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Ben Nevis

By Struan Gray (struan.gray@sljus.lu.se)

Ben Nevis winter climbing is superb, with good routes of all types (waterfalls, ridges, faces, gullies) and grades (I-VI). Although there are routes of equal quality elsewhere in Scotland, for sheer concentration the Ben is the place to go. The climbing is serious, by which I mean it is more like alpine climbing than icefall cragging in terms of how much you should be prepared to rely upon your own skill and judgement.

Your worst problem will be the weather, and thus the conditions. If there is climbable ice anywhere in Scotland it will be on the Ben, but it may be poorly formed or the weather and/or avalanche risk may be too bad/high to do any climbing. Conditions can be good late in the season (possibly as late as April) but the best month is definitely February and even then you cannot be certain of getting climbable conditions. Bring a good, thick book.

There is lots of accomodation down in the valley, from five star Relais and Chateaux hotels through bed and breakfasts to bunkhouses. These are anything from 1 to 4 hours walk from the base of the climbs, depending on where they are and which climbs you want to do. There is a hut called the CIC hut, run by the Scottish Mountaineering Club, directly under the North Face of the Ben, and members of affiliated clubs - such as the DAV - can book a limited number of places there. If you have experience of winter camping you can camp in the area near the hut (but you will have zero chance of using the hut facilities so don't even think about it) but I wouldn't recommend it for your first winter camping trip since conditions can be severe.

Travel is easy, with a reasonable train service and regular buses and coaches from Glasgow. If you are driving, the roads into the area rarely block for any length of time but exceptional snowfalls might cause delays. You can fly to Edinburgh or the Glasgow area from Frankfurt and Amsterdam.

I agree with Jens that the worst problem is usually the descent. Conditions on the summit plateau can be truly awful, and are often much worse than on the climbs, since the North Face is in the lee of the prevailing winds. You must know how to use a map and compass and force yourself to trust them. Most of the time you simply count steps in one direction and then head off in another so it's not exactly rocket science, but I would recommend learning the bearings to use and pre-setting your compass since I have been in conditions where using a map was impossible.

If you have access to back copies of High Magazine, they did a special Ben Nevis issue sometime in the last couple of years which contains all the practical information you could ever need. Another source that you might have available is the book 'Cold Climbs' which has some excellent pictures and route suggestions, as well as approach information. If you can't find those I would recommend telephoning Cotswold Camping, a UK mail order place, on +44 1285 643 434 and asking them to send you a guide and the relevant map. Despite the seriousness and the bad weather the Ben is a wonderful place to climb so don't be put off by the doom and gloom warnings - just treat it with respect. Email me if you'd like specific information.

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