G4YSS: BEN NEVIS via the Mountain Track on 8th September 2021
BEN NEVIS GM/WS-001 on 80-40-30-20m QRO & 2m-FM QRP
Based on and similar to WS1 report for 08-09-15
All times BST (UTC plus 1hr, UOS)
Previous GM4YSS (GS0OOO/P) SOTA’s:
10 Feb 2006
23 Sept 2008 inc WS3
19 May 2010
8 Sept 2015 (see post 11607)
My first ascent was with son Andrew on 21-07-1998 via the CMD Arete.
FT817ND HF/VHF/UHF 5W Transceiver without internal batteries
MX-P50M 50 Watt HF Linear Amplifier
Link dipole for 80-60-40-(30)-20m Bands
Four section x 5m home-brew CFC mast with 1m end sticks
J-Pole for 2m-FM
Reserve Rig: Baofeng UV-5R 2-Band, 5W-VHFM H/H (not used)
Sotabeams 2m filter (not used)
One HRB 5000mAh 50C Li-Po (some charge remaining at the end)
One Turnigy 2.2 Ah Li-Po (not used)
Garmin GEKO-301 GPS
MP3 Player with Unitone 'D’ shaped ear-cup headphones
10.8 kg (23.8 pounds) inc. 2 litre fluids (1.65 used) & light hooded fleece
This was the forth of five SOTA activations local to Fort William this year and part of our self-drive 10-night stay at the Highland Hotel. The attractive and well-maintained hotel occupies a commanding position overlooking the town and is no more than a 5 minute walk down the steps to the main shops. The food is great and the staff are helpful, efficient and very friendly. Though the main clientele are coach-bound, there are parking spaces outside for a dozen cars and free Wi-Fi in all rooms. Self-Drive holidays can be booked via Lochs and Glens. The cost for this one was £50 pppn half-board.
For a long-stay activation, the weather for Britain’s highest mountain at 4,408 feet ASL, needs to be favourable. After a soaking on two out of three of the recent practice activations (WS-293; WS-339 and WS-263), a one-day weather window appeared in the forecast. Possible ‘downers’ were the temperatures of 16C rising to 19C on the tops and 25C in the valleys in the afternoon but this could be partly offset by starting the ascent early. The last time I did The Ben saw me walking across the footbridge near the YHA in Glen Nevis at 05:25 so my aim was to try and do the same again.
I had no plans to include WS3 (Carn Mor Dearg) and the CMD Arete route. On the one hand I’d done that twice before and on the other hand I felt that my fitness was not currently up to it. Other considerations were the time factor regarding hotel evening meals, the predicted high temperatures, which I find increasingly debilitating and a desire to appreciate Ben Nevis to the full, this being the final time I would be climbing it.
Since the hotel breakfast would be missed by several hours, a trip to Morrisons was made the day before. Sleep is important but I worry about it and other things sufficiently not to get much. In fact background anxiety about this expedition had been affecting me since my wife booked the holiday a month before. I don’t know why because it should have become almost routine by now. Maybe it was the thought of potential failure caused by unpredictable or uncontrollable events and I have been affected this way for some years now. I long since retired but aircraft design engineers are trained to be pessimistic – a good thing for people who travel in aircraft of course but the price is an unfortunate legacy.
Within reason, everything that wasn’t strictly needed was removed from the rucksack. The normal fleece was replaced with one half the weight and no mountain jacket, overtrousers or mountain hat was included. Not taking the latter turned out to be a mistake but I did have a light cap and a sun hat to choose from.
A GPS route, marked back in February 2006 with its skull and crossbones waypoint icons defining the edge of the North Face, was used again but I added a slight alternative in case of deciding to go straight up the steep path which bypasses the zig-zags. That was not used. The zig-zag path is what used to be called the ‘Tourist Route’ but is now known as the Mountain Track. I’ve also heard it referred to as ‘The Pony Track.’
You can start at the Glen Nevis Youth Hostel which sadly is only around 20m ASL, walking via Lochan Meall an t-Suidhe and up nine or ten zig-zags to the 1347m summit. Keen mountain men find it boring and unpleasantly crowded. True on both counts, the CMD route for one is far superior, and traffic is often heavy. To my mind it’s a means to an end, the purpose being to place a radio station on the summit via the easiest method possible and also have sufficient kit to ‘survive’ without too much discomfort, for as long as the batteries hold out.
