Ben Nevis Blues
Fort William, Scotland
It loomed off in the distance. I could see the peak of this mammoth mountain only a few miles away from where I was standing. I knew that there lay my destination.
It looked very impressive. Very intimidating. Though there were no snow-covered peaks around here, I knew the danger that came with attempting a dayhike up this long and winding trail to the top of this 4,000-foot (1,219 m) peak. I heard the stories. I heard of the rescues, the deaths – and how careless they were. But, I needed to do this. I didn’t come here for nothing, now did I?
While debating the do’s and don’ts of attempting this little climb, I heard voices behind me. I turned, to see a small group of four backpackers coming my way. They were all burdened down pretty heavily – wearing brightly colored jackets, large filled-to-the-roof backpacks, and having heavy mountaineering boots. That made me want to examine myself. I only had my cotton tank top, an old Army T-shirt on top of that, and my Helly Hansen techie jacket. I had a pair of shorts on, and my ever-so-faithful Vasque Eclipses. In my fannypack I had a Cornish Pastie, a liter of water, and another Army T-shirt. And on my arm, I wore my diving strobe – something I never left home without. I always wore it when I went on hikes, for fear of falling down somewhere and breaking my legs, not being able to move, and having someone get a fix on my position by only turning it on. Besides, it could be seen from over two miles day or night! A really neat piece of equipment. Psychological insurance, I’d call it.
I came to Scotland just to do the backpacker thing. I came up there to see Penny Cox, an old friend I’d met on my sojourn of ecstasy through Australia only a year before that. We’d met through mutual friends at a youth hostel, and ended up travelling together with several others, including her sister. When I came back to the States we all kept in contact, and I had the fortunate ability to burn off my debts really fast from my trip through Australia. That enabled me to set myself up for a several-month trip through Western Europe. I had friends all over the place, from Holland to the Mediterranean, England to Ireland. And I wanted to see all of them and they, of me. When I finished with Penny up in Elgin, a small town way up in the Highlands, I caught the infamous backpacker tourbus of Scotland – The Haggis Tour – and ended up being taken to all the most noteworthy cities and towns that Scotland had to offer. Inverness, all the lochs, the Isle of Skye and now, Fort William. And Fort William is where Ben Nevis is.
The highest peak in the United Kingdom at only 4,000 feet (1,219 m), Ben Nevis has the dubious distinction of occasionally killing people who climb it – mainly because of its notoriously fickle weather, which can change on a moment’s notice, without any warning whatsoever.
Standing at the base of the mountain I read the weather report, written by the park service on a large grease board, and it said that the weather was supposed to be bright and sunny at the base, but possibly foggy, and windy at the top. It warned that if a serious change in temperature happened, freezing rain could develop… that was followed by a skull and crossbones, drawn to finish the rest of the sentence. I took a deep breath when I saw that! But I was a highly trained ex-US Army paratrooper. Not any run-of-the-mill paratrooper but a member of the elite Long Range Reconnaissance, whose mission is to do just that: deep, long-range patrols behind enemy lines in teams of six, living off the land the whole way.
Now, I had been schooled in the art of survival and reading the weather. Hell, I’d lived for years in weather like what was expected on Ben Nevis. Though I was definitely rusty on my survival skills, the fear factor wasn’t going to stop me. And if the shit hit the fan, well, then ex-Lurp knew what to do – beat feet the hell out of there!
With the backpackers gaining on me, I started my uphill trek. And I didn’t want them to catch me. Putting my head down, I took the first steps up the mountain with a little trepidation – I guess from the fear of not knowing what was up ahead?
The trail itself seemed to have been blasted out of the rock the mountain was made of. Though smooth it was pretty steep, and my legs started to burn after only a hundred yards of moving. I cursed myself for getting out of reasonable shape, as sweat soon started to trickle down my forehead. After the next hundred yards I was sweating up a storm, and my breathing had increased to the point that I was really sucking wind. I immediately thought back to a few nights before, when I was in a pub on the Isle of Skye with Andrea, a wonderful German girl I’d met. I thought back to all that beer I’d drunk with her. Ah, how easy it was to just lift a pint of Tennants to my face and swallow it. How great it tasted… but now I was really paying for it, for my fat ass after several months of boozing was really weighted down by all those damn calories!
I looked up ahead, and saw that the trees were disappearing. The trees that had been surrounding me at the base of the mountain were now thinning out, and that typical Scottish vista was appearing again. Scotland just seemed to be lifeless in terms of flora. And everybody blamed the English for taking them ages ago, using them to build their ships that took over the world. That was crap. The fact that most of Scotland was devoid of trees just gave the landscape a moonlike quality. Otherworldly, almost. But you knew that though this country was devoid of trees, it was chock full of history, culture, and… distilleries! All of which were amazing to see and experience (Yes, I spent a lot of my time in Scotland drunk)!
Within a few moments the backpackers were upon me. I could hear them talking, and realized by hearing those guttural, nasal sounds that they were German. They plodded along right beside me for a few moments, saying a heavily accented hello as they troddied by. Looking at them closely, I realized that they were weighed down. They all must’ve been planning to stay out for a few days. Possibly by the huge lake halfway up? Or maybe at the firetower at the top? The three guys were pumping their hairy legs up and down like pistons, carrying their 50-plus pound cargo like it was a walk down the street. The woman with them had no trouble keeping up either; she was very attractive, giving me a glance and a smile as she brought up the rear. What caught my eye first wasn’t her angular Germanesque facial features, but the bright red bandana on her head soaking up her sweat. It made me wipe my eyes. The sweat from my head was drowning them, and I had to continually wipe my face every few minutes to see. How come I didn’t think of that? (Damn, it’s always the small things that you wish for when you’re out on treks like these.)