Climbing Ben Nevis: 3 routes up Britain’s highest mountain

Our fully comprehensive guide to three of the best routes to the top of Ben Nevis. Take a look – are you up to the challenge of Britain's highest mountain?

3 Routes for how to climb ben nevis

by Chris Williams |
Updated on

Most people climb Ben Nevis via the popular Mountain Track route from the Visitor Centre in Glen Nevis, but there are other great routes for walkers and scramblers up Britain's highest peak.

If you're curious about tackling this iconic mountain, then look through our guide below where we cover multiple mapped routes to the summit of 'The Ben', plus everything else you need to know about how to climb Ben Nevis.

Dramatic, labyrinthine, transcendent, and thoroughly terrifying, Ben Nevis is utterly of its own ilk. An Alpine freak ripped from somewhere else entirely and dropped, wriggling, into the Scottish landscape.

Hiker on the CMD Arete ridge heading for Ben Nevis
Descending to the CMD Arete with Ben Nevis beyond ©LFTO ©LFTO

Consider the way the mountain looks, feels and behaves. Ben Nevis is stripped raw to what it inarguably is: Britain’s greatest mountain, bar none. The fact that 'The Ben' is also Britain's highest is merely a happy topographical accident. Still, being the tallest invites a lot of people to climb this peak, and also makes it the crown jewel of the National 3 Peaks challenge.

To help you avoid congested paths, we've put together maps and explanations of three varied routes up Ben Nevis. They range in skill level and length, but are all absolutely achievable for experienced hillwakers. We've also answered your most common questions about tackling the mountain – everything from the best gear for the job to what to do if you get caught short and need the toilet.

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The three best routes up Ben Nevis in detail:

1. The Mountain Track

The most popular route to the top of Britain is the Ben Nevis Mountain Track. Here’s how to walk it.

Walker climbing up the Ben Nevis Mountain Track from the halfway lochan

Distance: 14.8km (9.2 miles)

Total ascent: 1332m

Time: 6.5-8 hours

Skill level: Intermediate

Start/finish: Ben Nevis Visitor Centre

Terrain: Constructed mountain path mostly with moderate gradients but with the odd steep section and an exposed summit plateau ringed with crags.

Maps: OS Landranger (1:50,000) 41; OS Explorer (1:25,000) 392; Harvey Superwalker (1:25,000) Ben Nevis; British Mountain Maps (1:40,000) Ben Nevis

View the digital Mountain Track route with OS Maps

Mountain Track route diagram
©Live For The Outdoors

1. Grid reference: NN126730

The Ben Nevis Mountain Track was constructed in 1883 to service the summit meteorological observatory. It follows a steady gradient to suit the trains of ponies that brought supplies in the summer months.

From The Visitor Centre it climbs easily across the hillside then does a loop around to the Lochan Meall an t-Suidhe (Halfway Lochan). This stage is fairly straightforward and gets you warmed up perfectly with ever-improving views providing entertainment as height is gained.

2. Grid reference: NN147724

Turn sharp right above the lochan, and the route soon crosses the Red Burn. It is a deep-cut gully at this point, but forms a steep, exposed traverse when banked out with snow. Above the Red Burn the track settles into a series of zigzags, which in the lower sections are mostly easy to follow. But as height is gained, they often drift over with snow.

Ben Nevis summit with cairns
The three prominent cairns near the top of the zigzags ©LFTO ©Live For The Outdoors

3. Grid reference: NN157713

As the zigzags start to relent they skirt perilously close to the edge of Five Finger Gully. In ascent this isn’t much of an issue so long as you give it a wide berth, but in descent the natural line tends to force you towards it.

Guard against this as the slopes are convex and steepen rapidly into crags. The gradient eases above Five Finger Gully until you hit a brief rise known as McLean’s Steep.

Ben Nevis summit plateau
Ben Nevis summit plateau ©LFTO

4. Grid reference: NN161712

If it is clear when you hit the summit plateau, you’ll become aware of the cornices (snow overhangs) that ring the north face to your left (north).

It is worth looking over the face as there are impressive views of Tower Ridge and the Orion Face. However, you need to keep back from the edges by a good margin as the cornices often extend 30-40ft over the cliff edge, and if they collapse they take a good portion of snow with them from the plateau.

Ben Nevis summit shelter
Ben Nevis summit shelter ©LFTO

5. Grid reference: NN166712

The summit is marked with the observatory ruins, a shelter, cairns and a trig point but most of these get buried after a heavy winter. Often only the tip of the trig point and the shelter remain.

