Wednesday 4 June 2008

A Night On The Ben

When planning my TGO Challenge walk across the Highlands I never thought of camping on the summit of Ben Nevis. That idea only began to take shape after the walk began and I watched the Ben from the hills to the west, a huge snow-capped dome shimmering in the sunshine. It was the snow that caught my attention. In summer the summit plateau of the Ben is a mass of boulders and stones with no flat ground for a camp and no water. There is a small emergency shelter perched on the remnants of the observatory built back in the 1880s but it’s dark, damp and dirty and not somewhere I ever want to spend the night. Bivvying on the rocks has never been appealing either. But you can pitch a tent on snow and it makes a comfortable bed. You can melt it too so I wouldn’t have to carry water. As I approached Fort William at the base of the mountain and the fine weather held the attractions of a night on the summit grew. Climbing the mountain late in the day as it grew cooler seemed wise as well. Thirteen hundred metres of steep rocky paths without shade and with a pack loaded up with food for the next five days would feel more comfortable then.

With a late start in mind I spent most of a hot day in Fort William replenishing supplies – dried fruit, nuts and grain bars from a Julian Graves natural food shop, Crosse & Blackwell Pasta Sauce meals and a tube of Chilli Puree from Morrisons supermarket, “Murder in the Glen”, a novel by mountain rescue expert Hamish MacInnes, from the Nevisport outdoor shop. My feet having overheated on previous days even in thin socks and lightweight trail shoes I searched out a pair of budget walking sandals – Hi-Tec Tahoma – in a shoe shop and tried not to think of all the sandals I had back home. The Nevisport café and the Café Beag in Glen Nevis provided sustenance before I finally started up the mountain at 4 p.m. The sun was still high and hot as I started up the stony path. Although long and unrelenting it was the easiest ascent of the walk so far as the six hills I had already climbed had been boggy and pathless. Dozens of people passed me on the way down, many asking if I was camping out and telling me there was snow on top. They looked surprised when I replied “good”! This, the standard and easiest way up the mountain, isn’t the most exciting but there are good views of the Mamores on the far side of Ben Nevis.

Eventually the angle of the stones started to ease and patches of snow appeared as I reached the now deserted summit plateau. All was calm, most unusual on this normally stormy and windswept mountain. I pitched the tent not far from the summit trig point. The snow was deep and soft – there was a ten foot thick drift around the old observatory. Lacking snow stakes I stamped my thin pegs in hard and used my trekking poles to anchor the main guylines. There was no need to shelter in the tent though and I sat outside with my little stove purring away insulated from the snow on a flat stone. A snow bunting was singing by the summit cairn and a raven wheeled overhead. Dinner over I wandered along the edge of the great cliffs of the north face, staring down the snowy gullies and massive rock faces. A strange swishing noise came up from the depths. Staring down I spotted two climbers far below shovelling snow off a ledge on Tower Ridge. Later I saw them heading down into Coire Leis. Apart from these distant figures I was alone; watching as the sun slowly descended through thin clouds, turning them a gentle pink.

As darkness grew a half moon rose into the black sky and stars appeared. All was silent. No wind. No running water. I shivered with delight and amazement at being up here in perfect conditions. The night was chilly but the temperature in the tent didn’t quite reach freezing. I woke to a wet mist and a gusty east wind. The humidity made everything damp and the world was grey but I could see a pale sun through the clouds and occasionally there was a clearance and a patch of blue appeared. Soon the mist shrank back from the summit, filling the glens but leaving me in bright sunshine. I wandered round the summit again, reluctant to leave, but the walk had to continue and the warm rocks and graceful curve of the Carn Mor Dearg Arête beckoned. I had had the summit of Ben Nevis to myself for 14 hours. I could ask no more.

Evening on Ben Nevis. Photo info: Canon EOS 350D, Canon EF-S 18-55 mm IS@ 25mm, f8@1/500, ISO 100, raw file converted to JPEG in DxO Optics Pro.


  1. Great story and picture Chris. That scene spells peace and quiet. I can sense your contentment from here:)
    Mike fae Dundee.

  2. Chris,

    I remember the share expanse of the view as I went over the Ben on the TGO 07, only had 4 days food to carry with my kit. Never thought about camping up on it, some adventure you had there. A good photo and read thanks.

  3. Could the shoveling climber have been Dave Macleod?

  4. Alistair, thanks for that link. I should think it was Dave Macleod. I can't think many others were shovelling snow there in May!

  5. not quite the place to normally pick for peace n quiet, but in this instance it certainly worked.
    Not something to try on a Fri/Sat night though with the 3Peakers about I'd guess

  6. Great experience Chris, thanks for sharing it! It does upset me at times when people make out the hills of our nation are over crowded all the time, if you pick the right time and place they are still places to go for solitude in my opinion and long may it be that way. As I said in an earlier post we were up there a few weeks before you so I could really relate to it as we too were shocked to be all alone for an hour up there and we got fantastic weather. The Summit trig cairn on your picture wasn't even there, the snow was at the same level as the top of it. Love hearing about the Snow Bunting too, I've been up there on several occasions and never failed to see them. Thanks again!

    Jamie @ Trekking Britain

  7. I love pictures of tents pitched in exciting places. This is a great one. That rucksack looks v. small, btw. Did you carry the Akto inside it? Can you tell me what it was, please?

    *thinks: maybe time for a new rucksack*

  8. Thanks Peewiglet. The pack is a GoLite Pinnacle, which holds 72 litres, so the Akto easily fitted inside.

    John, I think the 3 peakers are on Ben Nevis during the day. It's Scafell Pike you'd need to avoid at night.

    Jamie, I'm often on summits outside the popular 11-3 time and rarely see anyone! Given the numbers I met coming down the Ben was crowded 2-3 hours before I reached the summit. It probably was 2-3 hours after I left in the morning too. I did meet one person on the Carn Mor Dearg Arete and another on the summit of Carn Mor Dearg so others were about quite early.

  9. Reminds me of Bill Murray - I seem to remember he camped on the Ben in one of his books. I'd never really thought of camping on the snow in the summer - a winter night up there would be out of the question for me. Maybe I should give it a go!

  10. By coincidence I had Murray's Mountaineering in Scotland to hand when your comment came in. He camped on the Ben on New Year's Eve. There were three in the tent and he says that condensation "reached enormous proportions" resulting in soaked sleeping bags. Some problems are not new! Leaving the damp tent he wanders over to the edge of the cliffs. He writes "I cannot believe that any human being could look long and alone upon that pale-faced night and not be stirred by awe". I know exactly what he meant.