I left you on the train headed to Glasgow.
Arriving at night, in the rain, I led my colleague off towards the hotel with extreme confidence which turned out to be misplaced. It’s been some years since I lived in Glasgow and my knowledge of the inner city layout has faded somewhat so that it the excuse I’m giving for leading my colleague in the wrong direction. But we got to our hotel in the end, and once we got settled, met other colleagues staying elsewhere for a late dinner and a drink.
Although my original plan was to take the early train to Fort William, we took the midday train instead, in part to travel with our other colleagues and in part to avoid hanging about in Fort William with our luggage. So my planned solo time on the train looking at the scenery didn’t quite happen.
We saw a rainbow as we were leaving Arrochar; had a chance to stretch our legs in Ardlui while we waited for a late running train coming in the opposite direction; and then the rain came down as we approached Crianlarich and entered Rannoch Moor. Yes it was all still beautiful and wild but in my mind, I’d planned doing this trip alone, so although I enjoyed the genial company of my colleagues, it wasn’t quite the trip I’d planned.
Arrive Fort William, check into hotel, have dinner, etc. I’ll spare you the boring details. But we had to stay up until 10pm when Mike, the leader of the guiding company we were using, came to give us a briefing. There were three planned routes in decreasing order of difficulty: Tower Ridge, the climber’s route; Carm Mor Dearg Arête, a ridge scramble (if you search for images of CMD arete you will see how spectacular – and scary – this walk is); and the Pony Track, which sounds super easy but really is not.
Due to expected weather conditions – snow on the mountain top, strong wind gusts – the CMD people were offered alternatives as Mike was not prepared to let people take that route in potentially dangerous weather. The rest of us were told (again) to bring multiple layers, waterproof gear, and multiple pairs of gloves. I went to bed anxious.
Saturday dawned bright-ish, which is the best you can hope for in the Scottish highlands in October. I had my gear ready – long sleeved wool shirt, fleecy leggings I bought to do winter bootcamp in the park some years ago, wool socks, my sturdy Berghaus hiking boots, a fleece and a fleecy headband to keep my ears warm. Others were wearing more layers and asked if I wasn’t cold? I replied I would warm up once we started walking. In fact our guide, the wonderfully chirpy James, stopped us after 20 minutes so people could peel off an extra layer that they no longer needed after warming up in 20 minutes of ascent.
We started from beside the Ben Nevis Inn, in which I’d anticipated having a drink on my return, but that was not to be.
We walked through a field, and hit the path. It was quite pleasant at first. Yes, it was uphill and yes, it was strenuous, but I was doing OK. Look around at the beautiful scenery, marvel at the occasional bursts of sunshine and how they lit up the hills around you. About an hour in, we paused to put on second layers, which for me was my windproof jacket, wool scarf and hat over my headband to doubly keep my ears warm.
We had someone in our group who was struggling and we had to keep stopping to give her a chance to catch up. This was fine with me, but some of the more fit group members got a little grumpy at having to wait around while we all caught up. Especially when James told us that at our current pace, we would not make the summit until 3pm, not the 1pm that was expected. We reached the halfway point by lochan mealle an t-suidhe and our slow moving colleague decided to turn back. For someone who doesn’t hike, she’d done well to make it that far.
Next stop was the Red Burn, where you stop to refill your water bottles. This was the guide’s advice – only carry 1 liter of water with you – your bottle should be empty by the time you reach the burn. Refill there, it will get you to the summit, and refill on the way down, so you drink at least 3 litres of water on your journey to keep yourself hydrated.
After the Red Burn, the path turned from countryside walk to surface-of-Mars walk. The vegetation disappeared, and we were walking through rocks and scree. We paused to grab some food and put on another layer. We must have been about 800-900m up by this point and it was cold and windy.
We’d picked up some speed and James now estimated our arrival at the summit as 2pm, so we would miss the planned meeting at the top of groups from all three routes. This was disappointing but we would still be getting there and that for me was the main thing because I was struggling. At the back of the pack were me and the woman with a bad knee. James – bless him! – kept moving back and forward to check on everyone – he would be with the fit people at the front, then walk back to check on the middle people, and then back to check on us at the back. I have no idea how he did that because for me it was all I could do to keep plodding, one foot after another, one foot after another. I didn’t look at my watch because I didn’t want to know the time. I was a mindless machine, my only function to lift and lower my feet to propel myself forward.
There was a point where I looked around and suffered a sudden sense of discombobulation, realising I was now looking down on the mountains I had been looking up at from Fort William. These mountains were no longer things that towered above me. I was now on their level.
It started to rain, so full waterproofs were required. Bending down to pull my waterproof trousers on caused me a silly amount of pain, and in my hurry to get it over with so I could straighten up, I pulled a muscle in my shoulder, which caused me a jolt of pain then, but a lot more pain later.
Rocks, rain, feet moving mechanically and I feel empty. Not out of breath, not necessarily exhausted, just empty, like there are no other resources left in me to call on. But I keep walking and James appears at my side from time to time to encourage me to just keep plodding on. I can’t really talk to him because there is not enough space left in my mind for conversation.
It starts to snow. I know we must be pretty high up now because a chirpy woman on her way down told us that “when you see snow, you’re about 30 minutes from the top”. Well that was a lie. Or maybe it wasn’t. I have no idea how long we walked in the snow. Like I said, I didn’t want to check my watch because I didn’t want to know how long I had been walking and how long I still had to walk.
