summer and winter conditions. One of these was in 1906 when Harold Raeburn climbed Green Gulley, which was, at the time, the hardest ice climb in the world. The ascent was so ahead of its time that it wouldn’t be repeated for 30 years!
On reaching the summit plateau, the keen geologist will notice evidence of the collapsed volcano. Sat side by side are light coloured granite, cooled several kilometres beneath the surface and dark basalt granite that only forms on the surface. For the rest of us the summit cairn and the ruins of an observatory, that provide emergency shelter, are more evident. The small building was permanently staffed from 1883 until 1904, providing hourly meteorological data for almost 20 years, recording some of the UK’s most useful information about mountain weather to date.
The mountain itself is owned by the John Muir Trust who work to defend wild land, enhance habitats and manage visitor impacts to the UK’s highest summit. They maintain the upper stretches of the mountain path and collect litter left on the summit plateau. One quarterly litter clearance filled 18 bin bags with rubbish left on the hill with over 1,000 banana skins that take over 2 years to biodegrade.
Ben Nevis is a Special Area of Conservation (SAC) noted for its diverse range of habitats and wildlife, notably having the most extensive development of Siliceous alpine and boreal grassland in the western Highlands. It is also a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) that recognises its important geological features.
There is also diverse wildlife such as red deer, red squirrels that have declined in numbers substantially across the UK. Take special notice of the butterflies you see in the area as you might be lucky and glimpse the chequered skipper who’s entire population now exists in Lochaber. Looking to the sky you will see birds such as the golden eagle, buzzards, woodpeckers and snow buntings. While on the ground, in peat bogs, you can find the carnivorous Butterwort and Sundews that have a sticky substance on the leaf hairs that are a digestive enzyme which trap then digests insects (including midges).
Mountains are special places and should be enjoyed by all, they can however be dangerous places and should be given the respect they deserve. Make sure you check the weather, ensure you have the right equipment and clothing for the conditions and use qualified guides where necessary. Last of all make sure you stick to the mountain mantra of “leave no trace” and take your banana skins home!
Deano is a climber, mountaineer, trail runner and snow sports enthusiast that after 10 years in the environment sector is retraining to share his passion for adventure with others. He has climbed 6000m peaks in Nepal, scaled mountains in the Alps and recently ran the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc. While in the UK Dean can be found running the fells of the Lake District, climbing the stunning coastline of Pembroke and mountaineering in Scotland.