Leaving the summit plateau in winter or in poor visibility is particularly hazardous. A series of navigation cairns starting close to the summit trig point have been constructed to help avoid the worst hazards. However, even at 1.8m high some have been buried so it is imperative that you are prepared and able to navigate without the assistance of the cairns.

The recommended route when snow is lying or in poor visibility is in the diagram below:

Getting off the Ben Nevis summit in bad visibility

2. The Carn Mor Dearg Arête

Without doubt the most spectacular walker’s route to the summit of Britain, this spicy ridge unforgettably presents the vision of Ben Nevis as a jagged rocky giant.

Distance: 17km (10.5 miles)

Total ascent: 1610m

Time: 8 hours

Skill level: Advanced

Start/finish: North Face car park

Terrain: steep slopes; high, narrow crests with some easy scrambling; exposed summit plateau ringed with crags

Maps: OS Landranger (1:50,000) 41; OS Explorer (1:25,000) 392; Harvey Superwalker (1:25,000) Ben Nevis; British Mountain Maps (1:40,000) Ben Nevis

View the digital CMD Arête route with OS Maps

Carn Mor Dearg Arête route diagram
©Live For The Outdoors

1. Grid reference: NN145763

At the far end of the North Face car park a track and then path lead up through the trees to connect with the Allt a’ Mhuilinn path beside a dam/water intake

2. Grid reference: NN148750

The new pitched path beside the Allt a’ Mhuilinn makes light work of the first leg and the boggy sections that used to plague this route.

On the ascent below The Ben's NE Buttress ©LFTO

3. Grid reference: NN154740

The ascent to Carn Beag Dearg is the main climb of the day. It can be started at numerous places from the Allt a’ Mhuilinn path. However, the higher up you start the steeper it is. The gentlest line is up the broad crest that starts about 1km past the dam/water intake.

Walker climbing Carn Mor Dearg with the Ben Nevis North Face beyond
Walking up Carn Mor Dearg ©LFTO

4. Grid reference: NN171735

The climb doesn’t relent until you hit the summit of Carn Beag Dearg, so it’s worth zigzagging and setting a steady pace. Once on top, a great selection of vistas opens out and the walking along the crest is fantastic.

5. Grid reference: NN177721

Carn Mor Dearg is one of the eight 4,000ft peaks in Scotland and it’s a fine summit in its own right. There is a small ring shelter on top and it’s worth taking a break here to rest for the next section.

It’s also about the best place to take in the north face of Ben Nevis. If you look carefully, you should be able to spot all the famous features like Tower Ridge, the side of the Orion Face, Carn Dearg Buttress and at the far right-hand end Castle Ridge.

Also, if you look carefully into the glen below the mouth of Coire na Ciste, you might just spot the CIC Hut. A giveaway is the red stash of gas bottles and the whirling wind turbine.

Walker on the summit of Carn Mor Dearg
Looking across to Ben Nevis ©LFTO

6. Grid reference: NN177718

Looking down onto the Carn Mor Dearg Arête it is easy to be put off as it looks quite daunting. But once you get going and make the descent onto it, it soon relents.

7. Grid reference: NN175713

There are exposed sections with steep crags below, but you will find plenty of big and comforting holds and pinnacles.

Walker descending towards the start of the CMD Arete
Descending towards the start of the CMD Arete ©LFTO ©LFTO

8. Grid reference: NN172711

All too soon the arête is over and you arrive at a narrow col at the head of Coire Leis. This used to be the site of a series of posts put in place to afford a winter abseil route for climbers wanting to regain the bottom of the crags after completing climbs on the north face. The posts and aluminium sign have now been removed, replaced by a permanent marker cairn.

It also marks the start of the final ascent to the summit of Ben Nevis. Under snow and ice cover this eastern shoulder can be quite difficult and has caught many parties out. The slope is convex, and a slip would need to be arrested quickly as the run-out is over the steep crags of the Little Brenva Face.

Snow and ice cover can extend into early summer, so check locally as to its state. And take an ice axe and crampons if necessary.

Walker on the CMD Arete Ben Nevis
There's more walking than scrambling on the crest of the ridge ©LFTO ©LFTO

9. Grid reference: NN166712

As with the eastern shoulder the summit plateau holds considerable quantities of snow into summer. The surrounding crag and gully edges are often hidden by unstable cornices. Leaving the summit plateau in winter or in poor visibility is particularly hazardous.

