Day 8 – Ben Nevis
For me, climbing Ben Nevis turned out to be an unexpectedly spiritual experience of fear and a refusal to surrender to it. Of feeling held by the mountain herself and channelling an inner strength…
Anxious dreams plagued me the night before, likely from having gazed nervously at the brooding form of the mountain for the entire previous afternoon. The weather seemed inclined to mirror my nerves, as the wind in the night was so strong that the side of the tent actually wrapped around the loved one as we slept. Ominous.
However, we awoke to the promise of a beautiful day and marvellous weather forecasts were posted on the walls of the campsite shop, where we stocked up with Red Bull and snacks. After some deliberation, we’d left our heavy packs in our tent and just crossed our fingers that they’d still be there upon our return, on the grounds that there was no way we wanted more than the weight of a day pack on the long climb up. And my, what luxury! The incredible lightness of walking without weight made the fatigue of the last 100 miles practically disappear. When I pressed down with my foot, my body went upwards! Amazing. I felt like a spritely mountain goat. Quaking slightly, but full of determination, we hiked down the road to the Ben Nevis Visitor Centre to begin our day’s adventure.
The path up the mountain does not break you in gently really, over a suspension bridge you go, and then it’s just up, and up, and up from thereon in. Around and up relentless steps you go, and the size of the steps is completely variable, with many a boulder to clamber over. At least it’s not loose, but the incline is fairly steep and the footing consistently uneven. Luckily my sense of sprightliness at not having a pack to carry did help enormously for about the first third of the path, and I was all ‘wheee’, ‘whoosh’ for the first couple of hours or so.
Climbing Mount Snowdon, the path never seemed very high up, it always seemed that around where you were there was only a short way to fall, with no big gradient (until the scree near the top, but there I was too busy clinging on to look, and the mist hid all). On Ben Nevis it was very different. The path seems to go around the edge of the mountain, and next to you the drop seems substantial as the highlands spread out below you. In front you see the hairpin of the path as it turns to zig zag up the side of the mountain and it looks like a dead end drop into thin air.
I was just contemplating this, and the lack of any rail or obstruction to someone just walking off the edge, when I turned to sit for a second and catch my breath and caught sight of the mountain tops to the side of me. The mountain tops that I’d spent the last week or so gazing upwards at from one pass or another. Those incredibly lofty, high, mountain tops. Suddenly a treacherous sense of perspective washed over me, filling me with vertigo. Did I mention I’m scared of heights?
The loved one asked if I was okay. ‘I’m terrified’ I said, cheerfully. And I started on up the path, trying hard not to look to the right at the view, walking as close to the mountain as I could. And then a jet plane flew over. No, in fact, a jet plane flew under. Yes, we were higher than the plane, which I tried not to think about, rather unsuccessfully. And I felt my chest constrict painfully. I haven’t had a panic attack for many, many years but I knew at that point that if I tried to take a breath it would be hard, and a panic attack would follow on the heels of that inevitable gasping wheeze.
So I didn’t take a breath for a minute. I had a little kneel down, a studious look at the comforting, solid floor, and a little drink of water. I had a very stern word with my body, about how there was most definitely not going to be any sort of panicking, and the feeling passed. Right. And so on we went. Shaky, but determined to never give in. And as I walked I looked at my feet, I held onto the mountain as much as I could and I prayed with all I had to the Mother Mountain to hold me and to Brighid as Bear Goddess to walk beside me. I channelled Earth warrior druid energy for all I was worth. And… amazingly… I was fine.
Abruptly, we made it to the rocky section that zig-zags up beyond the greenery. No longer did the mountain fall away in a dramatic drop to the side of the path, rather you felt like, if you stumbled, the worst that could happen would be that you’d roll a few feet along the rocks and stop on a ledge. What a relief!
From here, it looks as though you can see the summit. It looks awfully close. Not far, you optimistically think to yourself, just around the next few zags… Fatigue had begun to set in and I unwisely asked a chap on his way down if we were nearly at the top. He looked at me with sympathy. ‘Well’ he said, obviously not wanting to shatter my dreams too painfully, ‘you’re more than halfway’.
Yes, dear reader, what looks like the summit is most definitely not the summit. We still had 700m left to climb. The path goes on for what seems like leagues (Possibly. How long is a league anyway? I asked the loved one and he said ‘three guineas’). We broke out the Red Bull.
But finally we passed a trail of cairns and, joy of joys, reached the real summit. Following the hard-to-distinguish path past the terrifying cliffs of the North Face, I tried desperately to memorise the route back so as not to stray off any steep bits on the way back down. Past the ruins of a hut we went and found our way to the trig point to queue up for a summit photo. Luckily there are lots of people around in the same position, all taking photos of euphorically grinning strangers in exchange for a return favour. All very comradely.
You will see, if you look carefully at the picture above, that I’m holding on for dear life to the stone so as not to be blown off the edge. The wind up there was astonishing in its ferocity. And this on a beautiful, sunny clear day.
We were incredibly lucky with the weather, they say that for the majority of the time you can see nothing from the summit as it’s so foggy. But we were blessed with a clear view for absolutely miles. Breathtaking views of the highlands rolled out below us as far as the eye could see, punctuated with fluffy clouds, and, my wobbliness now gone thanks to all that channelling, I could finally appreciate it.
It had taken us three hours to reach the summit, and it’s supposed to be quicker coming down, but actually it took another three hours to descend. Turns out descending is heavy on the knees. Mine got up a petition for hiking poles to reduce the impact, and belatedly I remembered that I’d learnt that lesson already on Snowdon. But at least the views were amazing, the breathing was blessedly now unconstricted, and the further down we went, the warmer it got.
By the time we got to Ben Nevis Inn at the foot of the mountain for a well deserved beer, I was feeling like an adventuring pup of total bad-assness. The glow of achievement of not having succumbed to the fear, and my gratitude to the mother mountain and the spirits of place filled me with a giddy joy. My face was flushed, and my grin broad. We chatted gaily with other hikers in the bar, united by our common euphoria at the day’s adventure, before limping back to the campsite in search of ibuprofen and a large steak.
And the take home thought? Ben Nevis will not be the largest mountain I’ll ever climb, many on the Appalachian Trail will be higher, but I’ll never have to wonder again if I’m capable of facing down the vertigo and carrying on through the fear, for I know I can.