The UK's 7 toughest hiking routes
From Scafell to Snowdon, the UK’s mountains are brimming with technical trail and serious scrambles. Here are seven that will leave you quaking in your boots.
When it comes to vertical ascents, the UK has more challenges than you might think. From the heights of the Highlands to the Lake District and Snowdon, there’s plenty here to keep the avid adventurer occupied. No need to don your best climbing gear, just (relatively) straightforward hikes that require a hell of a lot of energy.
To help you plan your next challenge, here are seven of the UK’s most difficult scrambles. Some you will have heard of. Many have claimed the lives of previous explorers. All deserve your respect. All will push you to your limits.
Be extremely careful in cold or wet conditions. If you are ever in doubt as to whether you could complete a climb, go with a guide.
1. Welsh 3000s
Where to start: It’s usual to begin by spending the previous night on top of Mount Snowdon before making your way along the region’s mountainous spin to the distant peak of Foel-fras in the north. Do it this way and you’ll have the benefit of having rested after your first peak. If you don’t want to rough it from the off, the Royal Victoria Hotel in nearby Caernarfon offers affordable, 3-star comfort and is just a 30 minute drive from the base of the mountain.
What you’ll see: Tolkein-esque rock formations steeped in mist, steep scrags, large and rocky plateaus. And lots and lots of other mountains – some of which you’re still to scramble up. But, should the clouds clear, and your legs allow a brief respite, you might even be able to enjoy the picturesque island of Anglesey (complete with a lighthouse) and more views of the North Wales coast before continuing your tortuous trek.
Why it’s so difficult: The challenge is regarded as one of the toughest in the country and is usually attempted in June, which means you’ll have the Welsh summer sun to contend with (although, thankfully, you’ll be above the range of the midges).
The distance can be deceiving too, with some estimates putting its distance closer to 35 miles than 24, due to the winding, scrambling nature. In short, you’re not just facing one uphill battle, but 15 in a row. The current fastest time stands at 4 hours, 20 minutes. However, for a first timer, it's best to slow down somewhat.
2. Devil’s Ridge Mamores
Devil's Ridge is the sticking point in the Ring of Steall, a testing circuit among the Mamores, located just across The Glen from Ben Nevis. Less touristic than the Glen Coe range, it nevertheless boasts four Munros, with the Devil’s Ridge the toughest traverse of the lot.
Where to start: Start in the carpark at Achriabhach. From there you’ll be in a great position to tackle the 10 mile, 12-hour Ring of Steall in a clockwise route, taking you to the summits of An Gearanach, Stob Choire a Chairn, and Am Bodach before the final negotiation across the Devil’s Ridge and up to the final Munro of Sgurr a'Mhaim.
What you’ll see: With four summits above 3000ft, this challenge has some pretty spectacular views, especially over the Nevis range and the western highlands. On a clear day you might even be able to see the ridge of Aonach Eagach and Ben Nevis’ well-known Carn Mor Dearg Arête.
Why it’s so difficult: The Devil’s Ridge is a 1km undulating ridge with more than a few sections of exposed and jagged rock. You’ll have to tackle the ridge’s own peak, the 900 metre Stob Choire a' Mhàil, at its midpoint, too. As with any high scramble, the risk of rockslide, falling and other injuries are high. Plus it’s worth looking out for the steep northern slopes and the two corries ending in abrupt cliffs overlooking the steep Nevis gorge below.
3. Aonach Eagach
Glen Coe’s Grade 2 Aonach Eagach ridge is considered the narrowest ridge on the British mainland and the country’s toughest horizontal scramble – pretty daunting stuff considering it sits at 3,127ft. What’s more, it’s also one of the UK’s most dangerous accident black spots. In other words, only pros need apply for this one.
Where to start: For an east-west traverse, park in the carpark just off the A82. From there you’ll find the path to Allt-na-reigh near the head of Glen Coe, which will take you up Am Bodach and on to Aonach Eagach.
It’s also worth organising transport at the end of the trip, otherwise you’ll be faced with a six mile hike back the way you’ve just arrived from. Make sure you have a designated driver, though; celebratory post-hike drinks at the Clachaig Inn, Ballachulish, are all-but obligatory.
What you’ll see: Beautiful views of Glen Coe and some of Scotland’s finest, most rugged terrain. You may also experience a stomach-churning sense of awe when you reach The Pinnacles, a 500m stretch of exposed rock, requiring some committed scrambling.
Why it’s so difficult: One false step can be deadly. And that's not being hyperbolic. It’s worth pointing out again that the ridge is both narrow and long, meaning there are few egress points, and few ways for help to reach you should you get into trouble. The initial climb down from Am Bodach is a renowned dangerous spot, as is the choice to descend into the deceptively difficult Clachaig Gully, rather than continuing along the ridge and thus down onto easier ground.
4. Broad Stand, Scafell
For those not up on their Lake District lore, Mickledore is a narrow 2755ft ridge connecting the mountains of Scafell and Scafell Pike. Broad Stand is a scramble shortcut up onto Scafell from Mickledore and, while a great challenge, has claimed the lives of numerous hikers over the years.
