Google Maps Route on Ben Nevis “Potentially Fatal”

Hiker at a chasm, NW Ben Nevins
Photo: Brian Blades/Shutterstock

Despite their seeming technical superiority, mapping apps are a crude way to get around in the mountains. They’re fine for getting you from A to B or planning a day hike. Typically, you won’t cliff out.

But a wrinkle in Google Maps is leading hikers on Scotland’s Ben Nevis to do just that. Troublingly, a recent slew of confused visitors has ended up “injured or worse.” The situation has prompted the John Muir Trust (JMT) and Mountaineering Scotland to warn about the dangers of relying on technology to navigate in the alpine.

Heather Morning, Mountaineering Scotland’s Mountain Safety Adviser, said: “[It’s] easy these days to assume that information on the internet is all good stuff, correct, up-to-date, and safe. Sadly, experience shows this is not the case, and there have been a number of incidents recently where following routes downloaded off the internet have resulted in injury or worse.”

Google search: What’s happening on Ben Nevis?

Hiker on Ben Nevis

Photo: George Hodan

“The suggested Google line is potentially fatal.”

Reportedly, the issue for Google Maps-oriented hikers on Ben Nevis starts with tapping the “car” icon. The app then directs people to the Steall Falls car park. To be fair, that’s the closest parking lot to the summit as the crow flies — the keyword being “flies”. From there, it indicates a dotted line that leads straight to the summit of Ben Nevis.

According to Morning, flying is what you might have to do to traverse the route. In reality, the only thing that the dotted line does is point directly at the peak — over terrain that’s perhaps best described as “technical.”

View from Ben Nevis Summit

View from the summit of Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in the UK. Photo: Shutterstock

“Even the most experienced mountaineer would have difficulty following this route,” Morning says. “The line goes through very steep, rocky, and pathless terrain where even in good visibility, it would be challenging to find a safe line. Add in low cloud and rain, and the suggested Google line is potentially fatal.”

At just over 1,300 meters, Ben Nevis is the United Kingdom's tallest peak.

Even in summer, grassy swards lead to bare technical rock. Photo: Wikipedia (creative commons)

Winter increases the importance of proper route-finding. Photo: Shutterstock

Hiking guide: What can be done

Google has issued a response to press coverage on the Ben Nevis hazard. The statement says, “We built Google Maps with safety and reliability in mind and are working quickly to investigate the routing issue on Ben Nevis.”

At ground level, the JMT has installed signage at Steall Falls to redirect Ben Nevis’s hikers back to the Visitor Centre. Unfortunately, it reports, visitors often overlook the new signs.

Signage from Steall Falls

Signpost from Steall Falls walk-in. Photo: Shutterstock

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Mountaineering Scotland and the JMT prescribe an approach that gets back to the basics. “We would like to advise anyone thinking of walking Ben Nevis, or any other mountain or hill, to cross-check information on a map, or consult a local guide,” they say.

Sometimes, you just can’t beat the old (mountain) school.

UPDATE: The BBC reports that Google Maps has updated its route to direct hikers to the visitor center. It “insisted its walking directions on Google Maps did not direct people to dangerous routes.” However, it is now reviewing other routes in the area and said it “welcomed feedback from mountaineering groups or organizations.”


About the Author

Sam Anderson

Sam Anderson

Sam Anderson takes any writing assignments he can talk his way into while intermittently traveling the American West and Mexico in search of margaritas — er, adventure. He parlayed a decade of roving trade work into a life of fair-weather rock climbing and truck dwelling before (to his parents' evident relief) finding a way to put his BA in English to use. Sam loves animals, sleeping outdoors, campfire refreshments and a good story.

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4 months ago

Seems like not fixed yet? (Assuming this is what you’re talking about.) I (and clearly Google) never imagined someone would treat that dotted line as actual instructions.

4 months ago
Reply to  Chris

Natural selection at play

4 months ago
Reply to  Alex

Whole new category in the Darwin awards right there.