The UK’s loftiest peak, Ben Nevis is both an icon of Scottish climbing and a major tourist attraction, with more than 100,000 walkers reaching the summit each year. Looking after the mountain, however, is proving a challenge. Richard Baynes reports.
Photograph by Marian Austin
Backing the Ben
As the clouds suddenly lift, ragged columns of ice stand crisp and sparkling in the sunlight all around us. Here on the north face of Ben Nevis, the snow is both white and blue, cut by drifts, clefts and glacier-like crevasses. High above, the heavy cornicing on the cliff edges appears like fat scoops of ice cream that have been rolled above the frost-glistening rocks. It just seems impossible that there can be so much ice when it’s mild and drizzling at sea level. But more surprising are the people, maybe a hundred or more in this one remote, high section. The famous ice climbs â€“ Tower Scoop, Smith’s, Hadrian’s Wall and the rest â€“ hold strings of climbers, with even more entering the coire below.That March day I scrape my way up the ice of the classic Good Friday Climb. Months later, on a June weekend, we rock climb up long, easy Tower Ridge, also on the north face, savouring the position and sense of history. The ridge was first climbed in winter by Norman Collie in 1894. He likened it to climbing the Matterhorn and, since then, Ben Nevis has been at the centre of climbing in Scotland: men of the calibre of Harold Raeburn, Tom Patey and Robin Smith all pioneered hard, compelling climbs here.
“It just seems impossible that there can be so much ice when it’s mild and drizzling at sea level”
And it still has a magnetic attraction: in 2008, the north face became the home of reputedly the hardest traditional rock climb in the world, Dave Macleod’s Echo Wall.
After Tower Ridge, I head back down the â€˜pony track’ which ends in Glen Nevis, and in the hour or so it takes to walk to the half-way lochan, I pass several hundred people trudging upwards towards the summit. Many are charity walkers, some carry crackling walkie-talkies, while others just stare at the track and plod, oblivious to the views.
On the well-made path on that upper section, it seems quite different from hill walking as I know it, and a million miles from the adventures, vintage and modern, of the north face. It illustrates what began to dawn on me during the earlier ice climb â€“ that Ben Nevis is not just the UK’s highest mountain, but also a massive visitor attraction. It sets me wondering: what do we want from our highest mountain, and how do we get it?
The upper half of the main mountain path runs across land owned by the John Muir Trust, a wild land conservation charity which bought the summit plateau and a large tract of Glen Nevis 12 years ago. One of the Trust’s primary aims â€“ it also owns a variety of other properties from the Scottish Borders to the northwest Highlands â€“ is to preserve wild land, which seems at odds with the fact that around 160,000 people visit the mountain each year.
When I go for a walk on the Ben with the ever-diplomatic Fran Lockhart, the Trust’s Nevis property manager, she gamely says visitors are not a problem, it’s their impact. Whether that’s much of a distinction is a moot point, but that impact has driven her to extremes at times.
Litter, in all its guises, is a big issue, she explains. Visitors persist in dropping banana skins thinking they will rot, but on the cold, sterile summit plateau they stay “like horrible black slugs,” and can take up to two years to fully decompose. To highlight the issue, Trust staff recently dressed as giant bananas and got their take-it-home message across to walkers with a smile.
“Trust staff recently dressed as giant bananas and got their take-it-home message across to walkers with a smile”
Now Lockhart is tackling the next problem: people’s toilet habits on the hill. “My colleagues are a bit worried what I might have them dressing up as next,” she laughs.
More seriously, Lockhart says introducing alien nutrients is bound to have some effect on the ecology of the mountain, although no studies have been carried out on the potential effects of food and other waste left behind by visitors. But there is some visible evidence of effects on the ecosystem: the big boulders preferred by men to pee on have developed their own, alien types of algae, while snow buntings on the summit plateau now make a living by scrounging scraps from walkers rather than pursuing their natural food supplies.
“We should avoid it happening: there is just no need for piles of loo paper and peel to be left behind,” says Lockhart.
