UK’s Highest, Ben Nevis

SOTA summit: Ben Nevis  GM/WS-001

Activation Date: September 1, 2022

Unique: 251st

Call sign used: MM0SNA/P

Portable operation: Yes

Radios: Elecraft KX3 and Yaesu VX 8G

Antennas: LNR 40/20/10 Trail friendly end fed and J Pole

Band/Modes used: 40m 20m SSB and 2m FM (all voice)

Operating highlights:

  • ~50 shortwave contacts across UK and EU
  • Spectacular views
  • UK’s tallest is in the “bag”

Pack weight: Approximately 25 lbs

Drive: Fort William, Ben Nevis visitor center parking lot

Hike:  ~10 miles R/T with 4,400 ft ascent along an incredible trail. 

Hike and AZ profile:

  • Trail is legendary and labelled the tourist route
  • AZ is huge and very rocky
  • GaiaPro track here –> Ben Nevis

Recommend: Absolutely

Solo operation: Yes

Cell Coverage: Good O2 coverage 

Photos: Copyright Paul Gacek 2022

I’ve stumbled into the clouds that thicken and then break to reveal three large man sized cairns. The opaque view of a door wide open, many feet above me entering into a dark and uninviting chamber is like something out of a Steven King film. Ahead, the trig point is perched eight feet above me on a pile of rocks. The metal frame, rusted and padlocked together adds to the oddness of this place that I currently share with no-one

This isn’t Burning Man but the rather the surreal peak of Ben Nevis, the UK’s high point very early on a September morning.

The peak’s hut open door does not beckon me in
A padlocked frame, rusting atop Ben Nevis and to what purpose?
Presumably raised up to accommodate snow in the winter, a hut , a trig marker and a cairn

I push up my mast that now seems to be rid of that pungent odor that set in having never properly drying out after recent wet activations.

I’ve been plagued with problems recently.

My simple VHF role up antenna that has been a gem seems to have netted zero contacts on the last three activations. Putting this down to time of day and local mountains blocking my signal, I sally on until it dawned on me that maybe it is broken.

It was and today my jerry rigged repair seems to work. I contemplated bring just this small VHF radio. Others have successfully nabbed four plus contacts. I reach down to Glasgow and over to Mallaig. Silence, I call, listen, get colder and eventually give up.

My second realization of failure was my KX2. I had dropped it off my desk a few weeks back and optimistically believed it worked as it powered up, appear to send and made all the right noises. Hart Fell was a shortwave (HF) struggle and I’m now convinced its generating a virtually imperceptible signal. Weak to start with and now essentially useless.

Ben Nevis isn’t a jaunt in the park. The trail might be manicured, contoured and everything a tourist might want, but it’s still 4,400 ft ascent over 5 miles and with that pack weight is a consideration. Hiking Scotland year round can offer anything from winds, to rain, to snow, to bright sunshine within the same day and Ben Nevis is a notoriously capricious peak that can appear sunny at the trailhead only to be engulfed in a blizzard once you arrive.

A variety of clothing seems sensible. Fluids to drink seem essential. Something to nibble on can revive the body and the ten essentials (first aid, compass,…) may heal or save the body and so the weight goes up and up. With all of that I really debated about an HF rig given my ultra lite KX2 was hors de combat but as a well trained Boy Scout leaving little to chance I brought one.

The ground below me seems to occasionally rock from side to side as I deploy my fishing rod with guy lines and a flimsy and less than optimal bit of wire pretending to be an antenna.

My less than optimally deployed antenna on peak of Ben Nevis

My near solitary journey up hauling my gear found me creating my own rain forest that despite being captured by wool had me progressively getting colder and colder while putting my antenna up. A down parka goes on, a rain shell, a woolly hat, another hat. Hot tea goes in, a chocolate power drinking but I simply can’t reverse or stem the shakes. People are calling, lots of them. I can’t write, I can’t read what I write, I try to correct my pencil scratchings and they keep calling. I have to stop, get up, swing my arms. move around, rock across the rocks again and settle back in.