The alarm clock was set for 04:30 and I left the hotel twenty minutes later. I was careful to check the main door procedure in advance. A green button must be pressed to open it, then there is a disconcerting ‘click’ 10 seconds after passing through. You just have to hope that nothing essential has been forgotten.
The drive to the Youth Hostel in Glen Nevis takes less than ten minutes and unlike 2015 at the same hour, there were very few cars parked there. Before leaving, 1.2 litres of cold water had to be forced down and the Youth Hostel Bridge was crossed at 05:25 by the light of a headlamp, precisely matching the 2015 start-time to the minute.
The first part of the walk, done today in a windless low mist, is quite steep until you join the path coming from the Achintee car park at a ‘T’ junction. It didn’t take long before I could look down on the ground-clinging mist, which was thin enough to see the lights of Glen Nevis through and by 6am I could dispense with the headlight. The way was deserted as you’d expect but then I was startled by a young man who overtook me, almost running.
The MP3, playing an ancient offshore radio tape that I’d recently digitized, helped to take my mind off the discomfort of a steady but quite steep ascent, unfortunately accompanied by stomach ache and a dripping brow. It took longer than last time to arrive at Red Burn, less than an inch deep today but at least now there was a cooling breeze. It was plain to see that unlike 2015, I just wasn’t up to the short, steeper route so I cancelled it and took on the zig-zags, even then stopping for a few seconds every so often. Lack of sleep and feeling slightly unwell were between them scuppering any chances of a new PB.
A young couple were on their way down having started their climb at 03:00. They carried an expensive looking camera for photographing the Ben Nevis sunrise. Deja vu from 2015 but I forgot to take their photo. It was a relief to stop for a few words and the girl asked what the mast was for and whether this was my first ascent.
Doing my best to motivate a weary body that would have preferred to be in bed and trudging slowly on, it was now full accepted that the 2015 arrival time of 07:53 would not be met. I could see two people climbing above me but never did manage to narrow the gap.
Not far from the summit I met three young women on their way down after having started at 05:00. No matter how early you think you are there’s always someone who’ll beat you. Having summited in good time they were quite bubbly, one offering to act as photographer for me. I in turn took their photo asking if it was OK if they appeared in my report and explaining where they might find it and when (see photos).
There’s a choice of route for the final section where the general gradient has eased somewhat. You can either continue to zig-zag or go straight up. I chose the former, reserving the short-cut for the descent. After that there are a few ‘stings in the tail’ in the form of locally increased gradients and it’s very gravelly. In one place, on a curve the gravel has been banked up to provide a neat raised walkway.
Finally the familiar summit features hove into view albeit still with some distance to go but what a relief it was to see the target at last. Fascinated as always, I stopped to photograph the north face gullies, nervously holding the camera at arm’s length despite a complete lack of snow and ice today, unlike 2006 and 2010.
Climbing up the trig plinth at 08:07, the ascent time worked out at 2hrs-42 minutes, which is outside my best time of 2hrs-28min recorded in 2015. There was no one about apart from a young couple called Ben and Jenny from Somerset who were busy taking their summit pics. My offer of a photo of them together with their camera was readily accepted and reciprocated (see photos).
BEN NEVIS, GM/WS-001, 10 pts, 08:07 to 14:49 BST, 16 deg C at 8am, 19C later, 10 mph southerly wind. Occasional thin low-cloud until 10am, then a mixture of light-overcast, full sun or hazy sun. Haze at a distance. LOC-IO76LT, WAB-NN17, Trig-TP1289. Excellent Vodafone mobile phone coverage.
There was no rush to get on the air, the main reason for climbing so early was to avoid any heat, so I walked around for quite a while trying to select the best possible operating position. The answer is that there really isn’t one. What works for HF may not be too good for VHF, which is of course, best sited at the highest point. The major consideration was keep as low a profile as possible by avoiding most of the many people that would soon arrive.
