On Tuesday 10 May 2011, a bunch of mates and I biked up Ben Nevis, and back down again. We’d been planning it for quite some time, as we’d previously mountain biked Snowdon, and it got us thinking about the next level.
We knew Nevis would be a much bigger challenge, especially with bad weather, but given we’d had terrible weather when we did Snowdon, we figured ourselves fairly well prepared for it. Planned as part of our mountain biking Scotland 2011 8-day riding trip, we sandwiched the Nevis ascent between a couple of days biking Glentress and Innerleithen, and the rest of the trip afterwards that included Fort William DH and XC, Laggan, Golspie, and Balblair.
Snowdon’s summit is at 1085 metres above sea level, and took us 2.5 hours to climb on mountain bikes, up the Ranger’s path (which starts around 50m above sea level). Ben Nevis is 1344 metres above sea level.
We stayed at the Ben Nevis bunkhouse, which is conveniently sited right at the start of the trail up the mountain. The night before, we prepared well, by having a big dinner at the Ben Nevis Inn, and sinking quite a few local beers. We also discussed safety, made sure we each had maps, knew the route, and had the right kit, including waterproofs, layers, walkie-talkies, first aid kits, whistles, torches, spares, tools, tubes, food, drink, and something to celebrate with at the summit…
The route is known as the mountain track – and used to be known as the tourist path but was changed in order to better reflect the seriousness of the endeavour.
On the day, the weather was poor, but not terrible. Some wind, and some rain, but not torrential, and not too cold, so we kitted up and set off around 11am. Just a few pedal strokes from the inn, we found ourselves pushing and carrying our bikes, which was to be the style for the next few hours. The first section, up to the lake at 570m, is stepped and rocky, with rocks worn smooth by years of walking boots passing by. This was pretty tough stuff to carry bikes up, as the steps are just that bit too big for a wheel to roll up. Those of us with heavy full-suspension bikes were struggling a bit compared to the guys with light hardtails. We passed one poor chap who looked in a pretty poor condition, and Joe kindly provided him with some painkillers so he could make it the rest of the way down after hurting his leg earlier on.
We both passed, and overtook a few groups of hikers, and almost each and every one expressed some form of surprise or disbelief that we were biking up there. One very hairy and Scottish trail maintenance guy described us as “fucking hardcore”.
We had a few stops to regroup, and got to the lake within two hours, I believe. From there, there actually is a bit of riding for a while, and as long as you can hop the drainage gullies, you can get a reasonable ride out of it. Soon, however, it begins to steepen, and get considerably looser, so that even if you could find the strength to climb on the bike, I doubt you’d find the traction. This is where the trail begins to zig-zag up the mountain, and the loose scree, rocks and pebbles make it tough going, so you’re either pushing the bike and frequently slipping your footing, or lifting the bike up and over the boulders in your path. It’s more punishing for your arms than your legs.
The cloud level must have been about 850-900m on this day, so visibility was poor – we could easily see the path ahead of us (usually), but we never saw any decent panoramic views across the mountains. Up here, even in May, there was quite a bit of snow, and the temperature noticeably dropped. We could tell we were nearing the summit when we came across a 100-metre stretch of deep snow to climb, which required innovative technique to haul a bike up and not slip back down with every step. Once over the snow, it’s a gradual loose scree path winding up to the summit, avoiding the two nasty looking gullies to the north. The summit itself felt somehow even colder, quite suddenly, so we all very quickly climbed up onto the cairn with our bikes, took the appropriate photos, and got back down to find some shelter to have a quick snack before the descent.
Mark celebrated his ascent with a can of very Scottish BrewDog punk IPA, while I preferred the more traditional slug of whisky from my hip flask. That combined with a more sensible Torq energy bar and gel, prepared us for the descent. This was the bit that I was most looking forward to.
Imagine one of the most technical downhill trails you’ve ridden. Now imagine it with extra rocks and loose scree, at around minus 15C, wet, windy, and tired. Now imagine you’re nearly 1.5km above sea level, and where you’re heading is just 20m above.
Until you’ve warmed into the descent, it’s quite tricky, and easy to pick a wrong line, slip the tyre, or grab too much brake, but once you’ve warmed into it, it becomes actually quite flowing. The descent through the snow simply requires a little speedway-style foot-out drifting down, using the rear brake and foot to modulate your speed. Once over that, and into the zig-zags, you can let go a little, but with cold fingers and bad arm-pump, the constant braking becomes hard work indeed, so the stops to regroup and wait for the slower riders to catch up involve quite a bit of arm-waving, clapping, and fist clenching to bring the blood back and loosen / warm up.
Down to the lake, you can pick up some quite high speed, which is probably unwise this high up, so careful braking and gentle turns are the name of the game, watching out for the drainage gullies that are just wide enough to drop a front wheel into. From the lake for the next 300m or so down is certainly not rideable in the wet, with tired arms, as the steps are big and close together. A good trials rider could do it, and a skilled downhiller might be able to nail a few sections in the dry, but it wasn’t to be on this day.
As a final treat, Ben Nevis provides an awesome and fast last 10 minutes of trail back to the Inn. Rocky, fast, technical, switching, and unpredictable, this section rewards a fast rider with kickers over mini-rock gardens, drops into turns, and enough pump to build up insane speed without pedalling. Through the gate, and we were back at the bunkhouse, where our good friend was waiting with hot coffee, dry towels, and more beer.
Note: the photos aren’t quite in the correct order, but you’ll work it out.
Edit: You can even see the detailed tracking information here.