A series of navigation cairns starting close to the summit trig point have been constructed to help avoid the worst hazards. However, even at 1.8m high some have been buried after very snowy winters so it’s imperative that you’re prepared and able to navigate without them.

10. Grid reference: NN147724

From the path above Lochan Meall an t-Suidhe head north then drop down to the Allt a’ Mhuilinn. The slopes are steep and heathery but fortunately short-lived. Generally, the Allt a’ Mhuilinn is easy to ford but if it is high you may need to head upstream to find a safe crossing.

Cairn on the CMD Arete Ben Nevis
This cairn is a key marker point on the arete ©LFTO

3. The Ledge Route

This is the toughest route a hillwalker can take to the roof of Britain. If you’re looking to spice up your mountain adventures this year with an exposed and challenging Grade 2 scramble, read on...

©Live For The Outdoors

Distance: 17km (10.5 miles)

Total ascent: 1420m

Time: 8 hours

Skill level: Expert

Start/finish: North Face car park (NN145765)

Terrain: exposed Grade 2 scramble, possible winter Grade 1 gully, featureless mountain plateau and some good access paths; within capabilities of confident scramblers – route-finding is the biggest challenge

Maps: OS Landranger (1:50,000) 41; OS Explorer (1:25,000) 392; Harvey Superwalker (1:25,000) Ben Nevis

View the digital Ledge Route with OS Maps

Ben Nevis Ledge Route diagram
©Live For The Outdoors

1. Grid reference: NN145765

From the North Face car park, go south on the forest road and cross the burn, and almost immediately follow a waymarked new path up through the woods to the south of the golf course. This excellent path zigzags up through the woods to the Alcan road at the top edge of the trees.

Continue on the upgraded Allt a’Mhuilinn path. This used to be a boggy trudge but is now a super-speed highway up to the north face routes of The Ben. The path meanders gently alongside the burn with the huge bulk of Carn Dearg dominating the approach to the CIC hut. About a kilometre short of the hut the path upgrade ceases and you continue on a rougher old track to the hut. There are fine views up towards the routes on Carn Dearg.

2. Grid reference: NN167723

Just north of the hut, cross the burn and scramble due west up some gently inclined slabs. These lead up to a huge overhanging cliff fringed by an apron of scree. The route now follows a line around the base of these cliffs and into the bottom of No. 5 Gully. There is a variation that traverses further south and around Moonlight Gully Buttress but this is the direct route.

Heading towards the start of Ledge Route via No.5 Gully Ben Nevis
©Live For The Outdoors

Once in the gully you may come across snow. It is possible to scramble along rocks above the snow but this is awkward and difficult, and it is normally better to carry an ice axe and ascend the snow unless there is a high risk of avalanche.

Climb up the gully until you reach an obvious ramp on the right leading up to a slanting shelf below a fringe of overhanging cliffs. Depending on the quantity of snow present, this may be a wintry axe-and-crampons job or a scramble on some quite slippery slabs.

3. Grid reference: NN162721

Follow the slanting shelf to leave the gully and traverse below the band of crags. Then ascend a rocky trench to your left, eventually making for the shattered crest of a rocky ridge where some huge, perched boulders can be seen on the skyline.

The route now changes in character with scrambling along a narrow rocky crest of boulders. Ascend west along the ridgeline, clambering over various blocks and along some sections of arête. Here there are stunning views across Coire na Ciste to the summit of Ben Nevis.

You reach a tricky narrowing on the ridge as you ascend to a point above the cliffs you previously traversed below. This involves a short, exposed downclimb with many crampon scratches and some quite polished rock.

Near the top of Ledge Route Ben Nevis
©Live For The Outdoors

There’s an alternative to this ‘bad step’ on the north side a few metres back down the ridge. It’s less exposed and with better holds. This is a better option for the less confident scrambler

4. Grid reference: NN161722

Once above the cliff line the ridge broadens and easy scrambling leads onto the plateau of Carn Dearg. Either side of the ridge are fine corries, often fringed by huge cornices. Take care not to stray to the edge.

The summit of Carn Dearg is marked by cairns, with the main summit located at the top of No. 5 Gully.

5. Grid reference: NN159719

Having reached the plateau you can bag The Ben proper. Go along the rim of the corrie then head south to join the Mountain Track before making the final ascent to the summit cairn. There are good views across to the Carn Dearg cliffs and Ledge Route from here.

