Ben Nevis, 1,345m
Prefer to be in a guided group? Check out our Climbing Ben Nevis in Winter and Learn Winter Skills Course.
The UK's highest mountain, Ben Nevis, sits at a whopping 1,345m above sea level and towers above the Scottish Highlands and Fort William like a regal king. Known as 'the mountain with its head in the clouds", Ben Nevis was once an active volcano. It might still have its head in the clouds, but this peak is no stranger to visitors, attracting over 125,000 walkers a year.
It is indeed a mecca for UK adventurers hoping to add the summit to their peak-bagging bucket list. But this formidable peak is not to be undertaken lightly even in summer, let alone in snow, ice and cold conditions. If you're prepared, it could just be your most rewarding adventure yet. So, if you're thinking of climbing Ben Nevis this winter, grab yourself a cuppa and tuck into our detailed guide for some advise and tips before you set off.
How hard actually is it to climb Ben Nevis in winter?
Climbing Ben Nevis or any of the Scottish mountains in winter conditions can vary a lot. The bottom half of the mountain will be similar to the rest of the year, if a little chillier. But it tends to be clear of snow and fairly easy going underfoot. The snow line sits at 600m or above, and you can't always tell from the bottom, so you should be prepared to don those crampons at any time!
How difficult walking in the snow will be will depend on exactly what the weather has been doing that week. If the weather has been sunny recently and there hasn't been too much snowfall, it should be fairly soggy and hard-packed, meaning it will be a lot easier to walk on, but only if you have crampons! If there's just been a fresh snow dump, you could be wading through knee-deep powder which gets fairly tiring after a while, especially if you're the one at the front creating the track.
Can anyone climb Ben Nevis in winter?
Ben Nevis is not for everyone even in the summer. Whilst we tend to imagine the UK as a place of rolling hills and country strolls, the extremity of Ben Nevis is more comparable to the Alps.
Climbing the UK's highest mountain in winter requires technical know-how. The ability to assess and respond to avalanche risk, interpreting mountain weather forecasts, route choice, impeccable navigation, safe and correct use of an ice axe and appropriate use of crampons are all the sorts of things you would need to know before attempting Ben Nevis in winter. Once you've got this down, you can be sure it'll be one of the most exhilarating and rewarding days you can imagine.
Keen to learn about everything mentioned above? Why not book onto our Winter Skills & Ben Nevis Winter Ascent guided trip?
Is it safe to climb Ben Nevis in winter?
If you have adequate knowledge of all the things mentioned above then yes, you can summit safely. Of course there are always unexpected things nature can throw at you, but if you go out there fully prepared in terms of equipment, and as prepared as you can be in terms of safety response, there's not too much more you can do.
How fit will I need to be?
You will need a decent level of fitness to be able to enjoy this winter mountaineering adventure and make it to the summit. Climbing 1,345m of ascent on a balmy summers day is one thing, but trudging through knee deep snow in crampons is a fair bit more of a challenge! You will ideally have some experience climbing hills or being able to walk for 6-8 hours a day before you attempt a Ben Nevis winter summit.
You can generally expect strong winds, deep snow on the top 300m, poor visibility and even blizzard conditions on Ben Nevis in winter. That's not to mention the shorter daylight hours which means more pressure to get up and summit in time to safely descend. There is nothing more important to consider when planning a fun and safe summit.
What should I be aware of when climbing Ben Nevis in winter conditions?
Gear and expertise are the main thing here. Navigation is a really key one. When the tops get buried in snow, the paths, cairns and map features to find your way often get completely buried, so you'll need to be confident in using a compass and taking bearings, or using a GPS device. Once you're on the plateau, it is hard to understate just how featureless it can be. Imagine white all around you, white underfoot and white overhead. Just like that scene in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows where Harry goes to heaven to see Dumbledore... (too niche a reference?)
You should also know how to properly use an ice axe, and be able to perform an ice axe arrest. This involves digging the axe into the snow fast if you are falling (glissading) down the slop out of control. You should also have bought or rented a suitable pair of winter crampons that fit your winter mountain boots well (you definitely don't want to be fiddling with them on 30mph winds halfway up the hill!)
Lastly, you should be familiar with assessing mountain weather. You should know that looking at the forecast for Fort William will not suffice when preparing to summit Ben Nevis. The Mountain Weather Information Service and the Met Office both release mountain specific weather forecasts and are extremely useful.
Assessing avalanche conditions and risk, as well as changing weather on the hill is also a must. A true mountaineer does not charge on towards the summit, battling everything in their way to get there. A true mountaineer knowns when to turn back. They respect the mountain, the fact that the weather is more powerful than them, and they know when the risk is too big.
Too many mountaineers and walkers have died on Ben Nevis in avalanches for this to be something to ignore. The Scottish Avalanche Information Service regularly produce avalanche forecasts, so make sure you're familiar with understanding these.
What is the best month to climb Ben Nevis in winter?
