Ben Nevis : 'The Climb'

Fort William Travel Blog

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Starting out... the boyz survey the landscape ahead.

Beep-beep-pirrrreepBeep-beep-pirrrreep..’ the alarm vibrates beneath my pillow. “Mooooan!” :(

 

Time to get-up-and-go.  Whew!  Man, my head hurts!!! Still, no time to think about sore-heads, we’ve got a mountain to conquer! :D

 

A quick freshen up session and some alcohol soaking croissants and head-sorting coffees later, and I feel surprisingly ready for action.

  The lads are on the phone from the B&B and Kenny, Doshant and I soon join them.  Fellow hotel human-wreckage from the night before have grimaced through their hangovers and wished us well for our adventure.  The weather’s cool, but looks promising for a bright day later on… we’re in luck!

 

We head off on a meandering, forest walk through Glen Nevis, the country-side vale that ‘The Ben’ mountain peters out into at its base.  It’s a pretty and relaxing start.  10 minutes into this very early stage in the walk and what’s NOT so pretty is the state of Doshant and I.

The 'Half-way Loch' at about 2,000 feet up Ben Nevis.
  Having been two of the more enthusiastic boozers last night, it’s fair to say that we absolutely reek of alcohol at this point.  Our bodies recognising the physical ordeal ahead of them have opened up all their pores, and the stink of rum evaporating from out skins is frankly killing any wildlife within a hundred yard radius (including our climbing pals).  Quite anti-social… “but hey, no problems from the Spring midges for us...they're stayin' well clear!”.  This is gonna be tougher than I thought, and by the time we reach merely the Ben Nevis Visitor Centre the general health of the group (excepting hardened hill trekking Scot Kenny with his 17 kilo backpack on his back) is being revealed in alls its paucity as a sizeable chunk of the 10 of us are lagging significantly behind already… we’re not even anywhere near the base of the true ascent yet!

 

We buy our maps and guides, take on water and chocolate, catch our feeble failing breaths and head off.

  Apparently it’s a good coupla hours walk before we even reach Ben Nevis proper so it’s gonna be a looong day.

 

Ben Nevis is the highest, yet most traversed mountain in the whole of the British Isles and sits at a proud 4,406 feet (1,344 metres or count ‘em 853 Weselbys!!!! for those of you used to my own, more personal scale of measurement).  An estimated 100,000 ascents are made up ‘The Ben’ each year, as provided you avoid the ‘true mountaineers’ ascent of the scary-as-heck-looking North Face… the way up, whilst physically very, very demanding is well marked, wide and safe.  The Ben has even, waaaaaaay back in the day, apparently been tackled by a man in a car!

 

The best part of the first 2,000 feet whilst not steep at all, for me (and many of us) proves the most challenging part of the climb, both on the way and on the way down (for different reasons).

The 'Half-way Loch' seen from a little higher up.
  The day is turning pretty sunny and warm although it’s still early days, and walking up what effectively is a large relentless stone-hewn staircase for this first large portion of the climb is soon taking an extreme toll on my alcohol dehydrated body.  My head feels light, my legs hurt and my heart and chest are suffering.  I grew out of asthma luckily in adolescence however the old feeling of a trachea shrunk to the diameter of a halfpenny and lungs that feel like a couple of sandbags suspended from my tonsils is returning!  Not even Snickers bars (my faithful trek-snack from the Lake District) are pulling me around… and I have never realised my little body could exude SO MUCH sweat… absolute waterfalls of the sh*t.  Doshant, surprisingly is fairing a lot better… possibly spurred on by the fact that if he doesn’t get up to the peak and back down in 6 hours he’ll miss his bus home to Glasgow and connecting flight back to Washington DC tomorrow… with this motivation in mind, he brushes off his hangover, and he and Kenny – my hostel cohorts – have soon left me and the boys for dust.
Sunny, who has fallen behind re-emerges from the mists in the distance.
We will see them one more time, some hours later on their return descent as we struggle on up.

 

The remaining, original gang are rapidly spreading out along the trail as everyone finds their own point of physical (dis)comfort.  Despite feeling like a reanimated, desiccated corpse it’s clear even after 20 minutes that I’m gonna be part of the ‘Quick Gang’ when the Birmingham Boys soon are effectively split into two groups based on capacity to just keep walkin’.