I settled for a large flat rock in the open and SE of the summit. The rocks there were not at their roughest but neither were they too easy to walk over. The thinking was that people might avoid them but as it turned out I was wrong in that assumption. Once decided it didn’t take long to put up the dipole. The mast and end sticks went conveniently into the cracks and spaces between rocks. If necessary I could have built supports by stacking rocks, as I have had to do in the past on some mountaintops.
3.760 SSB – 9 QSO’s:
What better place to start at this time of day, than on the 80m WAB net freq. which was deserted. A self-spot brought in MM0XPZ Steve for the first QSO of the day (59/ 57). I grasped the opportunity to test the linear after it had been transmitted into a mismatch on the last outing. Steve couldn’t hear me when I dropped to 2.5 Watts, which confirmed that all was well with the amp.
A steady stream of chasers followed: GM0GAV Gavin (who I got to meet a few days later on WS2); GM7NZI Ray; G4IPB Paul; G0BPK Nigel; 2E0FEH Karl; GI4ONL Victor; GW4VPX Allan and M0BKV Damian. Paul, located in Teesdale, reported that he had heard me on 2.5 Watts at 44.
Reports showed that the band was propagating well for the shorter distances but Cornwall was more of a challenge, evidenced by Karl at 44/ 33 and Damien who was 59 at my end but with only 33 coming back. Allan gave me a ‘39’ due to very high noise levels in Pencader. Power was 30 Watts to the inverted vee at 5m AGL centre height and these stations were worked in 14 minutes from 08:10z.
The First Visitor:
A young man in an orange T-shirt came over to satisfy his curiosity. I gave the usual explanation and he turned out to be a fellow Yorkshireman from Bingley, which is not far from where I grew up in Bradford. We compared notes and got on very well. Looking at him I asked if he was a rugby player and I was dead right.
I am probably wrong but going by memory I think his name was Dave and for the requested photo he came over to stand next to the radio setup. I gave him the gen on where he could find his picture. With knees pretty well ‘shot’ after years of rugby, he was really dreading the walk back down. On the latter we wholeheartedly agreed!
7.033 CW – 22 QSO’s:
There was a southerly breeze but it was cold for directly sitting in and I soon found myself shivering slightly. The thinner fleece was the problem but at least it had a hood. I could have added a shell layer but knowing that the day would get warmer eventually, I carried on.
Would this be too early for 40m? That question is answered with a decisive ‘No.’ A sizable pileup developed following a self-spot and before half an hour had passed, 22 were in the log:
GI4ONL Victor; F8DGF Nic; HB9BIN/P Juerg in HB/FF-0101; DL6WT also Juerg; ON4VT Dan; SM4CJM Hans; DJ2MX Mario; HB9AFI/P Kurt S2S on HB/BE-153; HB9AGH Ambrosi; IK2ECC Carlo and F4WBN Christian.
Continuing: EA2IF Guru; M0BKV Damian; IK1DFH Roby; G4TPJ in Tonbridge; S57S Alek; EA2DT Manuel; OK1ZE Vaclav; PA1H Harry; PA5KM Coen; IK2LEY Fabio and SA4BLM Lars.
It was very difficult to hear any single call in the melee, which came out of the speaker as a single tone but tail-ending the massed calling or going off frequency to produce a different tone led to early success for the more experienced chasers. Nevertheless the frantic calling continued for some time.
Outgoing reports were almost all 599 with six of these coming back. The remainder ranged from 549 to 579 with a 339 coming from S57S. Power was 30W again and with ears ringing after such a pileup, I was ready for another short break.
7.170 SSB – 18 QSO’s:
I wasn’t used to this luxury. Self spots that worked every time. Last time I was on The Ben in 2015, I was forced to walk from the QTH to the summit and back several times to get any messages off. Maybe the Orange network was inferior then or maybe they’ve all been improved. Whatever the case may be, I changed to Vodafone in the interim and it worked for me today.
Quickly tuned in and in the log was G0RQL Don (59/ 55), who hadn’t heard me well enough on 80m to make a QSO. After a quick chat with Don a second pileup commenced. Stations worked with 30 Watts:
EA2DT Manuel; EA2CKX Pedro; G0ELJ Dave; SQ9MDF QTH Zawiercie; OK1MRK/P Radek S2S on OK/KR-005; 2E0FEH Karl; G8ADD Brian and 2W0KPN Adrian.
