Sadly, I’ve only ever been to Scotland three times in my life. Once to celebrate New Year’s Eve in Edinburgh, once on a business trip to Glasgow and, most recently, to go on an organised walking tour in the Cairngorms. I had one full day spare at the end of the trip before catching the sleeper train from Fort William back to Euston. I was on my own and, given that I have lived most of my life in Hampshire, Berkshire and Sussex, I had very little experience hiking up mountains. The thought of climbing Ben Nevis was making me feel jelly legged but I was equally tormented by the thought that I might not get such a good opportunity again.
Be prepared, and don’t judge the route by its “tourist trail” name
In my room at my B&B, I spent every evening googling for any information I could get about the trail up to the summit. As well as the information produced by the John Muir Trust, Walking Highlands, and the Glen Nevis Visitor Centre, there were quite a few helpful videos on YouTube and in the main all this information made me feel less panicky. However, I got a little obsessed by the story of Sarah Buick, an experienced climber who had died on Ben Nevis less than a month earlier. I quizzed my B&B hosts “How could an experienced climber have fallen in totally clear weather conditions in the middle of June?” I asked. How dangerous is this mountain, I thought?
It’s good to be a bit daunted by the challenge ahead
In the end I decided that I would use a technique an old friend of mine used to quit smoking. He would tell himself that it was just one day. Every day, he resolved to just quit for one day and that made his daunting challenge more achievable. So, with the weather report looking favourable, I decided I would get up the next day and arrive at the Glen Nevis Visitor Centre car park for an 8am start. I told myself I would go as far as the lake and then I could turn around if I wanted to.
Break the task into manageable chunks
The trail up to the summit lends itself really well to being broken into sections. The first major marker is the lake. The path up to this point is wide, not particularly steep and stunningly beautiful as it rises along the valley. Apart from one or two points where you need to clamber a bit this part of the route is really enjoyable, especially on a sunny July morning. After the lake, comes the waterfall and the path between these two points is also very easy to follow, wide and not that steep.
So many smiling faces and so much encouragement
At the waterfall, I saw a climber who had passed me much earlier on the path. He was resting and having a spot of breakfast, he told me. I learned that he had done the climb several times before, and we chatted for a few minutes before I headed off towards my next marker – the zigzag path.
As you approach the zigzag section you notice the landscape changing. The path gets narrow in places, it’s right on the edge of the mountain and the vegetation on either side starts to thin out. Although this is where the physical challenge starts to ramp up, emotionally, I found I was really buoyant.
When you start early and are going at a fairly slow pace, the zigzag path is where you start to see folks who are on their return journey. They smile and they tell you “keep going”, “you’re nearly there” and “don’t give up” “if I did it, so can you”. This encouragement definitely helps. You benefit from hearing these words but then you realise you benefit ten times more by encouraging others, and suddenly everyone is very chatty. For me, the memory of the zigzag path is a memory filled with positive voices.
Five Finger Gully, and the mistake you don’t want to make
Even when I set out on the zigzag path I wasn’t entirely sure I would make it to the summit. I’d read so many stories of climbers who, in an attempt to avoid the north face had veered too far to the right and fallen down the notorious five finger gully. I wasn’t sure what to expect as I emerged from the zigzag path into the bleak landscape of the plateau. I had no idea how clear the path would be or how confident I would feel passing between treacherous hazards that had claimed so many lives. Although the path was busy it certainly wasn’t heaving with people and as I reached the plateau, the clouds rolled in. The few people I had been able to see ahead of me seemed to melt into the mist.
A guardian angel to guide me
As I hesitated on the land between the zigzag path and the plateau, a friendly voice behind me said “hello”. I turned to find the man I’d chatted to at the waterfall. “Would you like some company to the summit?” he said. It was in that moment that I finally knew I would make it. “Yes please.” I said. “I’m really nervous”. And so, we walked together on a path that is made up of lighter coloured scree than the rest of the summit. In July, it’s an easy path to follow, even in the mist, but it’s also easy to see how you could miss it, lose concentration, stray too far to the left or the right. I was glad I had a guardian angel to walk beside me.
Never take your eye off the ball
My visit to the top of Ben Nevis didn’t yield the superb 360 degree views I’d seen on YouTube. The whole of the summit was shrouded in mist. It was eerie, cold and just as I was leaving, it started to rain, but I loved every minute of it. The feeling of achieving something you truly thought you couldn’t do is a very precious experience. Something to be treasured whatever the weather. But however buoyant you feel at the top, you have to remember that you still have to get back down again.
Struggling to heave my rucksack back onto my shoulders on a narrow, and by now wet, section of the zigzag path after donning my waterproof, I realised just how easy it would be to slip and fall. Falling from the summit was what I had been scared of but even a fall from the zigzag path could be fatal.
Let’s climb a mountain every day!
By the time I got back to the car park I was once again bathed in warm sunshine. I’d had a fantastic experience climbing to the summit of Ben Nevis. I truly adore the Highlands and have resolved to make sure I climb mountains a bit more often in future.