Ben Nevis is something of a Mecca to British winter climbers. Its north-east face is a ramshackle assortment of buttresses and gullies which hold snow throughout the winter season, and often hold accumulations of snow and ice well into the summer. What makes the cliff face such an attractive proposition is the sheer number of high quality routes it holds, which represent almost the entire spectrum of winter grades, with an excellent series of lines catering for the inexperienced and expert alike. No. 5 Gully is a winter climb at the easier end of the spectrum, with an indicative rating of Scottish Winter Grade I. It can also boast being one of the most fun routes in its category, measuring over 350m from base to top, and taking the climber up an increasingly steep and narrow gully, before opening out into a wide depression near its terminus on Carn Dearg. It's situation is both dramatic and obvious, sandwiched between the cliffs of the Central Trident and Carn Dearg Butresses, it should be possible to locate in all but the most arduous of conditions. The gully does have a dark side though – it's a notorious avalanche run. Thanks to its broad upper section it attracts large accumulations of snow, which have a tenancy to be funnelled down the gullies trough on a regular basis. Climbers must therefore be wary of conditions, always check the avalanche forecast before setting out, Scottish snow conditions are fickle and can change daily, if not hourly. Also be sure to test the snow at the base of the gully before commencing a climb, and again a little further up the route. If in any doubt other routes of similar technicality are located nearby, and it may pay to head for one of those instead. Another potential obstacle is the large cornice that surrounds the gullies head. It can be very difficult trying to find a safe exit, and it may be necessary to cut through the cornice with your ice axe. From personal experience I can tell you that this can be a little difficult if fresh snow has been accumulating in the upper reaches of the gully and your axe and crampons have nothing to bite onto.
Ben Nevis' NE face. No. 5 Gully is the large snow filled gully basking in sunshine on the right hand side
(Photo by Ron Walker)
Although there are many possible approaches for the climb this page will only describe the one I've used, in this case the one that follows the Pony Track/Tourist Route around the base of Carn Dearg and along Allt a' Mhuilinn to the CIC Hut.
Ben Nevis is located close to Fort William in the NW of Scotland and is served by both bus and train services. Some information about reaching Fort William by public transport, as well as the public transport is available here. Trains can be booked here. If you plan to take the over-night train between Fort William and London (or on route) then make sure you have a berth reserved. As a last resort there is a seated carriage but if this is full then you won't be allowed to ride the train. Citylink operate a bus service between Glasgow and Fort William. Some of these buses also continue to the Isle of Skye. Fort William can also be reached from Oban, Kyle of Lochalsh and Inverness. One bus a day runs to Mallaig and in summer a couple also go to Kingussie and Aviemore.
Fort William is easy to reach by car. I'm not going to list every road route here so consult Google Maps or an equivalent. There is a no good or bad approach but on occasions roads close due to heavy snow fall.
The approach route has two possible starts, they are located along the same road and are pretty easy to find. At the roundabout (NN 112 742) between Fort William and Claggan take the unclassified road signposting Glen Nevis east and then south-east along the glen following the southern side of the river. The first starting place is located at the large carpark (NN 122 731) just across the river from the Achintee Pub and Distillery (NN 124 730). The second starting point is some 1.5km further on down the road at the Glen Nevis Youth Hostel (NN 127 717).
The ApproachNN 122 731) start by crossing the wooden suspension bridge across the River Nevis and follow the broad track past the Achintree Farm. Continue in a south easterly direction along a well defined path up a gradual climb follows the slope of the hill. After 1km or so you will meet the junction (NN 133 720) where this path joins the one starting at the Glen Nevis Youth Hostel (NN 127 717). If you have started at the hostel then your approach so far will have been short but steep. From the hostel cross the footbridge across the river and head in a slightly rough, but straightish path directly up the side of the hill past two very small plantations of forestry, until the path meets the junction.
From the junction the paths converge and contour around the hillside, crossing two metal footbridges, before following Allt na h- Urchaire/Red Burn towards Lochan meall an t-suidhe (NN 143 727). As you near the head of the valley you will be taken on a short diversion in order to allow soil regeneration on part of the slope. Continue to follow the path in a north-easterly direction for around 400m until you reach a small cairn/wall (NN 147 724), which marks a juncture in the path. Take the left hand turn and follow the path that contours along the western slope of Carn Dearg. The path is well maintained and should be quite obvious. After approximately 500m you will reach another junction. Take the right hand path which, is less well maintained and crosses some pretty boggy ground. This path will take you around the side of Carn Dearg and into the valley of Allt a' Mhuilinn. Follow the path up the valley to the CIC hut (NN 167 722), to reach it you will need to ford a number of streams which can be quite a challenge following periods of heavy precipitation. From the CIC Hut the gully should be obvious, sitting almost due west between the imposing Central Trident and Carn Dearg Buttresses. The beginning of the route is distinguishable from its neighbours in that it is much lower down the mountain side.
