It’s time for the annual blog post, despite all my good intentions last year to be more frequent. Ah well. Maybe this year. Anyway, here goes:
Last week my sister Shuna and I had what she has now dubbed An Awfully Big Adventure – so big that I feel it entirely merits the capital letters.
We climbed Ben Nevis.
Now, when I say “climbed” I do of course mean we ascended the mountain using the well-trodden tourist path rather than by donning crampons and dangling on ropes. And well-trodden it was – on the day of our ascent, it was like Sauchiehall Street on the Saturday before Christmas. Even as we were taking our final steps down in the evening, there were people heading up, including some who obviously thought that a quick zip up and down the Ben was a good idea for their evening jog.
As it was, this busyness turned out to be a blessing. But more of that later – let’s start by addressing the question of why two wee, middle-aged, non-hill climbing wimmin were up there in the first place.
My sister is heading to Portugal in September with some friends to walk the Portuguese Camino de Santiago and has been in training for this event for a few months. Her preparations up to now have been a daily walk of at least 5km in her local area combined with regular longer walks along the lovely Northumberland coastline. Her training also has included thrashing about in a swimming pool doing a thing called Hydrofighter, which seems to be a cross between MMA and the doggy paddle. Ben Nevis was to be barometer of both how far her fitness has come along and how manageable the Camino would be. The logic was “if I can do this, then I can do that.” Or something.
In my own case, I was looking for a challenge in order to raise money for my friend Paula’s Braveheart Alzheimer’s charity. Last year I had raised a goodly sum by doing a triathlon – an entry-level one, that is, and not one where my result was likely to spread worry and alarm among the Brownlee brothers. I do enjoy a walk in the hills and having managed Ben Lomond last autumn, I thought well why not try the next obvious one?
Now as I have indicated, Ben Nevis was hardly an unexplored wilderness. On the day of our climb there must have been easily 200 people up and down. This included people of all ages, sizes and fitness levels. There was even a handful of dogs. What then was so special about our ascent? Essentially it was because we are not the typical hillwalking types and each of us has our “disadvantages” – my sister has very dodgy knees and I am unable-to-stand-even-on-a-table shit-scared of heights.
So of course it all made perfect sense to attempt to get up the UK’s highest mountain.
And so to the day itself. The first decision to get on to the mountain early “to avoid the crowds” was slightly hampered by the simple fact that the loos in the visitor centre didn’t open until 8.30am so we had an unscheduled extra half hour sitting in the car. This proved to be our first Very Good Decision (again entirely merited caps, there) of the day. Nuff said about the reason though.
We had also taken the decision to start at the visitor centre rather than the youth hostel as the extra kilometre walk seemed far more preferable than the shorter but very steep climb up from the latter. This too was a VGD.
We had our first rest about two kilometres into the walk just as we were rising out of the tree line. At this point the terrain had been mixed but manageable with no particularly steep or scrambly bits. The rest stop was justified on the basis that it was necessary to begin offloading some backpack weight, and relocating the 100g of a bar of Victor James Butter Tablet was as good a start point as any.
The next section leading up to the Halfway Lochan was a bit more challenging in terms of steepness and the fact that it was mostly stone steps. While this was not such an issue at this point, it obviously needed to be noted that coming down might not be so easy. It was also a point where we noticed the stiff breeze that was now blowing, but which fortunately was coming at us from a direction which was not a hindrance. We had said before we even started that weather – mist, rain and in particular wind – would be deal-breakers as neither of us was experienced enough to cope with these in addition to the terrain.
We had the first part of our lunch when we reached the lochan and the rest allowed us to get our mojo back a bit. It also allowed us to use the “facilities” afforded by the geological feature we have now named Bog Rock. By this point the sun had come out and it was relatively warm.
On we went to discover that the REAL half way point – the Red Burn cascade – was a only a few hundred metres further on. So of course we had another rest while I got my arm very wet refilling water bottles with the clearest and tastiest fresh water I’ve ever sampled.
The path away from the Red Burn was again relatively easy and the splendid sunshine encouraged us even more.
And then came the zigzags.
Designed of course to avoid a straight steep ascent to the upper part of the mountain, these were our biggest challenge by far and at the time seemed endless. I had a bit of a wobble quite soon into them as I found myself at a point where the path was narrow and there was a near-vertical drop at the edge. This had been my worst nightmare and had we not found some descenders who told us that it was only for a little distance, I think that might have been curtains for me. At this point the sun was really quite warm and any mist that was visible at the top was short-lived, so we soldiered on. Again, apart from a couple of scrambling bits that were short, it was mostly steps and scree.
After what seemed like an hour and a half (and which, in fact, it was) we eventually came out on to the start of the last walk up to the summit. While it was still sunny with occasional overcast moments, it was noticeably colder and we were both glad that we’d gone for the layers tactic. We were doubly glad that we’d packed gloves, even if we had put them to the bottom of our backpacks thinking they’d be the last thing we needed.
