A crow cawed outside our tent. Faint rustling sounds and muffled voices filled the air. Some campers were already up and about. I pulled the sleeping bag closer to my shivering body, but just when I had finally started to warm up again, the alarm went off. I wriggled out of my cocoon, gave my better half a quick shake and spent the next couple of minutes struggling with the faulty zip of the tent door.
I stumbled out of the tent, my feet sinking into the damp ground. Good thing I had the sense to pack an extra pair of socks the day before. I took one glance at the sky and my heart welled up with disappointment.
“Douglas, I don’t think we’ll be able to climb Ben Nevis today. It’s rather cloudy.”
The tent shook, scaring away the crow.
“We call that summer in Scotland,” he muttered groggily.
Taking that as the go-ahead for the day’s expedition, I started putting my shoes on. It was only when I crouched down to tie my shoe laces that I noticed the swarm of tiny flies ganging up on me. I felt a sting on my cheek, and suddenly my whole face was covered in bites. A few colourful swear words escaped my mouth, prompting Douglas to peer out of the tent.
“I see you’ve finally met the midges.”
MY TOP 5 ESSENTIALS FOR CLIMBING BEN NEVIS
Standing at 1,344 metres above sea level, Ben Nevis is the highest mountain in the British Isles and one of the most popular places for hiking in Scotland. In fact, Ben Nevis attracts over 100,000 climbers a year. We decided to give it a try, thinking that the ascent would be do-able without actually doing any form of preparatory training. Well, we certainly paid dearly for it.
It started out as a pleasant walk on a muddy path, in the company of sheep grazing on the other side of the fence. I could still feel the occasional bite on my face, but Douglas reassured me that the slightest breeze would make the midges disappear. I prayed for wind, but ended up regretting it later.
The sky gradually cleared up. We were now scrambling over sharp, slippery rocks. As if the steep, never-ending path in front of us wasn’t disheartening enough, we came across a few climbers who were already making their way down the mountain.
“You’re less than half-way up,” a cheerful young couple told us.
My jaw dropped. It was only 10am. I couldn’t help but wonder… at what ungodly hour did they start the ascent?
I sat down on the first rock I could find and dug out a cold Scotch pie from my rucksack. We were only an hour into our trek, but my legs were killing me. The sight of lush green slopes helped me clear my mind of negative thoughts. We were going to do this.
As we sat there, devouring most of the food we had packed, a couple and their 10-year-old boy walked effortlessly past us and up towards the next bend.
“I read somewhere that the mountain is child-friendly,” Douglas remarked, as if that was supposed to make me feel better.
I had been sitting long enough for the midges to launch another assault on me. It was time to get moving again.
For the next half an hour we were stuck behind a group of late middle-aged German tourists, who made sure they took their time to climb each and every uneven stone step on the narrow path. My many attempts to overtake them proved futile. One side of the trail was a sheer drop into a ravine, so we had no choice but to prolong the torturous strain on our knees until the path levelled out.
It could have been the crisp wind or the momentary break by a small loch, but I didn’t feel so dispirited anymore, even though the summit was nowhere in sight yet. I quickened my pace, feeling overly confident that, despite our lack of fitness, we were going to reach the summit by midday.
We were making good timing, until Douglas stopped dead in his tracks.
“Oh bloody hell.”
I had to crane my neck to take in the size of the beast towering over us. The rocky path ahead of us zig-zagged into infinity. A flurry of wind coiled around us, whipping my hair across my face. All of a sudden, I felt like calling it a day.
Dark clouds piled up in the sky. I had read that the weather on Ben Nevis could be unpredictable… and dangerous. Hurricane-force winds and heavy rain tend to appear out of nowhere. In fact, the majority of annual deaths on the mountain are caused by ill-preparedness and atrocious weather conditions. So while we were physically exhausted, the real deterrent to reaching the summit was the weather, and I wasn’t willing to take risks.
We decided to continue our way up the rock-strewn slope. The path petered out, a sign that we were rapidly approaching the summit, but that moment of joy was short-lived. We found ourselves in the middle of a cloud, wind and rain battering our face.
I turned around to speak to Douglas, but he wasn’t there anymore. The visibility was so poor that I could hardly discern the path. I made a few cautious steps forward before realising that the path didn’t exist.
I stopped near a snow cornice, waiting for Douglas to catch up. For a good few minutes, I was the only soul on the vast tundra of stones. Just when I was about to go into panic mode, I spotted a few climbers emerging from the fog. Feeling reassured that I was on the right trail to the summit, I followed them into the dense cloud.
There are over a 100 cairns dotting the summit of Ben Nevis; mounds of rock built by climbers as a memorial for completing the ascent. Originally, cairns were built to guide walkers along the path to the summit, especially in thick snow, but the high number of cairns scattered around the summit are now misdirecting climbers.
I could only glimpse a small number of cairns. The rest were shrouded in thick fog. I wondered if they served as a memorial for those who perished on the mountain, becoming increasingly nervous at the fact that I couldn’t make out my surroundings – and I couldn’t see Douglas.
“Whose bright idea was it to climb Ben Nevis?”
I hadn’t even noticed the neon green jacket approaching me through the clouds. Another spatter of rain hit us, but it didn’t matter anymore. We were on the summit. Together. All we needed to do now was to find shelter and refuel our body with whatever food was left in our bags.
The stone huts on the summit did little to protect us from the heavy rain. I tried to ignore the agonising pain in my icy fingers and the cold wind seeping into my bones, and instead entertained myself with the thought of having a hot shower later that day.
The descent turned out to be tougher than we had expected, but we took comfort from the fact that we were now the ones telling other climbers that they still had a long way to go.
They say that mountains teach us insightful lessons about ourselves and our potential. Well, Mount Toubkal had taught me that willpower overrides physical barriers. Meanwhile, Ben Nevis taught me that attempting to scale a mountain with zero training is stupid. Just plain stupid. And yet, we made it. Once again, it was a case of mind over matter.
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