One of the more useful advancements in technology over the past couple of decades has been the introduction of online mapping. Thanks to frequent updates, live traffic tracking, and intelligent routing, tools such as Google Maps, Apple Maps, and even the venerable MapQuest have become a part of our daily lives.
But keeping such massive and complex systems up to date and functions properly requires a lot of work. Technology companies employ large teams of cartographers and engineers to keep their maps current and providing the best navigation options possible. Despite their best efforts however, things can still go sideways from time to time, often with weird and dangerous results.
Case in point; hikers and climbers in the UK have discovered that Google Maps may not be the best resource when it comes to choosing routes to the top of some of the country’s more popular peaks. In fact, the suggested route on one Scottish mountain has been deemed “potentially fatal,” sending inexperienced and unprepared trekkers on a dangerous and frightening route.
Climbing Ben Nevis
Google’s errant map directions for hikers took center stage recently after it was revealed that the site’s instructions for reaching the summit of Ben Nevis were incredibly unsafe. At 4413 feet (1345 meters) in height, the peak is the tallest not only in Scotland, but the entire UK, making it a top draw for amateur and veteran mountaineers alike. In fact, it is estimated that more than 100,000 people reach the summit each year, most taking the so-called “Pony Track” to the top.
While that hike is a relatively easy one, there are numerous others available, some of which are much more difficult and demanding. There are even a few technical routes that British and Scottish mountaineers have used to hone their skills for decades. Those routes are detailed in a number of climbing guide books for anyone looking to explore them further.
Google Maps offers some decidedly different instructions when hiking to the summit however—ones that aren’t found in any guide book. The suggested route is extremely direct, but that’s what makes it so dangerous. As there isn’t actually a trail to be found there.
A Dangerous Path
Google’s directions for climbing Ben Nevis recently came to light thanks to a bit of investigation by the John Muir Trust. After several groups of climbers ran into trouble using the provided instructions for the trek, members of the trust conducted the map search themselves. What the found was a route that is described as “highly dangerous, even for experienced climbers.”
The route in question directs climbers to drive to the Upper Falls parking lot to begin their ascent. This makes some logical sense in that it happens to be the closets parking lot to the summit of the mountain. There is just one problem—there is no trail from Upper Falls to the top of Ben Nevis. At least not an official one.
The Google Maps route is actually a direct line heading up the peak’s south slope directly for the summit. This is the most direct way to get to the top, but it is also steep, rugged, difficult, and very dangerous. As a result, inexperienced hikers have often found themselves in a precarious situation. The dangers are often compounded further by rain and fog that frequently surround Ben Nevis.
A Glitch in the System
Scotland’s most well-known and iconic peak isn’t the only one that is subject to poor route finding by Google Maps. Searching for paths up other mountains in the the region reveal similar issues when it comes to suggesting routes. In the case of An Teallach for example, the suggested path actually goes over the edge of a cliff.
Google says that it is investigating this matter and hopes to find a solution soon, but it doesn’t take much of sleuth to determine why these routes are being provided. It seems that the route-finding algorithm in Maps is doing its job a bit too literally. When many inexperienced hikers conduct a search for Ben Nevis, they type in the name of the mountain and click on the car icon to get directions. This includes turn-by-turn navigation to reach the summit, which of course isn’t reachable by car.
Instead, the driving instructions take hikers to the parking lot that is closest to the top. Once there is no more road to follow, the trail turns almost directly upwards, making a beeline for the summit. As far as Google is concerned, it doesn’t matter if there is no actual trail there to follow.
Hikers looking to stay safe on their outdoor journeys should probably avoid using Google Maps for their beta. While the system is fantastic for navigating to and from the locations that we want to explore, it probably isn’t the best option for actual route finding. Instead, look for local guidebooks or search online resources, where you’ll likely find more detailed instructions and information.
Sites and apps like AllTrails and Cairn are great resources to have at your disposal. They provide details on real trails, including information on length and difficulty, plus user ratings, and insights too. That’s the kind of beta that can be invaluable, even for an experienced outdoor enthusiast.
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