Climbing Ben Nevis & the broken knees: A Scottish Highland Adventure

I refuse to be negative about the impact that climbing Ben Nevis has had on my stumpy little legs. The fact that I haven’t been able to run since last Tuesday, and have been nursing my painful knees after abandoning yesterday’s attempt at the Sunday Long Run is not changing my mind.

It’s a temporary glitch. I don’t need a double knee transplant, honest.

Glen Nevis campsite at the foot of Ben Nevis
Our view from the campsite and at the foot of Ben Nevis


Well prepared

I’m glad we didn’t underestimate it. We’d read up on it lots before driving up to Fort William to set up camp at the foot of the mountain, so were well prepared with trusty boots, wet weather gear, warm clothes, walking sticks and food/drinks.

Even though it was the middle of August it was FREEZING at the top, so don’t think about strolling up in your shorts and flip-flops, like someone we saw did or you’ll get a shock if you actually do make it to the top. (Incidentally, he did, but he didn’t look too happy about it).

I, on the other hand, was so prepared I even had my Garmin ready and charged to record the mission ahead – this is what climbing to the top of Britain’s
highest mountain looks like:

Our campsite was past the Ben Nevis Visitor Centre, so we took a much steeper, massive, never-ending-staircase-of-rocks shortcut to join the main path instead of going back on ourselves to begin. If you start from the Visitor Centre, it’s a much gentler incline, and a nice flat path, although it quickly gets very hard when you do join the rocky staircase of hell.

Climbing Ben Nevis
Never-ending rocky staircase

Stepping into Mordor

The craggy path hugs the mountainside all the way up, with beautiful cascading waterfalls, streams and an isolated loch dotted around the route. The clouds rolled in and view disappeared behind a mist once we get to Red Burn – the zigzag halfway point. The landscape became much harsher and ‘mountainous’ from here on in – big stepping-stones, streams and lush greenery were
replaced with dark grey craggy rocks and steep inclines.

We were lucky enough to still see in front of us, but I can see how easy it would be to lose the path in bad weather so make sure you have a map and compass.

The closer you get to the top the quieter and eerier it gets – it’s like trekking to Mordor. About half an hour from the top we started to come across triangulation stations and rocky shelters, and these combined with the mist and shadows of people walking in the distance made for some really creepy photos. We also came across a massive gorge near the top that was pretty terrifying to look down into through the mist.

Climbing Ben Nevis
Stepping into Mordor

Nearly four hours after we set off, we finally reached the summit and spent about half an hour exploring the old observatory, emergency shelter, and massaging achey legs before heading back down.

The Ben Nevis Summit
The Summit!!


What goes up…

It wasn’t the actual climbing of Ben Nevis that’s killed my knees, but the descent. It took 3 hours 46 minutes to get to the top – a long, seemingly never-ending uphill slog, punctuated with numerous tea and water breaks and lots of heavy panting/empathetic-smiley-nods to other walkers.

There was also some considerable awe-struck acknowledgement of the machine-like fell runners who were ploughing past us as we plodded on. I was proud of myself for doing a Sweatshop 6k hill run round Brighton the other day, let alone running up and down the country’s highest peak. Turns out these mentalists are training for the Ben Nevis Race in September.

Either way, any resolve I had on the way up to one day join them and do it myself was swiftly snatched from beneath my broken knees once we started the painful (but beautiful) descent down to the bottom.

Ben Nevis descent
The painful descent…

I’ve got dodgy knees anyway, so I did expect some pain and discomfort, and the full extent of it became clearer the steeper it got on the way up that coming down wasn’t gonna be much fun.Within five minutes from the summit every slamming downhill step was excruciating. The never-ending rocky staircase was much worse to negotiate on the way down than up. I’m so glad I had a walking stick in one hand and a sympathetic boyfriend in the other.

Despite the pain though, I don’t regret doing it – it’s such a challenge and is so worth it for the views and experience, I’d recommend it to anyone. And with views like this, who’s to argue?

Just make sure you go prepared and preferably take a strong partner/willing friend to piggyback you down to save the broken knees.

Or you could always jump on the back of a fell runner, they seem pretty capable…

Have you climbed Ben Nevis?
How did your climb go? Or are you planning to do it?