If you're going to tackle it in winter, it doesn't really matter when you go, as you'll be prepared for a snowy adventure either way. Snow falls on the peak generally between November and May, so anytime in this window and you'll likely experience snow at least on the top 300m. It can look fairly tame up there until you're actually up at the snow line and realise it's a whole lot more gnarly than it let on at the bottom.
What are the best weather conditions for a winter ascent?
The perfect weather for a winter summit of the Ben would be a 'bluebird' day, the kind of day known by mountain lovers to be a perfect blue-sky day with little wind. Be careful with this though, strong sun can melt the snow and turn it to ice, so crampons are a must in this case.
Is there always snow on top of Ben Nevis?
Not all year round, no. Though it's not entirely out of the question, some of the deep gullies on the North Face and the north east buttress can hold snow all year round. From November to May however, you can pretty much assume there'll be snow cover.
What is the easiest route up Ben Nevis in winter?
There are two main routes up the Ben. The Mountain Track (otherwise known as the Pony Track) is the most popular, as it is a safe, gradual and winding path that zig zags up to the summit. The Carn Mor Dearg Arête (CMD Arete) route is a far more challenging climb for experience climbers, comparable to Crib Goch on Snowdon or Striding Edge on Hellvellyn.
Add snow and ice, poor visibility and harsh conditions to either of these routes and they both become significantly more challenge, but the bigger the challenge the bigger the reward, right?
The easiest route is definitely the Mountain Track, though some complain it doesn't quite have the spiciness that the adventure of the CMD Arete offers. You'll have to assess the choice based on your experience and ultimately, the weather conditions. Even on our guided trip, the CMD Arete will sometimes be avoided as it simply gets too extreme up there.
What equipment will I need to climb Ben Nevis in winter?
Below is a list of the essential things you'll need to climb this mighty summit. It goes without saying that you'll need plenty of layers, flapjacks and a good waterproof jacket and trouser set, but below is a list of technical equipment. An ice axe, crampons and winter boots are the top 3 essentials.
If you're just planning on doing this one winter summit instead of embarking on a whole new winter walking career, why not ask friends if you can borrow equipment, check out Facebook marketplace or check out rental shops?
Ellis Brigham in Fort William allows you to rent an ice axe, crampons and winter boots for just £24 a day at the time of writing, which is significantly less of an outlay than buying new. The planet definitely doesn't need a whole load more gear that'll be only used once so have a think if you can make a more planet-conscious choice when sourcing your gear.
Ice axes are usually made of lightweight aluminium, and hiking ice axes will have a straight shaft with an curved pick on top. Look for one with a comfortable grip. The length should match that of your thumb to your ankle, that is, if you stand up straight and hold the axe by the bottom of the shaft, the blade should be no longer than your ankle.
Just make sure you get the right ice axe for what you doing. There's all sorts of ice climbing axes out there that do different things, but any well-informed shop assistant will be able to advise you on this.
There are a lot of crampons styles out there and it can be confusing, especially when there's so many imposters on the market.You might come across pull-on 'micro-spikes' and be attracted to the price. Avoid these, these are great for light icy conditions on lower hills but on Ben Nevis in winter, you'll need proper crampons.
Crampons are graded: C1, C2 and C3. C1 and C2 crampons are suitable for B2 and B3 boots, which are the type of boots you'll need (more on that below). Check out this guide by Ellis Brigham for an in-depth guide.
As mentioned above, mountaineering boots are graded: B0, B1, B2 and B3. B0 are your normal hillwalking hiking boots, with a flexible sole and upper. Crampons will struggle to stay fitted to these boots due to their softness and flexibility. It's a similar story with B1, so really you want to be looking for a B2 or B3 boots, which is typically a stiff, tall boot with just enough flex in the ankle for walking action.
GPS Device (not essential if you have map and compass and goo knowledge of how to use them)
First Aid Kit
Rucksack (with raincover/waterproof liner)
Top Tips from our founder, George
"When I climbed Ben Nevis in winter, the conditions couldn't have been more sketchy. We couldn't see a thing, we were nearly blown of the hill by blizzard winds and we certainly didn't have a view at the top. But the feeling of achievement? Incomparable! Here's my top tips if you're planning a winter summit":
- Take one more layer than you think you'll need. It's always a hell of a lot colder on the summit, especially when you stop!
- Make sure you're fit enough! It's a real slog if every step feels like a mountain in itself. The snow and weather conditions make this peak a challenge in itself so make sure you're ready before you attempt it.
- Practice walking in your crampons first. Make sure they fit perfectly to your boot and you're somewhat used to walking in them. They are pesky things to walk in and catch on everything and you don't want to be figuring that all out for the first time at the top of the hill.
- Enjoy it! Climbing Ben Nevis in winter is a big deal and there's not many people who can say they've taken on an adventure quite so rough and ready. Don't forget to look up and smell the roses (or the wagon wheels, if the roses are covered in snow...)