Near the top of the ledge route up Ben Nevis
©Live For The Outdoors

6. Grid reference: NN167712

To return to the car park you can take the Mountain Track to the ‘halfway lochan’ then make the rough traverse across the moors towards the Allt a’Mhuilinn. This involves a rough crossing of boggy slopes, although there are some tracks to follow.

Make for the forest, but the only safe crossing point is via a bridge on the vehicle track coming up from the Alcan works, just to the north of the water intake station on the Allt a’Mhuilinn. Once back on the track, follow the signs back to the North Face car park.

Climbing Ben Nevis: FAQs

Two hikers climbing Ben Nevis
Walking along the base of the North Face ©LFTO ©Live For The Outdoors

How hard is it to climb Ben Nevis?

No matter which route you take, Ben Nevis is tough. This is Britain’s highest peak by some distance and any ascent begins from near sea-level, making it a big physical undertaking.

The Mountain Track is technically the easiest route, but the fierce weather and serious navigational obstacles near the summit mean you must be an experienced walker with good map and compass skills to attempt it.

Other routes range from low-graded scrambles to technical rock climbs and winter mountaineering epics, so plan your ascent carefully and choose a route that suits your level of experience and ability.

How long does it take to get up Ben Nevis?

That depends on your route and level of fitness. The Mountain Track is the busiest path on Ben Nevis and an average return trip to the summit takes 7-8 hours. Three Peaks Challenge walkers often aim to complete it in 5 hours or less.

Longer and more technical routes such as the CMD Arête or Ledge Route take longer. Check the individual route descriptions in this guide for full details.

ben nevis

How do I get there?

Ben Nevis towers over the town of Fort William, which can be reached from the south on the A82 road that passes through Glen Coe from Glasgow or Stirling. If approaching from the north, both the A82 and A86 meet at nearby Spean Bridge, followed by a short drive to Fort William on the A82.

Fort William train station is served by Scotrail and has good links to Glasgow city centre. Bus operator Citylink runs a regular service from Glasgow to Fort William. Check its website for a detailed timetable.

Where do I park for Ben Nevis?

The Ben Nevis Visitor Centre pay and display car park is ideal for anyone attempting the Mountain Track. There is space for around 80 cars, plus toilets, a shop and picnic Visitor Centre areas.

If attempting the CMD Arête or Ledge Route, the North Face car park is your best bet (grid ref NN144764, postcode PH33 6SW). Spaces are limited and there are no toilets or shop, but parking is free.

Where can I buy food and drink?

Make sure you take food and water for the whole day, as there are no facilities on the hill. Fort William has a Morrisons, Lidl, and Aldi.

Are there bins on the mountain?

Ben Nevis Visitor Centre provides bins for charity events as there are none on site. The mountain, however, has none so take all rubbish down with you.

Woods above the North Face Car Park, Ben Nevis
In the woods near the North Face car park ©LFTO ©Live For The Outdoors

Are there toilets at the top of Ben Nevis?

NO! There aren't. You'll find loos at Ben Nevis Visitor Centre, but that’s it. Take a ziplock bag with a few sheets of toilet paper plus a nappy bag in case you’re caught short. And don’t leave anything unpleasant behind.

Will I have phone signal?

Phone reception can be patchy and doesn’t work all over the mountain. If you’re using a GPS app that needs mobile data, it can't be relied on for navigation.

Can I take my dog?

You can, and on a lead is best. Don’t let your dog bother other walkers and be aware that sheep graze up to around 700 metres. The terrain is stone steps, scree and rock, which can be harsh on a dog’s pads. So test your pet on similar routes first.

What’s the weather like?

Ben Nevis generates its own weather systems and the average annual temperature on the summit sits around freezing. It isn’t uncommon for the sun to be shining in Fort William and snow to be falling on the mountain’s summit.

You must be prepared for wind, rain, low cloud, freezing temperatures and snow, even in summer. You may get sunshine if you’re lucky.

The Mountain Weather Information Service is updated twice daily and the Met Office mountain forecast provides an hourly overview of the conditions you could face on the summit.

Ben Nevis Pony Track with some snow
The Mountain Track in winter ©LFTO ©Live For The Outdoors

How do I contact Mountain Rescue?