It wouldn’t have been loud enough to be heard on my transmissions but for ten minutes during this session I was being ‘investigated’ by a small radio-controlled helicopter, which kept buzzing around the summit area, frequently stopping to hover above my aerial. The thought occurred to me that if they got it wrong and crashed it, I might be blessed with a second spare Li-Po! I hope someone’s curiosity was satisfied and what a great way to get photos of Ben Nevis’ summit. At other times of the day we were visited by one or two light aircraft and a microlight.
Further contacts on 7.170-SSB: G1GNQ Geoff; IW3AGO Henry; EA1AAP Fernando; DL1WB Lars; G7PTX Paul; G4OIG Gerald; G6INU Doug; G0BPK Nigel and G0UUU/M – my son Phil at Throxenby Mere, Scarborough (55/ 55). Phil was using 100W to a home-brew mobile whip on a triple mag-mount. Reasonable conditions allowed for a short conversation and the chance to pass greetings over to the family.
Reports were quite varied due to QSB which wasn’t really noticed at my end owing to low noise levels. I gave out between 55 and 59 with 52 to 59 coming back. That’s apart from a ‘31’ from SQ9MDF who was struggling but successful. The session lasted from 09:27z to 10:08 taking me through to what I considered to be a well-earned lunch hour preceded by a short walk to free up stiff legs.
10.118 CW - 6 QSO’s:
This session started with a summit-to-summit from Juerg HB9BIN/P on HB/BE157 – 559 both ways. There followed: DL3HXX Lothar 599/ 559; DL1FU Frid 599/ 559; F/HB9CYV/P S2S on FL/VL-030 559’s; DL3HWI Dietmar 599’s and SM5LNE Jan 599/ 559. Power was again 30W (2.5W into the linear).
14.061 CW – 23 QSO’s:
It wasn’t expected and although he could have been considered too close for 20m, Phil G4OBK was the first station to call in. It took a few seconds for me to realize that short skip was actually in operation and this really was Phil. I rushed off a 559 report, probably over generous, but offered before further callers could overpower us. I immediately got back some ‘long dash Rogers’ some ‘FB’s’ and a 339 report, which was probably better considered than the 559 I had hurriedly sent. Sometimes you have to strike while the iron’s hot so to speak and just get some numbers over.
Phil later told me that he’d listened to the 80m-SSB QSO between Victor GI4ONL early on. He hadn’t heard this directly as he was out in his car at the time seeking out a good VHF site overlooking G/LD. Quoting from Phil’s subsequent email…
‘I was talking to Victor on the Bluetooth Mobile on the way, he said you had self-spotted on Ben Nevis on 80m. He worked you while I listened through the Bluetooth.’
Phil hadn’t expected me to be still there when he got back.
After the contact with Phil yet another pileup was dealt with as follows: 4Z4DX Dov; DJ5AV Mike; AB4PP - John in Four Oaks NC; S58MU Milan; 9A2KI Istok; F5DUX; HB9MKV Rolf (a friend of the late Roy G4SSH I think); SP6BOW Augustyn; S56RPJ Janko; EA7GV Jose and Z35F Blagoj.
The pileup didn’t stop there: EA4M Rick; EA5K Miguel; EA4MY Antonio; EA1AAP Fernando; K4DY - Leslie at Hickory NC; OK1FMJ Josef; DF4TD Reinhard; SP9NLI Andy; SM0CUH Ola; OK2NAJ/P Jiri S2S OK/JC-015 and OE6END Endi (Andreas).
Reports were mainly 599’s going out to Europe and 559 to 579 for the DX. I got between 559 and 599 coming back with the exception of a 539 from the USA and a 339 from SM0CUH.
Left on the frequency at the end was someone sending ‘S2S’ several times followed by a callsign. The signal was very weak, perhaps 339 at best but sometimes fading to inaudible. Every single time that he finished the S2S part and started with his callsign a much stronger station would start sending over the top. I had no idea what was being sent by the latter as I was trying to concentrate on the S2S but it didn’t follow the normal pattern of a SOTA chaser.