 

At approx 2,000 feet the way momentarily flattens and broadens out into a sizeable grassy plain to the left of the main pathway, and here is found the ‘Half-way Loch’, a still expanse of water sat almost surreally, trapped for all time, half-way up the mountain with nothing better to do than reflect the sky back at itself.

Our first sight of snow shelf! "Yikes!"
  It also offers a welcome moment of respite for the already weary legs of Gurps, Danny, Sunny, Raj and I (aka: the Quick Gang).  Avi, Kieran and Co (aka : The Slackers) are already loooong outta sight who-knows-how-far behind us.

 

As we ascend higher we begin to enter a light misty atmosphere, as although the day is improving in climate and sunlight all the time, at not even midday yet at these heights the mist is not yet lifting or being burnt away from the summit.  Whilst adding to the slightly eerie atmosphere of our increasingly precipitous climb, it is a shame that more panoramic views of the landscape around us are beginning to become obscured.

'The Souls Ascend in to The Light' # 2
  To be honest my legs are screeeeeaming so hard in pains and aches by now, that moving forward is becoming a heavy one-step-at-a-time with eyes down to the craggy, rocky ground ordeal.  I figure in about another 600 feet's time I will have almost entirely lost the use of my right calf muscle, which is numbing from the repetitive upwards strain.  The five of us stretch out, and then concertina back together over a distance of several hundred yards along the trail, various members of the gang bursting briefly ahead, then stopping by the side, whilst the others sproing back into place behind them like a retarded human ‘slinky’ spring trying to make it’s way up the mountain.

 

In keeping with the popularity of the climb and the fine weather on the day there has been an awful lot of human traffic making the climb today, which brings a nice sense of communal adversity to proceedings, various groups of all generations joking, coaxing and commiserating each other onwards and upwards.

More happy, successful and weary climbers celebrate their achievement.
  It’s only at about 3,500 feet up that we finally begin to meet the early birds (or fit people) coming back down the other way.  This leads to repeated depressing reports of just how far we have to climb… my right thigh would now cry if were that it had eyes!  One lady catching a breather on the way back down, is a seasoned Ben walker and warns us that there is still substantial snow approaching and on top of the summit and that we needs be very careful in the mist not to stray too far one way or the other owing to ice/ snow shelves that don’t reveal if there’s rock beneath ‘em or not.  She also looks at birthday-boy Danny’s shoes (the only one of us fool enough to attempt the climb in a pair of shallow Addidas pumps) and says straight out “he’ll never make it through the snow in those”… oh well, time to crack on!

 

Eventually we reach the aforementioned snows… the mist is now down all around us with very limited lines of sight in any direction.

  This is one my favourite (yet, most scary) moments of the ascent.  The rock and scree just suddenly gives out and turns into a white, blank expanse ascending ahead of us. People mill about, congregating at the beginning of this ‘new level’ pondering what’s ahead, and then every now and then someone plucks up the courage to trudge on into and up the snowy sheet. This makes for a fabulously surreal moment, as these near-silhouetted bodies just ascend and literally disappear into the pure white of the snow and mist.  I feel I am literally watching souls ascend into the light of the unknown; of Heaven?; merging with the Infinite… or some such moment of collective epiphany!  All that remains is for us to join them… and this we do, falteringly, slipping and sliding up the slope, trying to follow the footprints in the snow of the ‘souls’ who’ve preceded us on the journey.  Danny is ahead of me to begin with, but is soon far behind, his Addidas flooding with snow and ice and causing him to slip back 1 foot for every 3 that he climbs.
A mini-adventurer continues his climb to the bolt-hole.
  It’s his birthday though and he will NOT be defeated!  I wait for him at the top of this first, most challenging snow hill, and we celebrate our relief in typical Neanderthal Man-fashion by relieving ourselves at over 4,000 feet behind a Cairn of stones marking a safe(r) route along the summit trail.  Believe me a 4,000 feet p*ss makes for high altitude bliss!

 

Again, making sure to put my footsteps precisely where I can see those have trodden before in the snow is my chosen method of survival.  My assumption runs that as long as the footsteps don’t suddenly run out and stop then neither will my lifeline!  Occasionally the snow claims us up to near the knees in some of its deeper pockets, but we finally arrive at the abandoned, broken down meteorological research station that resides upon the very top of Ben Nevis “Hooooooray!”.