Where to start: The easiest way to reach Mickledore (and thus, Broad Stand) is via the valleys of Wasdale and Eskdale. For the best, up-to-date information on the route, contact the local National Trust office before setting out.
What you’ll see: Imposing rocks. It’s believed the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge once climbed Broad Stand, describing it like so: “I began to suspect that I ought not to go on, but then unfortunately tho' I could with ease drop down a smooth Rock 7ft high, I could not climb it, so go on I must and on I went. The next three drops were not half a foot, at least not a foot more than my own height, but every drop increased the palsy of my limbs — I shook all over, Heaven knows without the least influence of fear."
Why it’s so difficult: Five walkers were rescued from this spot last summer – just 24 hours after another hiker had fallen to their death. The main dangers are the fact that the rock is very slippery, and can retain snow and ice weeks after it has melted in other locations. This makes for poor handholds.
Along with sometimes poor visibility, it can be a recipe for disaster. Consider avoiding in winter, taking a rope, a friend and, if this doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, think about taking the Lords Rake and West Wall Traverse for an easy(ier) alternative route.
5. Coire na Tulaich
Considered one of the most spectacular mountains of the Scottish highlands, Buachaille Etive Mor is perhaps the most photographed of all the 3000ft peaks. The Coire na Tulaich, however, is infamous as one of the most dangerous hiking routes in the UK. With 700 metres of ascent over four miles and a seriously high avalanche risk in winter, this isn’t one to be taken lightly.
Where to start: The mountain is located at the head of Glen Etive in the Highlands but you’ll want to base yourself in the nearby village of Glencoe. Before heading why not get a good, strong flask full of coffee from Glencoe Cafe? On the way back from your six hour adventure to the top of the mountain, village shop Crafts & Things has all your souvenir needs sewn up, too.
What you’ll see: Vast highland vistas, evocative of that final act in Skyfall - well, minus the explosions and Judi Dench. Funnily enough, it’s exactly where those scenes – and certain scenes in Braveheart – were filmed.
Why it’s so difficult: Coire na Tulaich naturally has all the usual mountainous hazards, but as mentioned above, it’s the steep section’s avalanche risk that takes this from simply ‘very difficult’ to ‘OMG difficult.’
And if that doesn’t phase you, it’s worth pointing out that Coire na Tulaich has been the site of several fatalities over the years, with thousands of tonnes of snow coming down the mountain at once. Those wishing to put safety first should keep abreast of the daily reports and forecasts from the Scottish Avalanche Information Service.
6. Cairngorms 4000
In the heart of the Cairngorms National Park stand five 4000ft Monros – some of the highest mountains in the UK, no less – for you to tackle over the course of two days. You’ll discover high plateaux looming over forbidding cliffs and immense corries as you go up against the might of Cairn Gorm, Ben Macdui, Cairn Toul, Sgor an Lochan Uaine, and Braeriach.
Where to start: The town of Aviemore is easily accessible by road to both the north and south and makes a great place to set out from (the Carn Mhor Bed And Breakfast is a particularly affordable place to lay your head either side of the trip).
When it comes to tackling the summits, there are many routes to the summits, but to really push yourself, start with the Grade 1 Fiacaill Ridge scramble up to Cairn Lochan and Cairn Toul's North Ridge.
What you’ll see: 21 miles of hiking will see you ascend and descend Lairig Ghru, a valley carved out by glaciers millennia ago, and which now marks the Cairngorms’ north and south divide. The plateau is suitably arctic in its terrain and altitude, too making this an other-worldly escape among the clouds.
Why it’s so difficult: The Cairngorms is home to the UK’s greatest concentration over mountains over 4000 feet, meaning this is serious scrambling territory. The slight mercy is that these five mountains are arranged in a circular route, meaning you should be able to stand the 2400m of elevation gain. It’s not impossible to cover the 21 miles in 24 hours, just as long as you don’t expect to emerge unscathed, unbruised, and un-blistered, that is.
7. Crib Goch
This cheeky Welsh arête is arguably the most difficult scrambling route to the Mount Snowdon summit. Its name means ‘red ridge’ in the local language. Although by the time you’ve made it up there your language will likely be more blue than red.
Where to start: Start in Pen-y-pass. If you get in early, enjoy the cafe, public toilets and YHA (hostel) before setting out to the red ridge. You’ll also finish at Pen-y-pass with the whole thing taking a fit person (with some experience of climbing) around 3.5 hours.
What you’ll see: The route is considered one of the most exposed and difficult scrambling routes in the country, so you’ll likely just be focusing on hands, feet, and rocks over its three mile duration and 763 metres of climb.
Why it’s so difficult: The ridge has been likened to walking along the middle of a steep roof and, naturally, only those with a head for heights need apply. The scramble is Grade 1, meaning a guide may be a good option for those without experience/a death wish. Oh, and for your own sake, give it a miss in the winter, won’t you?
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