Firstly, are you sure you need to alert a rescue team? Being tired or running out of Snickers bars aren’t good enough reasons to mobilise an entire team of volunteers.

But if it’s a genuine emergency, and you believe you or one of your party are in danger, dial 999 or 112 and ask for the Police, then Mountain Rescue. Know your location and emergency details before calling.

Where should I stay?

Fort William and the surrounding area has a huge variety of accommodation options, ranging from campsites, B&Bs and hostels to a Travelodge on the high street. Visit Outdoor Capital for a comprehensive list.

What’s the best local pub?

For atmosphere, real ale and proper pub grub it’s hard to beat the Grog & Gruel on Fort William high street. It isn’t the biggest pub in town and gets busy, so get there early and settle in for the night.

Can I climb Ben Nevis in trainers?

Most days out of the year, nope. You could maybe get up in a decent pair of trainers when it's bone dry and low wind, but snow covers the top of Ben Nevis for 10 months of out the year, so your chances are slim. We'd recommend a decent pair of walking boots to support your foot and get better purchase on the rocky ground.

If you're climbing in summer and wanting something lighter on your feet, the best trail running shoes are usually also decent for mountain hikes. They feel nimble and lightweight, but offer less protection and aren't as durable.

If it isn't the heart of summer, a waterproof jacket is a must-have.

Ben Nevis safety advice: the danger spots

Here’s how to descend from the summit plateau of Britain’s highest mountain safely – in any weather.

©Stuart Smith

1. Eastern Shoulder (NN169710)

This gives access to the CMD Arête from the summit and the route down to Steall in Glen Nevis. This shoulder forms a steep convex slope and is also prone to wind scour and low temperatures, which can make it very icy. Careful footwork is critical here as a fall would be very hard to arrest. Can be avalanche-prone.

2. Summit plateau

Snow on the summit plateu of Ben Nevis
Ben Nevis summit plateau ©LFTO ©Live For The Outdoors

The main problem for hillwalkers is getting off the plateau safely when it has a covering of snow. Winter snow can lie up to 30ft deep with fragile cornices (snow overhangs) extending over crag edges for over 40ft, and often the snow lasts well into the summer months. Regular whiteouts and high winds make navigation extremely difficult.

You have to walk on two very precise bearings to find the safe route down – so you need to be pretty handy with a map and compass. From the trig point summit (NN166712) follow a bearing of 231° (grid bearing) for 150m, then 282° (grid bearing) down McLean’s Steep to the start of the zigzags.

798NE Face of Ben Nevis from the Summit Scotland
Looking across to Tower Ridge ©LFTO ©Live For The Outdoors

A new set of navigation cairns have been built to aid clearing the plateau, but although they are tall, some still bank out after heavy snowfall.

3. Five Finger Gully (NN157712)

The second bearing (above) takes you down the steepening of McLean’s Steep and onto the easier slopes at the top of the Zigzags. This isn’t a time to relax, however, as it is easy to drift left off your bearing, which will take you onto the steep convex slopes at the head of Five Finger Gully. Can be avalanche-prone.

4. Carn Mor Dearg (CMD) Arête (NN178721)

The CMD Arête provides a challenging alternative route. In summer it gives a simple Grade 1 scramble with lots of comforting pinnacles to hold onto and shimmy between. However, in snow the pinnacles disappear, turning the route into a narrow and very exposed crest.

The steep narrow ridges up Ben Nevis
The sweep of the CMD Arete ©LFTO ©Live For The Outdoors

You’ll need to be proficient moving over mixed ground using an ice axe and crampons, and be used to exposure. High winds make progress either very difficult or impossible.

5. The Zigzags (NN157713)

The Zigzags path is often obliterated by snow, so it is vital to stay alert and keep up with the map and compass work.

6. Red Burn (NN147718)

At the bottom of the Zigzags you’ll cross the Red Burn to reach the ‘Halfway Lochan’ (Lochan Meall an t-Suidhe). When banked out with snow the slope is steep and exposed, requiring great care to cross safely.

How to climb Ben Nevis in winter

In winter as well as adequate winter hiking boots and warm clothing, you will need an ice axe and crampons, and the skills to use them. Goggles are also essential as map reading and navigation will become severely compromised in windblown snow.

Check for avalanche alerts before you set out at the SportScotland Avalanche Information Service where daily reports of avalanche, snow, and mountain conditions are reported.

Leaving the summit of Ben Nevis in the snow
©LFTO ©Live For The Outdoors

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