Me amidst the crumbled remains of the old weather observatory.
  Success!

 

The mist is still down all around us, but the sun is clearly belting down strongly up above as the air around us positively glows with its efforts to break through.  It remains fairly chilly though.  One by one we clamber up the final pile of rocks, upon which sits the ‘Trig Point’ marking the true summit of Ben Nevis.  Everyone smiles and congratulates each other… and in true modern-life stylee, immediately everyone’s frantically arsing about with their mobile phones, looking to see if there’s half a bar of reception so we can all make our highest-ever altitude phone calls to friends and family. Amazingly I forget to get someone to actually photograph me standing on the Trig Point…so you’ll just have to take my word that I made it there!.

My favourite find of the day... amidst all the snow, ice and grey-stone scree and rocks, randomly someone had left this brightly painted little pebble-scene of a sunny beach with the sea and a parasol. (item was not removed)
.. I DID! “Honest guv!” ;D

 

Ben Nevis originally ascended (so the records go) around the latter 18th Century was not surmounted much by man prior to the latter half of the 19th Century, the concept of mountain and fell climbing as a ‘leisure’ activity in itself not really catching on until this time.  Mostly scientists keen on the meteorological study possibilities that such an altitude could provide utilised the outlook and between 1883 – 1904 there was a manned observatory. It is that the broken down stone walls of this little abandoned weather station that mark your arrival at the summit.  Chief amongst the ‘functioning' remains is a ‘safety’ bolt hole cabin, also mounted on a large rock pile… this has a metal door and contains within it emergency bedding, shelter and some modest food supplies should anyone find themselves stuck on the summit unable to carry on or trapped by serious weather conditions.

The 'Quick Gang' travelling down meet the 'Slacker Crew' still on their way up to the summit.
  It seems part of the ritual to climb up and peep furtively inside this little bolt-hole.  Rumour has it there are several bottles of whiskey within for a restorative, body-warming dram, for travellers caught in a storm… I somehow doubt this having done enough first-aid in my time to know that there is no single worse thing you can do when trapped in the cold that imbibe alcohol… what those nasty little St.Bernard dogs with the “oh-so cute” little mountain rescue rum-kegs around their necks were doing all those years, I really do not know.  I only stare into the dark, rug-strewn recess and think “I wonder how many couples, having checked the coast is clear, have sought to claim the ‘I’ve shagged on the highest point in Britain’ badge by being frisky at 4,400 feet?”.

 

Anyway, whether the legs like it or not, it’s time to head back down.

Raj demonstrates what he dubbed his "four by four technique"... basically crawling down a mountainside on your arse-cheeks!
  I had almost entirely lost the use of my right leg by the time we made it up here, but thankfully opposing muscle groups will be required on the way back down so I have a chance of making it down without the need for amputation… today anyhow!

 

As we walk back across one of the snow fields, the mist suddenly swirls and moves a few more tens of yards away revealing a spooky-as-heck ice shelving to the right, where the floor just gives way to god-knows-what kind of oblivion below.  Some of the guys want to walk over to the very edge and peak over, but with the lady’s warning ringing in my ears about the fact of not knowing whether these shelves have a rock foundation or not I pretty much forbid the gang to go anywhere near anything so risky.  I will later be made to feel slightly bad when a member of the Slacker Crew tells us “how cool it was to lie down on the ice-cliff and look over the edge”… but frankly, not a risk I’d be willing to take were I there again.

Pretty mountain waterfally thingamy.

 

We are pretty soon out of the mist cover, as it is long gone midday now and it’s finally beginning to dissipate… by the time the Slacker Crew arrive at the summit (2 and a half hours later than us!) they have a perfect blue-sky view from the summit to survey the country for miles around “B*stards!”.

 

The trek down is beautiful with the sun setting off these incredible, verdant panoramas before us, and it’s a pleasure to stop every now and then by the path side for refreshment and just stare in awe at the scenery.  The walk down is incredibly, incredibly tough on the knees, and without my cheapo-walking stick from The Lake District I probably would no longer have knee caps.