Trust staff lead regular work parties to the summit to clear litter. The most recent clean-up, in August last year, saw the removal of around eight bin bags of plastic bottles and other rubbish as well as another eight shopping bags of banana skins, plus a water melon.
As well as litter, the UK’s highest mountain also sees its fair share of stunt ascents. Wheelbarrows, horse and carts and a barrel of beer have all been pushed, trundled or carried up for charities or publicity. In 2006, the remains of what appeared to be a piano were found buried on the summit. It turned out to be a church organ carried up by strongman Kenny Campbell from Bonar Bridge in 1981. In the same year a group of Glasgow medical students pushed a bed to the top.
Recent stunts include an archer who wanted to shoot arrows up the hill and follow them â€“ “not the safest idea,” deadpans Lockhart â€“ and enthusiasts wanting to recreate the 1911 ascent by a Model T Ford. After substantial negotiation, a period car was carried up in bits to be reassembled.
Lockhart and her two-strong team of rangers also have to deal with thorny issues such as whether there should be marker posts on the summit plateau â€“ as a wild land charity, the Trust has a presumption against structures and way markers on the summit unless there is a clear reason for them being there â€“ and the whole knotty question of whether a vastly improved path wouldn’t just attract even more walkers.
She insists that the Trust’s idea of Ben Nevis as wild land is legitimate, as most of the area away from the summit is seldom visited. But this is open to question, and not just because of the sheer number of walkers. The ruins of an old observatory, built on the summit in 1883 and manned for more than 20 years, are still apparent. A small hotel attached to it catered for summer visitors and lasted even longer. For its part, the Trust advocates no new structures â€“ including potentially misleading navigation cairns â€“ while recognising the historical and cultural significance of some.
Elsewhere, tucked below the north face, on land owned by Rio Tinto Alcan, is the Scottish Mountaineering Club’s CIC Hut, a recently extended climbers’ bunkhouse and the only Alpine-style refuge in Scotland’s mountains. Meanwhile, climbers and walkers have left their mark all over the hill with a network of paths, rocks polished by thousands of feet, and bits of tat.
Partnership on hold
But it’s not just the John Muir Trust that has a stake in the Ben. The Nevis Partnership is a charity that brings together all the groups with an interest in the mountain: the John Muir Trust, Mountaineering Council of Scotland, Rio Tinto Alcan, Scottish Natural Heritage, Highland Council and others.
Until recently, the Partnership has overseen the management of the mountain and surrounding land, and its trickiest problem has been the main path. Above the half-way lochan, it has been rebuilt in the past three years with Lottery funding and other grants. It’s now a firm track, with good drainage and marker cairns across the plateau. The Partnership organised this, and also the new path up to the north face used by climbers and which replaced a hideous, muddy slog.
But the lower part of this popular route is still the original pony track, over 100 years old and only sporadically maintained. When I walk up it with Fran I see it’s been washed away in places, with blocks of granite tumbled over and drainage channels left high and dry as torrential rain has eroded the path around them.
It urgently needs to be rebuilt but the Partnership, which hoped to carry out the work, announced in March that it was closing for the time being. It failed to win Lottery funding for the path last year and, following successive cuts in funding from Highland Council, has now run out of cash.
“it is likely that two more damaging winters will pass before the lower path can begin to be restored”
The Partnership board is pinning its hopes on a fresh Lottery bid and should hear the results of this in July when the hope is that the organisation can be revived. But even if successful, it is likely that two more damaging winters will pass before the lower path can begin to be restored.
Liz Wilshaw, who until recently managed the Nevis Partnership, spells out the problem: “It [the lower path] is in danger of collapse. Fort William and district will lose out massively, as visitors will be deterred from climbing the mountain, and the mountain will lose out as those that do will find new ways up which will cause even more erosion. It’s a double whammy.”