Time and again I sent ‘S2S Pse Agn’ and my call or ‘S2S Only Pse’ but every time I would get the same clown QRM’ing at exactly the same crucial point. This went on for something like five minutes which is an awful long time to just fail but try as I may his callsign was consistently wiped out in what ended up seeming like a conspiracy.
It didn’t help that the S2S station only ever sent his callsign once and at a speed I wasn’t quite comfortable with. I sent ‘Pse QRS’ but to no avail. I expected the S2S to keep sending and be audible after the QRM stopped but no such luck. If the other op had gone away or the S2S had sent his call several times, I could have worked him easily but the result was stalemate and it was very frustrating. In the end the S2S gave up and even more annoying, the frequency then went quiet.
With power remaining at 30W, 37 minutes was sufficient to clear this particular pileup, not including the fruitless debacle at the end.
14.265 SSB – 6 QSO’s:
When it struck me that there was a lot of CW in the log and not much voice, I sent a spot for the frequency that the EU WAB’ers used to collect squares from me some twenty odd years ago. Sticking with the 30 Watts but expecting the battery to fail at any time, I called CQ SOTA.
First in was EA1DHB Ricardo with 59/ 55, followed by DC8YZ Mike and OE5ODN, who gave his name as Henry. S57ILF Franci called next to exchange at 59/ 55 QSB and then OE6GND Gerd with two 59’s.
The last station on HF but being an S2S certainly not the least, was SQ2RBY/P Greg on SOTA SP/SZ-006 with 33 both ways.
Power was still set to 30 Watts and the battery was still going strong! In fact if that were not enough, this single 5Ah battery more than covered 2m-FM as well (see below).
After taking down the HF dipole I was reconfiguring the mast to take the J-Pole when I spied a young girl heading towards me. Judging by what she said she must have witnessed some of the HF activity as she asked what the long piece of wire had been for. After a full explanation she introduced herself as Brenda who worked in an outdoor shop in the Cairngorms. She told me that she was in her early 30’s and I noticed well kitted out, as you’d expect from someone in her line of work. She had no objection to a photo ‘for my report’ (see below) and she helped by holding the VHF coax out of the way while I got the camera working.
Brenda, Dave and the ‘sunrise couple’ I’d met on the way up were not the only ones to show an interest. I must have had nearly 10 visitors throughout the day and at least two more enquired about my activities later while I was walking down. They all seemed impressed with the countries worked but one young chap assumed that the signal was going via satellite. He got a brief lesson about the ionosphere. Two people thought I was gathering weather information and of course the day wouldn’t have been complete without at least one ‘fishing’ quip.
145.575 FM - 3 QSO’s:
Instead of moving to the highest point like I’d planned, I set up VHF where the HF station had been. That was maybe one or two metres lower in altitude compared with the summit proper but there were just too many people over there and still more overlooking the north face. I wouldn’t have wanted to annoy anybody or get in the way.
After some sky-high VSWR trouble, which was later found to be caused by a broken coax braid near the BNC, I managed to bungee the feeder in such a way that it worked long enough to do the job. I first tried to rig the mast with two extra sections but the pull on the coax brought the fault back. I think the tip of the top whip ended up at around 3.5m AGL.
In case Ray GM3PIL (who I’d emailed) was listening in Nairn, it was worth selecting 145.575 – the Inverness local chat channel for the activation but I first put out a CQ on S20 and also on 145.400, which I was informed is a Glasgow net frequency. I didn’t hear Ray which was disappointing.
The three stations worked either responded to a 145.575 MHz self-spot or just happened to hear me. The first to answer my 5W call was GM4OAS Gordon, 54km WNW in Morar near Malaig. Gordon was 52 to me but wasn’t hearing me too well at 32. Despite the height of Ben Nevis, he apparently rarely gets a strong VHF signal from it.
When I’d worked GM7PKT a few days prior, Robin had talked about VHF being awkward from The Ben due to the large flat top attenuating VHF signals, particularly if you’re not right at the highest point. That added to the fact that there are plenty of surrounding ‘biggies’ and the curvature of the earth to consider, means it’s perhaps not as favourable a takeoff as one might expect. I was query slightly screened to the NW today but was doing my best to make up for that by erecting a higher mast.
