No Permits planned for Ben Nevis

I really should have known better.

A journalist of my acquaintance rang me to say he’d been chatting to the John Muir Trust about Ben Nevis.

Clearly on the scent of a story he told me that 160,000 people had climbed Ben Nevis last year, putting an enormous amount of pressure on the mountain.

We chatted a bit about the effects of so many boots on a footpath like the one that runs up the hill from Achintee and he asked me if I thought a permit system should be introduced?

I suggested the tourist path on Ben Nevis was certainly unique and a permit system could be introduced if it was felt the current numbers were unsustainable but he was very keen to quote me saying a permit system should definitely be put in place. I had a strong sense I might be mis-quoted.

Later the newspaper’s features editor rang and asked me to write a covering piece about the Ben. I did that and with regards to permit systems I wrote the following:

“Numbers definitely have to be reduced, but I’m not sure how a permit system could be policed. Not only would it contravene Scotland’s much-vaunted access legislation, as laid down in the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003, we should really be encouraging folk to live a healthy and active life, not discouraging them.”

Once the pieces were published I did what I should have done immediately after my conversation with the journalist. I got in touch with Nathan Berrie, the JMT’s Conservation Officer on the Ben, to find out how serious the Trust was about introducing permits.

In short, they weren’t serious about it at all.

As it turned out my journalist friend was apparently more concerned about 160,000 people climbing the Ben every year than the owners, John Muir Trust.

“Thanks to the Nevis Landscape Partnership project and heritage lottery funding, the Ben path is very much fit for purpose and is capable of containing the movements and actions of 160,000 individuals, “Nathan assured me.

The summit of Ben Nevis

“I was slightly concerned during my conversation with the reporter that he would also quote me as saying that a permit system may need introduced. I had to make it very clear that the John Muir Trust did not feel it is necessary.

“There are many reasons for this, primarily due to the ethics of the John Muir Trust which many forget was initially established as a trust to maintain access to Knoydart. The JMT would not want to be seen limiting outdoor access.

“Furthermore, thanks to the Nevis Landscape Partnership project and heritage lottery funding, the Ben path is very much fit for purpose and is capable of containing the movements and actions of 160,000 individuals.”

Nathan told me that his over-riding concern was with litter and irresponsible behaviour due to the increased visitor numbers, and that a large number of visitors to Ben Nevis see it as a challenge rather than “a day out in nature.”

A cloud-capped Ben Nevis from Corpach

As the UK’s highest mountain Ben Nevis attracts many thousands of challenge and charity walkers, often combining it with ascents of Scafell Pike, the highest hill in England, and Snowdon, the highest hill in Wales. Such ‘Three Peaks’ charity efforts raise millions of pounds annually, but are thought to have a detrimental effect on the mountain environment.

Others take on different challenges. The annual Ben Nevis Hill Race is immensely popular, wheelchairs are frequently carried and pushed to the summit, and the late Don Whillans once rode a motorbike to the summit.

Early last century a Model T Ford was driven, pushed and carried to the top of the mountain. In 2011 a team of 60 volunteers carried a dismantled replica of a Model T Ford to celebrate the centenary. 

Such is the madness associated with our highest mountain but beat this. Two fell runners from Fort William once carried a piano to the summit. Its remains were later discovered buried deep within a cairn.

Isn’t it strange that charity walks are not organized on Beinn Macdui, our second highest mountain, and no-one to my knowledge has attempted to carry a piano to its summit? The crazy stunts are reserved for the highest hill, and the highest hill only.

Taking it slow: exploring the magnificent scenery below the great North Face

So how best should the mountain be protected? I asked Nathan Berrie this very question and he had no hesitation in answering something that he has clearly given a lot of thought to.

“It might be good if those who use Ben Nevis for commercial purposes donated a small percentage of their income to the Nevis Partnership towards upkeep of the mountain. A good example is the Ben Nevis Ultra race, which donates 1% of their profits to JMT to mitigate any environmental impact they may cause.

“We work closely with them and they voluntarily undertake an independent environmental impact assessment of their race. Granted this is because their race takes places on unmarked routes and sensitive habitats but nevertheless it is a good example to others who use the mountain for commercial purposes.

“If a donation is not possible perhaps these groups may consider including a litter pick into their walk up Ben Nevis – an approach which I believe would be very good PR for the commercial groups and benefit the mountain at the same time.”

It seems we are actually a long, long way from limiting numbers on Ben Nevis but nevertheless its iconic status puts special pressure on footpaths, and footpath work is expensive.

On Royal Deeside for example, car park fees (ringfenced for footpath repair and maintenance) bring in about £50,000. That sounds a lot but last year over £1.5 million was spent on footpath work in the area, but that ‘donated’ money helps the Deeside Access Trust raise grants or matched funding, so it actually goes a long, long way.

However, Nathan has his own ideas about dealing with the problems. He calls it ‘slow adventure’.

“This might have a big part to play in the upkeep of Ben Nevis,” he told me. “If we educate individuals and promote slow adventure more widely we might be able to create more mindful visitors who are there to experience Ben Nevis as a wild place rather than a mountain to be conquered.

Ben Nevis from the neighbouring summit of Carn Mor Dearg, linked by a fine arete

“Educating people is key to this, and while many feel it is a lost cause I believe that if we are not educating people we are only treating the symptom and not the illness.

“Although the issues of litter and irresponsible behaviour are increasing JMT do not believe the situation is critical. Through the help of local groups, mountain guides and especially our dedicated volunteers Ben Nevis is regularly monitored and litter is managed.

“It is debatable whether this approach is sustainable with more visitors each year so education is key in creating more responsible behaviour. The challenge of finding the best channel for education is critical – ironically, social media which is often blamed for an increase of visitors to remote locations might have an important role to play.”

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