The route begins at the relatively prominent opening of the gully. At this point it is quite broad and is located just a little further back from the foot of the Carn Mor Dearg Buttress, and may be made even more obvious by a tongue of avalanche snow and debris. First of all find a suitable place to test the snowpack before you fully commit yourself to the gully, do so even if the avalanche forecast is good as there can be considerable variation between the different faces and even gullies on The Ben. Once you start out the gully quickly narrows and it won't be long before you come across a fork in the route where a large outcrop of rock splits the gully in two. Take the left-hand option around the outcrop and after some 20m you will rejoin the main trough of the gully.
From here there is a relatively long section of ascent enclosed in a relatively narrow space. Climbing is easiest on the edges of the gully, and the side you choose will most likely depend on what path the last avalanche decided to take. In all probability you will find yourself swapping sides a few times during the climb. After a further 100m or so of ascent the gully opens out into a wide 'bowl'.
Follow the crest of a broad spur, indistinct at first, which cuts roughly through the centre of the bowl to the gullies exit. The spur will quickly become more distinct, becoming rockier with a steep drop forming on its left hand side. Follow the spur all the way to the gullies top, there should be a smaller accumulation of snow on it, and it should be easier going than the main depression of the bowl. As you reach the very top of the gully the snow will get much deeper and it may be hard to find a secure path to the rim, so take care. You will probably need to cut a hole through the cornice to escape, which can be tricky if your ice axe and crampons have little to bite onto, and a quick snow belay may provide a little more security. Once you have exited you will be a short distance to the north of Carn Dearg's summit (NN 159 719), from here head in a south-easterly direction around the cliffs of Coire na Ciste and on to the summit of Ben Nevis (NN 166 712) itself, taking care not to fall down any gullies on the way.
The best and quickest descent is via the Pony Track/Tourist Route which will take you back to your starting point. A description of the route can be found on the Pony Track’s route page.
As with any winter climb in Scotland, be sure to wear a good pair of boots (B1 type minimum), carry full waterproofs, hat, gloves and a fleece mid-layer or equivalent. For this route, as with all grade I winter routes, you will definitely need a walking axe, a set of crampons and a helmet. In some conditions, when there is only a minimal accumulation of snow and the route is iced up it may be necessary to use a pair of ice tools and a rope. Although probably, a rope and skeleton rack is quite handy when topping out, as usually there will be a great big cornice right at the top.
Owing to The Ben’s northerly latitude and unpredictable weather, extra precautions should be taken in winter. A survival bag/bivy sack, head torch, emergency rations and even a snow shovel could save your life (or at least some fingers and toes) should you be injured or benighted.
Scottish Mountaineering Club Guides and Publications
Scottish Mountaineering Club - Scotland's national mountaineering club
The Mountaineering Council of Scotland - Scotland's official mountaineering body
British Mountaineering Council - Britain's official mountaineering body
Climbers Club - British national climbing club
Nevis Range - ski centre information for the Ben Nevis area
Visit Scotland - website for the Scottish Tourist Board
Visit Fort William - tourist information for Ben Nevis and the surrounding area
Munro Magic - information of the Munros
The Highland Council - local authority home page
Scottish Natural Heritage - Scotland's statutory body for the protection of landscapes
Joint Nature Conservation Committee - Britain's statutory body for the protection of wildlife
Nevis Sport - a major outdoor shop and mountain centre in Fort William
West Coast Mountain Guides - Avalanche information, climbing conditions and weather forecasts.
Abacus Mountaineering - Climbing conditions
The Scottish Avalanche Information Service (SAIS) - Avalanche information
Mountain Weather Information Servise (MWIS) - mountain weather forecast
Metcheck - 7 day weather forecast
Met Office - Weather from the Met Office
Weather Channel UK - Weather Channel weather
Lochaber Transport Forum - local public transport information
National Rail - UK Train Timetable
Showbus - bus timetables for the UK
Citylink - Scottish bus timetables
Inverness Airport - home page of Inverness airport
BAA Glasgow Airport - homepage of Glasgow airport
Glasgow Prestwick Airport - home page of Glasgow Prestwick Airport
BAA Edinburgh Airport - home page of Edinburgh Airport
Caledonian MacBrayne Ferries - ferry information and timetables for the wet of Scotland
ecossenet: Taxis - list of taxi companies operating in the Fort William area
Visit Scotland: Fort William - an extensive list of accomodation in and around Fort William
The Mountain Bothies Association - information on bothies (mountain huts) in Scotland
Scottish Youth Hostel Association - home page of the SYHA
Glen Nevis Youth Hostel - page of the Glen Nevis YHA
Scottish Independant Hostels - a directory of independant hostels in Scotland
UK Campsite.co.uk - directory of campsites in the Fort William area
Maps and Guidebooks
Ordnance Survey - Britain's national mapping agency
Harvey Map Services - an excellent selection of maps designed specifically for outdoor enthusiasts
Cicerone Guidebooks - guidebooks for people of all abilities
Climbers Club Guidebooks - guidebooks for climbers
Scottish Mountaineering Club - guidebooks and publications for and about Scottish mountains