Gurps rewards himself with his solitary ciggy of the climb.
  Sunny, one of the more exuberant of the Quick Gang is nagging on and on about the potential benefits of taking ‘short cuts’ back down the mountain side but for obvious reasons we’re all not so keen (i.e. the 999,995 other people that do this walk each year who don’t feel the need for short cuts must have their reasons right?).  But in the end, like appeasing a pestering child we agree and end up on our arses and knees in a 1,000 foot rock scree scramble of frankly mind-numbingly idiotic unsafeness, slipping and sliding down The Ben.  People look on from ‘the path’ at us in amazement or shock or dismay or a mixture of all of these… I’m not sure which as they’re too flippin’ far away from us to tell by now!  But we survive…”Phew!”  That though is the one and ONLY permitted short cut, and it’s a leisurely if knee-grinding stroll back down past the Half-way Loch and onwards to the base of the mountain from there on.

 

The five members of the Quick Gang collapse on the ground at a Youth Hostel near the foot of the mountain.  The average time to go up and down The Ben is about 6 hours.  It has taken us 8 and a half hours!!  The Slacker Crew will not be back down until gone 21.00pm, it having taken them OVER 11 HOURS!!! Our legs are shot to pieces so we order a taxi to carry our carcasses back into town, the driver regaling us with the apparent true story of a retired Scots Fireman who trained and ran up and back down The Ben SIX TIMES in 24 hours for charity!!!  The mere thought of this feat short-circuits what remains intact of my mind, and it joins the body on the scrapheap of our so-called achievement for the day.

 

 

After a shower back at the hostel I collapse on Falkirk in what can only be described as a raging delirium of fatigue.  I have NEVER ever EVER felt this tired before!  I feel as though I have been drugged… it feels like crabs are tap-dancing on my tendons, muscles I never knew I had are moaning there final farewells before expiring only hours after we were first introduced and I can feel bruises dancing beneath the surface of my skin ready to coalesce into a multi-coloured patina of pain when I later regain consciousness.  This occurs some hours later and only long enough for me to get dressed “ouch ouch ouch!”, limp into town for a curry and a climbing post-mortem with the boys over a beer before a welcome return to much needed slumber.

All done in. The Quick Gang collapse and await the arrival of their taxi at the base of The Ben... "Wait, shouldn't we have ordered an ambulance?!"
  Tonight there is most noticeably a monster snorer in the room, but hopefully tiredness will overwhelm me neverthele….zzzzzzzz…….

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Starting out... the boyz survey th…
Starting out... the boyz survey t…
The Half-way Loch at about 2,000…
The 'Half-way Loch' at about 2,00…
The Half-way Loch seen from a li…
The 'Half-way Loch' seen from a l…
Sunny, who has fallen behind re-em…
Sunny, who has fallen behind re-e…
Our first sight of snow shelf! Yi…
Our first sight of snow shelf! "Y…
The Souls Ascend in to The Light…
'The Souls Ascend in to The Light…
More happy, successful and weary c…
More happy, successful and weary …
A mini-adventurer continues his cl…
A mini-adventurer continues his c…
Me amidst the crumbled remains of …
Me amidst the crumbled remains of…
My favourite find of the day... am…
My favourite find of the day... a…
The Quick Gang travelling down m…
The 'Quick Gang' travelling down …
Raj demonstrates what he dubbed hi…
Raj demonstrates what he dubbed h…
Pretty mountain waterfally thingam…
Pretty mountain waterfally thinga…
Gurps rewards himself with his sol…
Gurps rewards himself with his so…
All done in.  The Quick Gang colla…
All done in. The Quick Gang coll…
The Souls Ascend in to The Light…
'The Souls Ascend in to The Light…
The Ben Nevis Trig Point.
The Ben Nevis Trig Point.
People stood upon the true summit…
People stood upon the 'true summi…
The hidey-hole built as a climbers…
The hidey-hole built as a climber…
Gurps takes an opportunity to hit …
Gurps takes an opportunity to hit…
Back down the snow slide.
Back down the snow slide.
This is why you DONT take short …
This is why you DON'T take 'short…
Danny and his mashed-up Addidas pu…
Danny and his mashed-up Addidas p…
A view down to Glen Nevis from Ben…
A view down to Glen Nevis from Be…
Yey!... the obligatory Stevie-sh…
"Yey!"... the obligatory Stevie-s…
Fort William
photo by: genetravelling