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Ben Nevis missing a conservation trick ?

Updated: May 14

The Ben Nevis summit shelter, it would certainly need to be an emergency to spend the night in it.

I was recently on the top of Ben Nevis and took a look inside the summit shelter. It’s in an appalling state. Having worked, walked, climbed and skied on the Ben for many years it’s a mountain I love very much, but I have always been aware of its issues with litter, path erosion, and unending struggle with huge volumes of traffic. I do believe though that a great opportunity is being missed, and I am not sure why that is. We have just had a lovely weekend of weather with hot sunny days in the hills and crowds starting the summer season heading up and down Ben Nevis. Yet it is a mountain serviced outside of ‘office hours’ by a closed visitor centre, overflowing bins, one toilet and not a chance of getting a can of coke on a hot day in Glen Nevis. Nor is anyone checking the car park which overflows and could have the till overflowing too. So what’s going on here, and in a place looking to put itself in the running for National Park status?

The summit shelter looking nice from the outside.

According to statistics, an average 150,000 people a year visit this wonderful  mountain. In short, this could easily be a vast source of the funding much needed to facilitate a healthier Ben and Glen Nevis. This is not a suggestion that people should be charged to go up and down the mountain, as this goes strongly against our ethos of access and right for all to OUR mountains and wild places.

It is noticeable from the state of the visitor centre car park, the overflowing bins, the one disabled loo (the only loo open early or late) for perhaps thousands of people, that there is not the drive to cash in on the benefits of tourism here. This is a massive missed opportunity, one which not only would help the mountain but also could provide more paid employment. Imagine the suggestion for a moment that in the Chamonix valley or any other popular mountain town that at the very times when walkers and climbers are getting ready for, or coming down after, a long day in the hills would be the time to shut the facilities and amenities!

Perhaps a low fence or to unsightly? or let the scar get bigger which would you prefer.

Whether people like it or not the mountain track will always attract a huge crowd. Unlike the highest summits of many countries it is amenable to most people with a basic bit of fitness, it requires no access payment and can be done in a day. This means that there will always be a large number of people scaling the Ben who have little interest in mountains for mountains’ sake. It is no use lambasting them on forums about littering or walking off the path etc, or going on about better education. This generally won’t work: where these issues are raised online and education is proposed are not the places where the disinterested look.

So the problem needs to be combated a different way. A few voluntary litter picks and funding sourced from different pots for the upkeep of the path are really token efforts given the scale of the problem. Those who do this work really care about the mountain and do a great job, but to my mind they could be so much better resourced by fully utilising those 150,000 walking wallets. This, I think, might also deal with any bone of contention in Fort William about the town’s money being spent on mountain paths or other conservation efforts in the hills rather than on much needed road repairs and other vital services. The mountain could pay for itself.

My thoughts are not to charge people directly - as I mentioned, that would go completely against the ethos of the UK’s mountains and is something I would never agree with - but instead to raise money indirectly. For example, open the visitor centre early to ensure the maximum amount exposure to the early morning crowd; teas, coffees and bacon rolls etc charged at a healthy price, toilets expanded and charged at a £1 a pee (times that by 150,000 and the cash would soon start to stack up), have a big sign with a some essential items to carry on the mountain such as waterproofs and then sell those in the shop at a healthy premium. Together these things could bring in a large amount of revenue. The visitor centre should be open until 7pm or even 8pm in the evenings to ensure it can sell 150,000 cans of coke and ice creams and collect in all the trekking poles it rented out (just a thought).  In time a larger riverside cafe could be thought about and the visitor centre could advertise guided trips on the mountain or nature walks up the Glen.

I stress these are just ideas and there are probably numerous other ways of raising revenue. The important thing to note is the potential in those huge numbers of tourists. Relieving them of a bit more of their their cash to the benefit of the mountain would in turn, I hope, benefit the town.

Simply by having a fully functioning visitor centre that strictly manages the car park and charges up to £10 a car for a day would soon see huge returns, one that could pay people to work in the visitor centre on a healthy salary. Most people wont mind paying when the whole ‘Ben’ package becomes attractive, but one fragrant toilet for thousands and full bins doesn’t inspire much. The impression that lingers in the car park is that littering is somehow acceptable, and then it happens from bottom to top.

Commercial groups could all sign up to add some pounds per head to go directly into the mountain. I am sure that providers would not mind that, especially if they see revenue turned into useful signs and info boards to inform clients of facts, educating people visually about what we need to protect. Commercial providers are often given a tough time on crowds and numbers but generally they are very careful about not littering etc. After all, providers have a vested interest in keeping the Ben looking good.

A common practice in mountain towns in Europe and elsewhere is to charge a bed tax. That’s perhaps an issue for another post. I have never understood why the idea is met with such resistance here when so many of the hotels, restaurants, guides and instructors are benefiting from the mountains. As an example of shared benefit from tourism: most alpine ski lift systems lose money and make no profit. Instead the wider benefit to the valley is so large that the tourist/bed tax helps pay to keep the lifts going. People in these Alpine areas seem to be doing pretty well by it all, looking in from the outside.

All these thoughts really are aimed at maximising income from tourists in order to keep a wonderful mountain in better state. If you come down off Ben Nevis after tea time you can’t even get your ‘I climbed Ben Nevis’ t-shirt until the following day, by which time you may have to be miles away. It’s cheesy I know but each shirt or cap could could pay for a new paving stone on the path; word  spreads about the better experience and everyone benefits, everyone from chip shop to hoteliers, tour guides and, of course, t-shirt printers!

There’s an employment benefit too. Footpath maintenance and litter clearing could be done on a regular basis by well paid teams, and more staff at visitor centre too.  Now if you tell me that there is no one in Fort William or the local area who doesn’t need a hopefully well paid job, I don't believe you.

I am one of the many who like to see the mountains in their natural state. But what I don't like to see is a mountain in a state. You don't have to go far to find solitude and a wilder place. The ‘tourist trail’ up the Ben should be accepted for what it really is and its income potential maximised. The purists who have a issue with signposts and any sort of structure on the mountain need to put that aside for just this one route up Ben Nevis. Make the experience more enjoyable with a nice path, some info signs and, perhaps navigation posts beckoning people with a cheerful ‘2 hours to go’ say. Better signage might save the mountain rescue team a few callouts in the middle of the night and perhaps even save a fatality.

Greater enjoyment then leads to people pursuing hillwalking further and, hopefully, boosts return visits to Fort William, using the accommodation, taking taxis and buses, buying a meal and filling the outdoor shops to get kitted out (only in the middle of the day though when shops are open; when you come down off the hill they’re all shut!).

An area well worth looking after.

Think of all the positivity when things are thriving. A better Ben Nevis experience could benefit the wider Fort William and Lochaber area. But it is not clear that everyone wants it. The opposition to a National Park suggests tourism is not always met with open arms here. I should think that is largely because it might not be seen to benefit all and that there are more pressing issues in the local community where money should be directed first. But if the mountain could fund itself the two would not clash and the benefits would be all round.

So these are a few personal thoughts on a state of affairs that has rolled along for many years. I certainly care very much about the Ben. The mountain has given me so many marvellous experiences and I wonder how best we can give back to it in a way which would create benefits for all. Of course a reader might ask 'Well what are you doing about it?’. We have joined the Nevis Landscape Partnership as members and will see what we can do going forward.

Perhaps an info board on the door may discourage its misuse.

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