Skip to main content

High and Wild: Climbing Ben Nevis, Scotland’s Highest Peak

When hiking above tree line, I’m extremely grateful to the trail crews that build the rock cairns—those mortar-free mounds of rock that mark the routes through alpine areas devoid of obvious trails—especially when fog rolls in. Stepping quickly from stone to stone, breathing in brisk heaves from the exertion, the end of my climb to the summit of Ben Nevis in the Scottish Highlands was reduced to a search from cairn to cairn.

The Wash versus the Ben

In theory, if you stand at one of these stone mounds, the next one should be visible, whether you’re nearing the summit of New Hampshire’s Mount Washington or Scotland’s Ben Nevis. The two peaks have a lot in common. In addition to cairns, both are the pinnacles of their regions. “The Wash” is the highest peak in the Northeast. “The Ben” is the highest peak in the British Isles. Both have exposed, well-trodden alpine summits whose upper trails skirt ravines and require stepping from stone to stone. Both are colossal rock piles atop which it can snow any day of the year.

As a hiker, I’ve always had an affinity for Mount Washington (6,288 feet). Though Ben Nevis is lower (4,413 feet), the length of the hike—10 miles round-trip—is similar to a day hike up Mount Washington and just as strenuous based on mileage. In addition, the ascent of Ben Nevis starts at sea level, so the vertical gain is actually more.


By Lisa Ballard

Story and Photos by Jack and Lisa Ballard

Like what you're reading? Subscribe to Image's free newsletter to catch every headline