The forecast did not look good. The prediction was for early sun deteriorating to a wet afternoon with strong winds. The temperature on the summit was expected to be about 3 degrees, but the wind chill would take it below zero. But I had been planning to climb Ben Nevis in my mind for some months.
The Ben, as it is known locally, is the highest mountain in the United Kingdom and relatively accessible at just 1344 metres high. But despite that moderate height the mountain is considered dangerous to climb. Ben Nevis is on the west coast of Scotland and can be covered by snow for months at a time. It also has a history of foul weather with a mean monthly temperature of just minus 0.5 degree. It also has the dubious honour of having an average of 261 gales a year.
My training for the ascent had been unconventional. It consisted of 6 months of pushing the stroller with the two children on board. While that may not sound like hard work, pushing a stroller for days on end around European cities, along the cobbled paths of Pompeii and the coastal paths and tracks of Cinqua Terra is not for the unfit or the faint of heart . As a result I’m fitter, lighter and stronger than I have been in years.
With just a little fear and a good dose of trepidation, I set off from the car park at the base of the mountain with a view of the summit bathed in brilliant sunshine. The wind was up, but the skies were clear as the forecast had suggested. I had my backpack filled with all the things I thought I might need. I had enough food for a full day of walking, an extra jacket, long-joh
ns for the cold, a compass in case of thick fog, gloves, a beanie and scarf and over a litre of water. I did not have wet weather pants, which I knew might be a problem.
The first part of the path is easy enough. The track is well made and maintained and it climbs smoothly but relentlessly up the side of the mountain. It took about 10 minutes for me the start to feel the climb in my chest. “Slow and Steady” I kept telling myself. I planned to use small steps rather than large strides to conquer this hill. My theory was that each large stride requires more effort. Small steps are easier and I hoped that meant I could maintain a steady pace for longer. My theory worked for the first 40 minutes of the climb.... and then the path up the mountain started to get serious.
Rounding a bend and expecting more of the same, I was suddenly faced with a mountain path that suddenly doubled in steepness. It was also exposed to the wind, which had been steadily strengthening to something a bit short of a gale. The view of the summit from here was daunting, but not so much as to make me want to stop and turn around, so I pressed on still feeling relatively confident.
About halfway up the track changed again. I had come to a small valley and suddenly I was walking along a well made sandy path. The climb was moderate and the walking was easy. It was then I looked up again. What I saw was a warning. High up on the edge of the mountain, standing out in bright red against a sea of grey rocks was a tiny little figure somewhere near the top. His wet weather gear was as stark a contrast as his size was next to the mountain. The closer I was getting to the top, the bigger this thing was starting to look.
That sandy path made the walk deceptive because the climb remained relatively easy until I reached a point where the top of the mountain looked significantly closer than the bottom. I could see how far I’d climbed and how far I had to go. That alone encouraged me despite being faced once again with a steep climb. This time I was facing a very steep, very loose and very rocky path for the last third of the climb.
It was at about this time the weather turned. I’d been watching the mountains all day with the forecast in mind. Nearby mountains were shrouded in cloud but Ben Nevis had remained in the sun. But then from over the back of The Ben the weather blew in. One minute it was a bright sunny day, the next and I was immersed in a deep overcast and the top of the mountain was now hidden.
I know now that’s really where I should have turned around, but I was so close. I had a clear picture of the distance that still had to be covered so I pressed on. Over the next 20 minutes or so there was yet another change in the weather. I was at about 1000 metres when temperature dropped to near zero and the winds picked up to gale strength, making each step a minor ordeal.
It was on this section of the climb that I came across an English couple also on their way up. The man was about my age and still going along quite well. His partner was ready to turn around and go home, but he kept urging her on. Because I was on my own I had no-one to encourage, or be encouraged by. It would have been easy to turn around and just claimed the weather was too bad to continue. The thought of turning back had crossed my mind more than once. Instead I decided that if they could do it so could I. I decided that I would use them as my pace setters. In simple terms, I would stalk them.
It took another 30 minutes and some minor leg cramps from the cold, but I got there. I arrived at the same time as the English couple even though I had tried to keep a respectable distance so they didn’t have to share their victory with some crazed, cold and tired Australian stalker. But in the end they slowed down and I caught up in the gloom of the Ben Nevis summit. It had taken me just on three hours, but I was standing on the very highest point in the UK.
The summit was misty and cold and very, very windy, but it hadn’t rained. My top half was warm and dry, but my pants were getting damp from the mist. I quickly scoffed down because I wanted to start heading down while the weather was still bearable. But within 2 minutes of leaving the summit it I seriously started to question why I hadn’t turned around earlier.
When the rain came, it came in sideways. The wind picked up to about 60 knots and my pants were wet through in less than a minute and the freezing wind was making my face sting. Adding to this I was alone on a mountain, slick and slippery with rain, with visibility down to about 50 metres, and I could feel the cold starting to bite deep into my legs. MY thighs wanted to cramp from the cold.
If I’m honest I would have to say at that point I was really quite worried, perhaps even a little scared that I may not make it back down on my own. Mentally I was fine, but my thighs were so cold that they just didn’t want to work properly. I have heard and reported on too many stories about people being caught out in bad weather not to know the potential danger of the situation I had put myself in. I also knew when I left the car park that I really needed to have wet weather pants with me and now that was coming home to me in the worst possible way. The one thing that kept me focussed was that in my life, [some years ago I admit] I have bushwalked and hiked some very rugged terrain in some very difficult circumstances.
With no shelter I had only one option. I had to keep moving as fast and as I safely could to try to get some warmth in my legs. It worked, although only just. The temperature had dropped again and along with the rain and the howling wind, I started getting the occasional burst of sleet slashing at my face.
Once I had descended about 400 metres I came out of the cloud and could see the Glen below. I knew the worst was behind, me but the rain was falling all the way down to the valley. That meant another hour in the cold as I made my descent.
The thing that hampered my progress most aside from my legs was the wind. It stayed at gale force and it stayed cold. At times I felt like I was leaning so far into the wind that I might fall off the mountain. It also meant I stayed wet from the waist down, but as long as I kept moving I kept warm, and as long as I was warm I was OK. It took me two hours to descend to the safety of the car park.
I have been thinking about my ascent of Ben Nevis for the last few days. Sometimes an ascent of a mountain is called a victory. Sometimes it’s claimed the mountain was conquered. I did neither. I feel that I simply “got away with it”.