Shuna had found this section a little challenging as her feet were slipping on the scree, so I was slightly ahead. A group of younger (and fitter) girls greeted me (it was a feature of the event that everyone was so friendly, which again was to prove very handy later on) and said it was a mere five minutes to go. And when I looked up, sure enough, there was the summit. I asked them to pass the message on to Shuna which they duly did and this gave us the push to get up the final section.
The summit was slightly misty when we got there but visibility was perfectly good for the last tramp to the trig point. And then the sun came out which allowed me to get rid of my last remaining worry – that I would topple off the edge and make a quick descent down Five Finger Gully. And so we stumbled across the last remaining scree to take obligatory summit shots. Ridiculously, I was more wary of going up the trig point cairn than I’d been anywhere else on the ascent.
We had made it!
And then came the down. Or, to keep in the tradition of capping important bits – the Down.
In theory this should have taken us less time than the ascent, but that was not to be the case. Although the zigzags didn’t seem as long distance-wise on the way down, the fact that it was mostly steps meant they were long in terms of time taken. I had not used my poles on the way up but I certainly needed them on the descent. By the time we reached the Red Burn cascade we were both pretty tired and sore of limb. But by the same token it was now really quite warm and the wind had dropped altogether. I had already shed the shell jacket I’d needed for the summit and was beginning to regret having put a base layer on. After a decent rest during which we were able to look down our noses at the father and two sons group who were getting fretful about drinking the burn water without purification tablets, we set off again knowing that the next section was on fairly flat path. Well, relatively so. Shuna’s knees had held out remarkably well on the ascent, but they were now beginning to scream at her in several languages, and the left one in particular was telling her that she should have taken up something less strenuous as a challenge. Like tractor-pulling.
Now despite us both having bivi-bags and extra clothes and despite it being not forecast to drop below 12C, any notions of spending a night on the mountain were soon dispelled, not in the least because there was absolutely nowhere to go to the loo, but also because we had a good two hours of warm daylight left and then if push came to shove, head torches to get us through the twilight. I managed to find an old piece of tubigrip at the bottom of my backpack which held her together enough to get down the last step section. I didn’t tell her at the time that it had probably been lying unwashed in that and previous backpacks for a good ten years. Ah well, it was still probably less manky than the clothes we were wearing.
I mentioned earlier about how friendly everyone was on the mountain. This came into its element as we approached the last couple of kilometres. We were down at the treeline now and boy it was warm as we heading straight into the sun and there was no wind at all. I had taken some of the stuff out of Shuna’s backpack into my own but it was clear that her progress would be made considerably easier if she had no load at all. Then along came a party of four chaps, who asked if we were doing okay. I bit the bullet and asked if they could take Shuna’s backpack down to the car park and stash it under the car for us. This they did and I have no doubt that their offer of carrying her too was genuine. I almost regret the photo opportunities missed through our polite declining of that, but on reflection it was probably the best thing to do. However, we will be forever grateful to those chaps so if anyone knows Ally Stephen of Fort William Smelter, then please tell him he is a hero. Ironically, when we got back to our guest house, we discovered they were staying in the property next door.
We got back down to the car park just as the light was dipping. The trip took us around 13 hours which is far more than we’d expected. But we did it and despite a stiffness of limb for a couple of days afterwards, we both survived. But isn’t it interesting that neither of us has any photos from the descent?
Is there a moral of the story? Mine is quite simply that you will never know what you can achieve unless you actually try it. And of course we were hardly trailblazers, seeking out unexplored wildernesses. And yes, plenty of folk have done this ascent in significantly shorter a time than we took. But it was out of the ordinary for us and against the odds in terms of our respective lack of “hillworthiness” – her knees and my feartieness where heights are concerned. That is what made it the challenge for us, and I think, despite a few wobbles (both figurative and literal) we rose to the challenge admirably.
It was also that decisions need to be taken that might seem a bit tough at the time but are probably for the best. Getting down, however slowly, was our only option; even a warm night on the bare mountain was not. So apologies if I nagged a bit, and I do so fervently hope I didn’t at any point sound like our mother in doing so.
Final thoughts for this post? They are as follows:
Note to Self:
1. When hillwalking, don’t carry so much stuff; make do with the camera on your phone instead of taking even the wee point and shoot – it is a kilogram more than is needed
2. You will not need so much food so don’t take it.
3. Develop a technique for taking some of the strain off your calves and thighs
4. Make sure your backpack is packed with the heavier items at the bottom so you are not top-heavy. It doesn’t actually matter as Sod’s Law means that the stuff will rearrange itself so the the items you actually need are the ones at the bottom, even if they had been at the top when you packed.
Further Note to Self:
Forget absolutely all the above and just don’t do this again. Ever.
Or borrow this from the Ben Nevis Distillery: