Mountain biking up (and down) Ben Nevis

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.

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12 Replies to “Mountain biking up (and down) Ben Nevis”

  1. All sounds very exhilirating except that this is a tourist track , whilst I appreciate that there is a right of way it would be useful to have a reasonable debate about this so that people who wish to pursue this activity can do so where they are only putting themselves at risk and not the general public including children. There are other issues also in terms of recovery of footpaths. People enjoy risky activity, none more so than extreme climbers (although arguably they are not endangering the lives of others) and it does seem rather a selfish attitude whereby the recreational needs of half a dozen people impact upon the safety and pleasure of perhaps a couple of hundred walkers. No doubt I will be accused of being a mindless ‘rambler’ but the sooner we realise that the need to respect each other and the earth the better

    1. It’s interesting that you posted this today, as we’ve just walked Ben Nevis again.

      This is the tourist track, yes, and I assume that by “tourist”, you mean “on foot”, which of course is not necessarily the case. I’ll try to answer each of your concerns in turn though:
      Safety: we chose a day when we knew it wouldn’t be very busy (in fact we only saw 10-15 people all day), and always stopped or slowed to pass walkers. Nobody at all appeared to have a problem with us, and the vast majority were enthusiastic about our attempt. We certainly didn’t put anyone else at risk. As for risk to ourselves, I’m certain that I’m a safer biker than walker. Rolling back down Nevis is much easier than walking, and with less chance of tripping, slipping, or twisting an ankle, as far as I’m concerned. Also, should anyone have a problem, we can be down to civilisation in about 90 minutes, rather than at least 4 hours.
      As for damage to the paths: yes, mountain biking contributes to erosion. As does walking. Both in different ways, however and both are completely eclipsed by the action of flowing water. You might want to read my dissertation on the comparable environmental impacts of different activities. Mountain bikes roll over ground, while feet compact the soil with every step, especially when walking downhill, which is very noticeable on a trail such as this, and that contributes massively to erosion by water.
      Of course, we would love there to be a separate mtb route up and down Ben Nevis to separate those on bikes from those on foot, but that’s highly unlikely, so in the mean time, we just happily coexist.
      Never forget that to wish to protect something, it must first be assigned value, and we do not assign value to those things we cannot enjoy. The more people we allow to enjoy places like Ben Nevis, in their own way (within reason – romping through in 4x4s probably isn’t great), the better it will be appreciated, and protected.

    1. The only route I can suggest is the one we did – the tourist track up from the Ben Nevis Inn. I wouldn’t fancy doing any of the other routes with a mountain bike, even if they were possible (which I suspect they’re not without ropes and climbing gear!)

  2. Hi Tom

    Me and my friend Jed did the same route last Sunday on our Mountain bikes,inspired by your Web page.
    What a challenge it was we followed the same route as yourselves.
    We also encountered many bemused faces and comments and people asking to take our pictures.
    It was a slog pushing,carrying and dragging them up to the summit interspersed with some cycling.
    When we got to the top there was plenty of snow , but what a rush and a buzz we got when we had reached the summit , a real sense of achievement .
    Then for the trip back down a bit scary to say the least ! What with the scree and the boulders appearing from nowhere you definitely needed to have your wits about you ! One or two minor falls but we got back down in one piece. The last section down to the Ben Nevis inn was on the bike was spot on.
    Just in time for a well earned pint !
    It was a proper challenge and a real test of mental and physical strength and stamina.
    But how many people can say they mountain biked up and down Ben Nevis !
    It felt all the sweeter knowing a year ago at the age of 44 and being 5 and a half stone heavier that I had achieved such a mad challenge !

  3. Congratulations!
    Any chance you could tell me how long it took? Someone gave me an idea of doing 3 peak challenge on bikes and trying to assess is it doable at all – going up would be slower with the bike, but going down should be faster I guess.


    1. It was about 4.5 hours up, and about 1.5 hours down. In good conditions, I reckon you could knock off 30 minutes from the climb, and maybe the same from the descent.

      We’ve discussed doing 3 peaks on bikes as well, but haven’t got anywhere with it yet, so definitely let me know if you manage it! I think it’s doable (and faster than walking), but will be absolutely knackering for your back and arms – much harder work than just walking it…!

      1. Definitely will do, hard to choose the dates though – don’t want to see too much snow as well as people, also daylight would be quite handy. The idea is up in the air really, would be great but it is a bit daunting.


  4. I just came across your website while searching for a country dance of the same name, but, on reading it, it struck a chord in my memory.

    In September 1956, two friends and I went on a cycling holiday around Scotland. The first evening we went from Glasgow to Inverbeg (on Loch Lomondside). Next day we cycled to Fort William, where we spent the night with a relative of one of my friends. The next day we set out to cycle up Ben Nevis.

    We were not as prepared as you. We had read an account of a Ford motor car driving to the summit in (about) 1928, and we thought there was a reasonable road to the summit. Unfortunately, the road had deteriorated considerably in the intervening 28 years, and we had road touring bikes – no mountain bikes in those days.

    When we had pushed and carried our bikes to the lochan we decided that we would continue without bikes. After a break for food we CHAINED THE BIKES (I laugh about it now, but we actually chained them for safety). We continued to the summit, then returned for our bikes, then carried them back down the hill.

    By the time we returned to the foot of the mountain it was dark, and we met a lorry with mountain rescue volunteers. The lady we were staying with had got worried when we did not return after the usual 3-4 hours. We returned to Fort William on the back of a lorry.

    Next day we planned to get to Kyle of Lochalsh, but by the time we reached Loch Lochy (about 20 miles up the road) we were knackered, and had to stop for the night.

    Considering the state of the path in 1956, and assuming that it has not greatly improved, I am very impressed that anyone could have the strength to cycle all the way to the top.

    Congratulations !!

    1. Hey, very nice to see your article! -Just a quick did a quick google search to see if many folk cycle the Ben.

      I’m doing a slightly more challenging route on my bike -assending Carn Mor Dearg and traversing the arette before riding down the ‘tourist path’. Super to see how you got on riding down, especially your pics of the track
      Nice work 😉

  5. Hi there, i remember pushing my mtb up and down Ben Nevis many years ago with about 15 others while my parents owned Highland Cycles at the time, we did it in the full heat of summer too. All to raise money for charity i gather. It was a massive challenge and was fully aware of pathway erosion at the time. We tried to stick to the main path although flying over the handlebars twice on the way back down did fling me off to the long grass and boulders. I would love to see an official cycle downhill route from the top of there but im sure its a conservation minefield….would hazzard a guess it being world class if it were to be developed.

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