Professional climbers, trail fans and other experts in Scotland signaled a “potentially fatal route” seen as a suggestion by Google Maps, leading the situation to a investigation conducted by Google.

Although not known for it, Scotland is possibly the most mountainous nation in the United Kingdom, with numerous peaks and higher altitude regions serving as attractions for hiking, climbing and other fitness enthusiasts – especially after the pandemic. Covid-19 keep the public away from the gyms, and outdoor options become an increasingly popular option for exercising.

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Image of a smartphone displaying a route on Google Maps, with a finger navigating the screen. Recently, a potentially fatal route was found on Google Maps, and the company is investigating the case.
Route suggested by Google Maps in a mountainous region of Scotland is life-threatening for users, prompting Google to investigate the case. Image: AngieYeoh/Shutterstock

This has turned experts' attention to a potential problem: according to a statement issued jointly by Mountaineering Scotland and the John Muir Trust, Google Maps is suggesting that "trailers" wishing to return to the Ben Nevis Peak base car park, the largest in the country, follow a path that, according to the text, is dangerous even for “even the most experienced climber”, who would have difficulties crossing the route “even with good visibility”.

“Depending on how someone does a search, Google Maps can direct people to the parking lot closest to the top – located in Steall Falls – but the fact is, the Ben Nevis route for those on foot starts at the visitor's center. The John Muir Trust has flagged the Steall Falls route for those who want to reach the summit of Ben Nevis from the centre, but this is commonly ignored.”

In other words: park signage recommends avoiding the Steall Falls region, and following directions back to the visitor center – even if this is a longer route. Basically, the "shortcut" can cost a life.

Ben Nevis is not very high, considering the ranking of the biggest mountains of the world – it is only 1.345 meters (m) tall. But its constitution of steep, sharp peaks makes climbing a relatively dangerous activity, with experienced mountaineers recommending that beginners in the art avoid it due to its higher degree of difficulty. 

In a statement sent to CNN, Google stated: “We built Google Maps with security and reliability in mind, and we are quickly working to investigate this targeting issue on Ben Nevis and its surrounding areas. In addition to using proprietary data and high definition satellite imagery to update the map, we encourage local organizations to provide geographic information about routes and passages through our 'Geo Data Upload' tool.”

The “potentially fatal route”, although under investigation by Google, is still online according to some reports that responded to the news on social networks. That's because Google Maps usually offers search results by mixing elements like artificial intelligence and search volume history in a region. Furthermore, it takes into account user-configured parameters (whether you prioritize distance or whether a path has toll booths or not, for example) – all of which can change the suggested result.

Fortunately, so far there have been no reports of any serious — or even death — episodes from anyone following the trail on Google Maps, so the Mountain View company is probably rushing to solve this problem.

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