At one point we paused for food and James said some magic words, “Summit Ridge”. I latched onto those words in hope but then he told me that’s not the summit, but it means the summit is close. Hope faded and died and blew away in the wind.
And there was a very strong wind, whipping the snow into our faces as we plodded ever upwards. Once I had another life where I lived in a city and took a train to work. Now I was just two legs attached to a body walking up a mountain while that mountain threw snow into my face.
We started to meet people from the other Pony Track groups who were coming down, having reached the summit already.
Dark shapes appeared in the snow – cairns, guiding our way to the summit.
Was it really the summit this time? Yes, it was.
Did I feel a sense of elation and achievement? No, I did not.
I was exhausted and leaning on my hiking poles to stay upright in the wind. Someone told me later it was -10C (15F) up there with the wind at 40mph. It was not pleasant. But the climbing group who’d done the scramble up Tower Ridge had also only just arrived so we did have some kind of meeting.
One thing no-one told me about Ben Nevis is that when you get to the top, exhausted, you then have to walk up some steps to a tiny platform to put your hand on the trig point to say you’ve really done it. To me it felt unkind at this point to ask me to walk up more steps, to stand on a narrow platform and be even more buffeted by the wind just for the sake of a photo but I did it.
James guided us quickly to some relatively sheltered spot by the wall of the old hotel. (Yes, crazy as it seems, there was once a hotel on the summit of Ben Nevis.) We crouched, frozen and exhausted, stuffing food into our faces to refuel because the walk down would not be a piece of cake by any means.
I bit off mouthfuls of my ham and cheese sandwiches and swallowed without chewing. I took some swigs of the miso soup I had in my flask. I threw a handful of dried fruit into my mouth. I was drained, and now I knew I had to do the whole walk again.
We walked down through the snow and wind, my mind was still empty and unable to process the reality of what I’d just done. After we’d descended a few hundred metres, the wind dropped and the snow let up and for a little while it was just walking. I even felt myself picking up the pace and walking with purpose, as if that food I’d gulped at on the summit, like an animal, was finally hitting my bloodstream.
And then it started to rain.
It rained for about three and a half hours of the descent. Steady, wet rain that seeped in through all the waterproofing, drenching me slowly from the outside in. Luckily I had warm layers close to my body, so I wasn’t cold, but I did feel heavy. And the path was not easy – there was a long stretch of uneven rocks that I must have walked over going up but had no recall of. Going down was harder because you had to work out where to put your feet so you wouldn’t slip, so there was not much time to look up and admire the view.
However there was one point where the rain eased and I looked out over the lochan and across down to Loch Linnhe where Fort William was and I felt confused because from the place I was standing, it looked like the world was tipped sideways. Loch Linnhe seemed to be at a 45 degree angle and I know it’s a loch so it should be flat. I didn’t have enough capacity to think about why this might be so put my head down and plodded on.
I reached Red Burn and felt a small excitement because I knew I would very soon be at the lochan and the halfway point and that meant this was very nearly over. I found some space to think about how good a hot shower would feel; how nice it would be to have a cup of tea and a biscuit; how I could put on my pyjamas and get into bed and enjoy being warm and dry.
By the lochan James produced a strange kind of tent from his bag. “Get into the shelter and warm up,” he said as I approached. The shelter was a kind of pop-up tent and there were four of us in there, crouched down, out of the rain. I ate the rest of my sandwich and pulled out my peanut butter oat cakes (two oatcakes sandwiched together with the peanut butter I brought with me specifically for this purpose). I offered them around but only one of my other group-mates took one. She was also having knee trouble.
Being in the shelter was good, and I think being in such a confined, dry space warmed us all up a little bit, which, along with the food, helped us to get going again with a little more enthusiasm. I started to see things I remembered on the way up and greeted them. It took my mind off the pain in my shoulder.
“Hello plastic bottle.” (I won’t go off at this point about litter on the mountain but … ARGH!)
“Hello ocean-coloured rock.”
“Hello moss dripping water.”
“Hello bridge! Bridge it’s so good to see you!” (The bridge was quite an early landmark on the third switchback from the start so I knew now it was nearly over.)
“Hello Ben Nevis Inn!” The inn was still some distance off when I first saw it again but it got me chanting a little holy grail of hope. “Taxi, hotel, shower, tea. Taxi, hotel, shower, tea.” It also took my mind off the pain in my shoulder as the strap of my rucksack seemed to be pressing down exactly on some sort muscle or aggravated nerve and it was hurting not quite to the point of tears but I was so tired and it was so sore, I felt a bit like throwing a small child tantrum and refusing to carry my bag any further. But obviously I couldn’t do that, because there was no one there to help me.
And then it was over, I was back by the sign, and the bin, and the Ben Nevis Inn and the guides from the earlier groups were still there waiting for James, and one of them called a taxi, and then there was a taxi, and then there was a hotel and then there was my room and then there was a hot shower and then I put my pyjamas on and got into bed with some food and water (in the end I didn’t feel like tea) and let myself process a bit.
I did it – I climbed Ben Nevis. I’ve maybe pulled my shoulder and injured my knee and in fact both my knees are very sore right now but I did it, even when I felt I had no resources left to pull from, there was something there and it kept me going and I made it up the mountain and back again.
But I never want to do it again.