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So, which of these two UK mountains is the toughest to climb?
Is it Scotland’s (and the UK’s) highest peak, Ben Nevis? Deep in the Highlands with soaring cliffs and a summit that is often hidden in the clouds? Or, is it Snowdon? The tallest mountain in Wales and the former training ground of Sir Edmund Hillary, whilst preparing for his successful ascent of Mount Everest in 1953?
On balance, I’d argue that Snowdon is the easier of the two. Why? Well, it’s a substantially shorter peak at ‘only’ 1085m compared to its more northerly neighbour, Nevis, at 1345m.
It’s not quite as simple as that, though is it? Clearly, size matters in many aspects of life, not least mountains. But, like other aspects of life, there are a multitude of additional factors that come into play that determine which is the winner.
Let’s take a look at the distinguishing features of each of the mountains in turn. We’ll weigh them up and then come to a conclusion as to whether Ben Nevis or Snowdon is the harder climb.
How long does it take to walk up Ben Nevis?
A rough guide is that the full return route (the total time for climbing and descending) is between 7-9 hours. With an approximate time of 3.5-4.5 hours to reach the summit. These times assume that you follow the main Mountain Track from the Glen Nevis Visitor Centre.
But they also assume a number of other factors as well. You’ll need to be physically fit and able, and have plenty of experience in climbing up (and down) steep hills. At 1345m, Ben Nevis is roughly ten times taller than the London Eye (at 135m), so it’s no walk in the park. If you’re not used to tough hikes then this will be a very challenging climb indeed.
It also assumes that the weather is kind and this is somewhat unlikely to happen. The first time I climbed Ben Nevis we were incredibly lucky, had blue skies all day, and arrived at the summit in short sleeves to have our packed lunch and admire the views. However, the weather is typically foggy (more than 1 in every 2 days), wet (over 4m of rainfall a year) and very windy (gales are frequent on the summit). All of which can slow you down and hamper progress.
The Mountain Track itself was designed as a route for ponies to reach the summit observatory (and was originally called the Pony Track). Because of this, it’s a well-constructed path, mostly stone, with relatively shallow gradients to accommodate plodding ponies. It’s a well-marked route although you should never attempt to climb the mountain (or any other) without a map, a compass, and the skills and knowledge to use them to navigate.
Until the turn of the 21st Century, this track was also called the Tourist Route. It was dubbed this because it was the main route to the summit and the one that most walkers used. However it was felt to give the wrong impression about the climb – that it was easy, and you could potter along it in your Bermuda shorts, with a pair of flip flops on your feet and a pack of sandwiches bought from the local garage in your pocket. The name change to the Mountain Track was felt to be a useful reminder to the unwary and ill-prepared that this was a tough mountain climb.
In short, whilst rewarding, Ben Nevis is a formidable mountain to climb and shouldn’t be attempted by anyone who isn’t prepared physically, or carrying the right equipment, or having map reading skills (plus map and compass). On a lighter note, another relatively hard aspect of Ben Nevis is actually finding accommodation whilst you’re in the area – Fort William and the surroundings are popular with hikers and other tourists alike and beds get booked up fast. Take a look at my Ben Nevis accommodation guide for more information on this.
How long does it take to walk up Snowdon?
Let’s turn our attention further South to Wales and Snowdon.
Situated in (and donating its name to) Snowdonia National Park, Snowdon is an iconic mountain to climb and one that’s tackled by over half a million hikers every year. But, how does it measure up to Ben Nevis? Is it a harder climb? Or is Ben Nevis King Of The Mountains?
First up, the basics. Snowdon is 1085m tall. That’s around 260m shorter. However, that doesn’t tell you the full story height-wise because the Mountain Track to the summit of Ben Nevis starts at around sea level, so you’ll be ascending the full 1345m from sea to top. Whereas with Snowdon, with the typical start point being Llanberis (more in a moment on this), the starting altitude is around 100m. So, in terms of metres of ascent, Ben Nevis is much tougher:
Ben Nevis = approx. 1345m climbing
Snowdon = approx. 985m climbing
As a rough guide, the 9-mile route (total for there and back) of the Llanberis Path to the summit of Snowdon is 6-8 hours return. That’s substantially shorter than the Ben Nevis Mountain Track – there’s far less ascent and the path is good underfoot (it’s also a ‘pony track’, though originally used to transport tourists to the top).
This is the longest of the routes up Snowdon and, because it was originally used for ponies, it’s generally a gradual incline.
There are a number of other paths to the summit which are shorter but more challenging. If all of these sound like more than you can handle, then don’t forget that there’s a mountain railway that will whisk you to the top. And there’s even a café waiting for you when you get there.
This all probably makes it sounds like Snowdon is ‘easy’. Gentle path that doesn’t ascend too far. Train with comfy seats if you’re not feeling up to a stroll. Café to recuperate with a cuppa and slice of Victoria sponge. And yet every year hikers get into difficulty on its slopes and there are injuries and fatalities. In fact it’s been claimed that Snowdon is even more dangerous to climb than Mount Everest – in 2009 there were six deaths on Snowdon with five on Everest. If you decide to climb any mountain, Snowdon or Ben Nevis, you should beware of the dangers and be aware of the fitness levels, gear, and knowledge you need.
Remember the Scout motto: Be Prepared
When Baden-Powell coined this phrase early in the 20th Century, he wasn’t necessarily thinking about a hike up Ben Nevis or Snowdon. But it absolutely applies to climbing UK mountains. Always be prepared.
Take the right gear with you – warm and waterproof layers, good hiking boots, food and drinking water
Have the knowledge and skills you need – is your fitness level what it should be for tackling a mountain? Can you read a map and compass and navigate in poor weather conditions?
Check the weather – are the conditions appropriate for your climb?
Remember that the mountains will be ready for you to climb when you’re ready. Don’t climb ill-prepared.
So, how hard is Ben Nevis compared to Snowdon? Which is the toughest summit to scale?
As we’ve seen, both mountains are dangerous and neither should be attempted when the conditions are wrong or you’re not ready to climb.
Taking everything into account, my opinion is that Ben Nevis is generally harder than Snowdon. That’s down to the metres of ascent and the altitude you reach at the summit. The caveat is that on any given day, depending on the weather, either of the mountains could be harder than the other.
Be prepared and don’t take risks.