Operating over almost two and half hours I net almost 50 contacts across Europe from Greece to Portugal and over to Finland and points between. Its a great haul for me plus 6 coveted contacts with other people like me up a mountain with a radio.

A decent haul of around 50 contacts across the UK and Europe

I had fretted about parking. A run thorough the parking lot the afternoon before revealed zippo free spaces. At 5:15am, I had the choice of any of 80 spaces bar three. Civil twilight, that time before sunrise that the sky begins to lighten wasn’t far off and my headlamp lit the bridge, the trail, the stile and all the nuances of this exquisitely built and maintained trail.

Three teenagers pass me heading back to the trailhead sharing that they set out at 2am. Wow.

Civil twilight at the trail head

The sunrises, lights the surrounding hills and reveals my first glimpse of Fort William the the sea lochs and land lochs all around. It’s breath taking.

Oh can you see by dawn’s early light…..
Westward ho

They pass me and I ask for a snap. He obliges and hands my phone to his partner and she takes it very seriously with various backgrounds and orientations. Thank you, strangers.

The solitary author.

That’s it, no one else goes by and I have a solitary and I think unique experience of ascending Ben Nevis, tourist free with sunshine vistas.

It’s taken me 2 hours and 59 minutes from my car to the set of the Steven King film that is the collapsed volcanic peak of Ben Nevis. I’m happy.

Looking west, Ft William to right, sea loch with Mull to left
Manicured trail with hikers ascending mid day
Lunch time arrivals almost at the peak

I’m getting impatient or maybe it’s boredom. Descents are always hard on my knees and I’m 30 minutes from my car.

She passed me by and I commented that she’d picked up her pace. Sharing that her friends had released her of companion duty reveals a US accent.

“Where you from in the US?, I ask. “San Francisco Bay Area”, she responds. As a twenty year Bay Area resident I’m intrigued. Sebastopol is a great town in Sonoma County, most famous as the home of Schultz, the Charlie Brown comic author. Frequent visitors in the 90s, my wife and I always enjoyed it as a destination with its mix of historic California bungalows, Hippy feel and that extra sense of safety having declared it self a “Nuclear Free Zone”.

She works for FaceBook and we talk about possible changes in the way people interact with her given FaceBooks perceived influence on politics and all things divisive. She’s on a hiking tour. I share my passion for mountain tops and radios. She laughed saying that explains why my pack was so big. It was all welcome and made that last 30 minute disappear in a heart beat.

“Do you have flights?”, I ask staring at the 22 options. “No but you can get thirds”. I look at the details and share she’s gone over to the dark side. So many West Coast IPAs. She laughs and pours me my first three beer tasters.

I believe in rewards.

22 choices of fine Scottish beer
Decoder ring and I even tried #12, Cider…very nice

11 comments

  1. Landscape photography and SOTA fun… I like that very much 😁😁😁

    Regards CIPRIAN POPICA 73 DE YO6DXE

    Website: ciprianpopica.com / dxexplorer.com Phone: +40 769 407 571

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  2. Thank you Paul for a lovely description of your hike and the photos. Some of us have to hike vicariously through others like you. Keep on keeping on my friend.

    Dave K8WPE since 1960

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  3. Making an old man get off his butt from the coffee shop to scrounge his SOTA pack together and dream of some lofty, remote peak here in Arizona … You are a devilish provocateur, Paul. (More power to you!) K7EDS

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  4. I used to travel to Scotland often to play American folk music, and have often passed Ben Nevis. I never had time to venture an upwards hike(not that I’d be capable) so I very much appreciate the photos. Now I know what a “cairn” is, and know the origin of the name of the Australian city Cairns! de Saul W3WHK

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  5. Sitting in a pub in Copenhagen having a pint (or two!). Wonderful, riveting description of your ascent. Excellent writing. Great weather, great pictures!
    2 hours 59 minutes later I too have summited. Time for me too to head “home “. Thanks for the company Paul. Cheers.

    Like

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