Little Bits of History

To the Top of the British Isles

Posted in History by patriciahysell on August 17, 2015
Paths up Ben Nevis

Paths up Ben Nevis

August 17, 1771: Ben Nevis is first climbed. It is the highest mountain on the British Isles with an elevation of 4,409 feet about sea level. (Mount Everest is 29,029 feet above sea level.) It is found at the western end of the Grampian Mountains in the Scottish Highlands and is near to the town of Fort William. James Robertson, a botanist from Edinburgh, was in the area to collect specimens when he scaled the mountain on this date. In 1774, John Williams was the first to describe the mountains geological structure. John Keats, the poet, climbed the peak in 1818 and compared the climb to “mounting ten St. Pauls without the convenience of a staircase”. The next year, William MacGillvray climbed to the top only to find it littered with the detritus of former climbers. He would go on to become a distinguished naturalist. In 1847, Ben Nevis was finally confirmed as the highest peak in the British Isles.

Today, the mountain is a popular destination for climbers and about 100,000 people get to the top by a variety of paths. The Pony Track from Glen Nevis is the most popular with about 75% of the climbers choosing that route. It is the easiest ascent and begins about 60 feet above sea level. There are now bridges from the Visitor Centre which permit access from the west side of Glen Nevis. It is a more difficult climb with a steeper path leading to the point known as “Halfway Lochan”. The rest of the way to the top is made by a series of zigzags and switchbacks. The path is maintained, but the natural elements can create problems. While the trip up is more arduous, the trip down is worse and is not recommended for those with bad knees. There are two more paths which require more “scrambling” and are a more difficult approach.

The top of the mountain is made up of a stony plateau covering about 100 acres. The highest point is marked by a cairn and an Ordnance Survey trig point. This triangulation point is like those built in other places where exact coordinate and elevation are known. The point can then be used for calculating many things: land boundaries, roads, railways, bridges, and other infrastructure. Some of the trig points are used by GPS for more accurate positioning. Ben Nevis is the highest summit for over 400 miles in any direction. The next high point is found in the Scandinavian Mountains of western Norway. Also atop the mountain are the ruins of an old observatory. An emergency shelter has been placed up high for those caught in inclement weather.

The ruins stem from a meteorological observatory first proposed by the Scottish Meteorological Society in the late 1870s. These were popular at the time and high elevation study was bringing in great amounts of data. In 1881, Clement Wragge climbed the mountain daily to take reading and so in October 1883, the observatory was finally opened. It ran until 1904 when it closed for lack of funding. While many are able to scale the mountain without issue, it is not always easy and there have been a high number of rescues. There were 41 rescues in 1999 alone with four fatalities. Many of the problems arise due to poor visibility which is common due to the geology which formed the mountain in the first place. It takes two precise compass bearings taken in succession to find the proper place to get off the mountain safely. Foggy conditions complicate matters routinely.

Take long walks in stormy weather or through deep snows in the fields and woods, if you would keep your spirits up. Deal with brute nature. Be cold and hungry and weary. – Henry David Thoreau

He was like a traveller so grateful for rescue from a dangerous accident that at first he is hardly conscious of his bruises. – Edith Wharton

A thin grey fog hung over the city, and the streets were very cold; for summer was in England. – Rudyard Kipling

A mountain seen in the haze of distance must nevertheless look a solid heavy mountain. – Robert Henri

Also on this day: Good Grief – In 2002, the Charles M. Schultz Museum and Research Center opened.
The Eagle Has Landed – In 1978, the first successful crossing of the Atlantic in a balloon concluded.
Quake Lake – In 1959, Quake Lake formed after an earthquake.
That’s Hot – In 1807, a steamship left dock.
Watch Where You Are Walking – In 1896, Britain’s first pedestrian death from a speeding car took place.

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