Gordon was tail-ended by MM7WAB, Paul, 150 km SSE in Ayr. He was using 5 watts to a 5-ele beam and the exchange was 59/ 57 to 59. Thus he detected QSB on the path but his signal was so strong I didn’t notice. The callsign made it obvious what Paul’s interest was and he was more than happy to collect NN17 and TP1289 from me in exchange for NS41.
What turned out to be the 87th and final QSO of the day was provided by GM4GUG, Robert in Biggar, which is 160 km SE and down in Border country. Initially it was 59 both ways but the suspected QSB was confirmed when reports dropped to 54 or below and back up again.
All three stations were pleased to log WS1 and NN17 was a new square for Paul this year. We aim to please! A final CQ wasn’t answered and after QRT was announced, attention turned to packing up the variety of items scattered across the ‘QTH rock.’ Knowing that the walk down would take at least two hours in very warm conditions, I made sure to drink plenty and have some extra electrolytes to hand, before donning the rucksack.
The Long and Winding Road:
The foregoing almost seven hours had been enjoyable and satisfying if a little uncomfortable. Knowing this was my final visit to this mountain, I didn’t want to leave but after a walk over to the trig and shelter among the many people there, I managed to tear myself away by 14:49.
Experience has shown that this was going to be unpleasant, painful for the feet, and hard on the knees and leg muscles it was a case of grit the teeth and get on with it. I told myself that there would be no stopping and so it was.
Getting down to the lochan was reasonable in the remaining breeze but lower down it was sultry and oppressive. Unfortunately the abdominal pain was back too. There were so many going down that short queues formed when someone at the front hesitated due to the terrain underfoot or what some might consider a steep drop-off to one side. I just wanted it to be over but overtaking was difficult. In the end it was best to just go with the flow. There were people sitting at the sides and dogs panting. I made one of my mast sections into a walking stick by screwing on a flat top that I carry. It helped in getting down some of the bigger steps safely.
Many people were pausing at Red Burn and I was no exception. Some were climbing upstream for the best water to fill their empty bottles. I had provisioned for enough drinking water but just in case, there was one steri-tab in my top pocket. I still needed water though but not for drinking. Filling my sun hat to the brim from a six-inch waterfall and quickly donning it was the solution to the overheating I was experiencing. Nobody even raised an eyebrow but neither did they copy this antic.
By the time I’d done this three times in succession and got thoroughly soaked from head to foot, I began to feel like continuing the descent. The down side to this was that the MP3 player in my top pocket packed-in temporarily and Norman Barrington was cut off in the middle of one of his links.
After false alarms, the signed ‘T’ junction finally appeared and some of us turned left for the YHA. Even this final section seemed to go on far too long but I found just enough energy to climb the elaborate stile on to the river-side footpath.
I didn’t feel like laughing but was forced to after spying an A4-sized notice pinned onto the footbridge with the warning, ‘Uneven Surface – Take Care’! After having come down almost 5 miles of rough stony track and lumpy paving (not complaining of the latter – it’s good) with thousands of potential stumbles on offer, this advice did seem more than comical.
It amazes me how human beings stay upright but I managed it long enough to get down the mountain and over the bridge. Shambling my way over to the car, I threw in the rucksack, hit the aircon button and sat back. It’s over, thank goodness. Never again!
9 on 80m SSB
22 on 40m CW
18 on 40m SSB
6 on 30m CW
23 on 20m CW (Best DX NC-USA)
6 on 20m SSB
3 on 2m FM
Ascent & distance: 1,341m (4,300ft) / 15 km (9.2 miles) - my figures
(‘Walk Highlands’ give 1,352m / 17km; probably from Achintee?)
Alarm clock: 04:30
Left hotel in FW: 05:00
Walking from Glen Nevis (YHA): 05:25
Ben Nevis Summit GM/WS-001: 08:07 to 14:49
Rtnd Glen Nevis: 16:56
Ascent: 2hr-42min (Best 2-28 in 2015)
Descent: 2hr-7min (Best 2-5 in 2015)
Summit time: 6hr-42min
Car to Car: 11hr-31min