Wilshaw points to the economic value of Ben Nevis to surrounding Lochaber, and that’s another issue which needs to be factored in when deciding how to manage the hill. There are so many questions. To what extent should a charity with a narrow set of conservation aims be at the helm? Can a consortium of diverse organisations, with conflicting interests, do the job? Or should the mountain be managed for the good of the nation, striking a balance between conservation, development and economics?
There’s little doubt what Bill McDermott, who chairs the Scottish Campaign for National Parks (SCNP), will say. The SCNP, which includes some of the most experienced administrators and outdoors campaigners in Scotland, backed a national park for Ben Nevis and Glen Coe when parks for Scotland were being considered in the 1990s.
Landowners were against the idea, along with the bulk of local opinion, he explains. “One of the things is the cultural dimension of the Highlands. The background is the clearances and people think the glens should be filled with people again, so the idea of conservationists coming in to designate a national park and stop development is a very strong motivation among the general population.”
But McDermott believes the problem over the lower path is a clear example of why the area should now be part of a national park: “If there was a national park covering the area, as we have with the highest mountains in
England and Wales, the path repairs would be automatically taken on board,” he believes. “You can’t have the highest mountain in Scotland left to fester.”
Solutions from elsewhere
So, what does happen in national parks elsewhere in the UK? When the Snowdonia National Park’s access officer Peter Rutherford hears what is happening to the main path up Ben Nevis, he is aghast. “That’s outrageous. If a path on Snowdon has a problem, the staff and machinery are put into place to sort it out.”
Snowdonia has a full-time staff of nine working on path maintenance, much of the time on Snowdon, which sees three times the number of visitors that Ben Nevis has. But the Â£250,000 annual path maintenance budget â€“ part of the Snowdonia National Park’s annual Â£8 million grant from the Welsh Assembly â€“ is not a huge sum, given the number of visitors and many other mountains that are also under threat.
Rutherford says there’s still 15 years of work to get just the paths on Snowdon into shape. But the big difference from Ben Nevis is that a permanent organisation maintains the paths: a failed Lottery bid or a tightening of belts by local authorities would not leave its paths unmanaged. “We are chasing our tails at times, but without the national park set-up it would be impossible,” he comments.
Back in Scotland, at Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park, Visitor Manager Bridget Jones is sure a national park structure for Ben Nevis would help improve the path repair situation. She points out, however, that the park has no legal obligation to repair paths, and repairs on popular mountains such as the Cobbler and Ben Lomond have to be supported in the same sort of way as those on Ben Nevis â€“ through bidding for European funds and getting organisations such as the Forestry Commission to back them.
And, she says: “Actually getting capital funds for improvements is easier than getting hold of funds for maintaining the path once it’s built.”
So although many might be surprised that Ben Nevis is not already in a national park, it seems that such status would not necessarily remedy the mountain’s problems. In fact, Ben Nevis’s management is currently being re-examined by the Nevis Partnership and Outdoor Capital UK, the marketing group for Fort William and the surrounding area. Stakeholders such as Highland Council, landowners and community groups are being asked for their views, and a report will be published later this summer.
John Hutchison, Chairman of the John Muir Trust and Executive Director of the Nevis Partnership, is one of the most important figures in the debate on how Ben Nevis will be managed in the future, but he is adamant that neither he nor the Trust will express a view until the community consultation has reported, for fear of prejudicing its conclusions.
At his home in Lochaber, Hutchison says a national park â€“ which could include neighbouring Glen Coe and the Mamores â€“ is one possibility, but whatever happens, something more needs to be done to safeguard Ben Nevis. “The international importance of the area has to be recognised, with sustainable funding from national sources so that the future of this priceless landscape is ensured,” he says.
“The area deserves better than to have to compete for piecemeal funding”
The key, he believes, is to get away from the current hand-to-mouth funding situation. “The Trust does not have a formal position on national parks: our interest is the proper protection of wild land. But the area deserves better than to have to compete for piecemeal funding, so the options could include a national park, where Ben Nevis would be part of a far bigger area, or it could mean some other structure such as a management plan for the national scenic area, or something else again. But we shouldn’t have to keep applying for grants.”
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