Ben Nevis Blues
Fort William, Scotland
Soon they were really getting distance on me, and they disappeared around a bend. Suddenly I felt alone. I turned around while I was walking, to see if there was anybody else making their way up the mountain. There wasn’t. The psychological pressure soon hit me, and I heard myself saying that if it got any steeper, I was going to turn around. Besides, that’s what these two other backpackers I met in the hostel did. They both got tired, decided halfway it really wasn’t worth the effort, and came back down. Yeah. That I was just going to go back if it got any harder. No need to smoke myself, just take it easy… go back to the hostel, have a few beers…
NO! I muttered to myself. Not here!
I wasn’t going to quit. To hell with that. Though I must admit the dayhike reminded me of Breakneck Ridge, back home in New York. There was scrambling there, and it was very steep, being steeper in places than Ben Nevis. But somehow, you knew the top wasn’t that far way. You knew that after an hour or so of exertion, you’d be rewarded with a beautiful sight: the Hudson River, and all of its surrounding peaks.
Here, it was different. I looked way up towards the top of Ben Nevis. I couldn’t see it. Fog had socked it in. So there was going to be no beautiful vista at the top. But looking closely I could see small, multi-colored figures working their way up the long, meandering switchbacks. People… there were people there! But they were way ahead of me, and the Germans. It gave me a little hope to keep going. Yep. No need to stop now. Hell, not long ago they were at this point where I was standing. Moreover, I wondered if they were thinking the same thing I was, because this shit was steeper than I thought!
Continuing ahead, I rounded a large bend when – I saw the Germans again! They were standing, taking a break. They’d dropped their packs and were drinking water, along with eating. Though about 200 yards away from me, I really hoped that they didn’t move – for I figured I could get a psychological edge for myself if I passed them, and didn’t let them catch up to me again. I could push myself to move faster and harder until I reached the top.
They didn’t move as I approached, and recognized me as soon as they saw who was coming. I guess I was really easy to spot, being the only Black American on the mountain! They all smiled, saying hello in their heavily accented German as I walked by determined, trying to get away from them as fast as I could. I didn’t want these dudes to catch me ever again. I let out a quiet “Hooyah” as I tried to quicken my pace, but the increasing steepness of the switchbacks was really starting to get me. My hips were on fire, my legs were burning from the pace, and my breathing was rapid. I had noticed a change in air temperature too, and I realized that the elevation of Ben Nevis was really higher than I thought. I never experienced a change like that, except when I was in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, another area famous for inclement weather, sometimes during the brightest of sunny summer days.
Soon I was upon a large lake that sits at the halfway mark up the mountain. I figured that this would be a great place to stop and take a breather, since the terrain was flat for a little ways, and also because my legs were really burning up. The surge of blood through them, and the changing temperature, was beginning to give me the impression that I was going to get cramps – a big no-no in this situation. I knew the only way to prevent that would be to keep moving.
I could feel the cold creep through my Helly Hansen, and I could feel my T-shirt begin to get a little stiff. That got my curiosity. I lifted it up only to see that it was freezing – the change in temperature was causing my own sweat to freeze my shirt, and the tank top underneath! I knew right than that this could be a very dire situation, for with the onset of cramps, the change in temperature, and the freezing of my two shirts could lead to me getting exposure. I quickly changed my T-shirt to the dry one I had in my fannypack. I took off my tank top and tied it to the outside of the pack, hoping it would get some air. I really needed this to dry out, should I have to wear it again. That’s when some more doubt began to creep into my mind. Should I continue? I’ve had hypothermia before. So if I got sick, I had better hope that the Germans were on my tail closely to help me out. Or worse, if I became disoriented and went off the trail… and broke my leg… crap! I had better hope that a rescue party would be sent for me! Ah yes, my trusty strobe. I’d turn that on, wrap myself up in my Helly Hansen and endure it all until someone came to rescue me. Besides, I signed myself into the register at the bottom of the mountain. The guys at the youth hostel knew where I was going, too. If I didn’t show up in the morning to take my things out of my room since I was on my way to Glasgow, they would call for help. All I would have to do is stay alive. Hopefully, I’d be able to do that.
(Gulp). I really hoped I wouldn’t have to resurrect my rusty-ass survival training if that were to happen!
I saw a photographer taking photos of the lake in the distance. It made sense. Scotland is such an incredible place. The terrain features of the country just couldn’t be beat. If you were a fan of nature photography, I think that Scotland would be an eventual destination. Irv, the man in charge of the shoe department at the outdoor store I worked at the time, always told me as to how beautiful Scotland was. Though Jewish, Irv considered himself to be a transplanted Scot – for he always went up into the highlands to take photos, and to drink its single malts on his vacation. No matter what time of year. Whenever he took a holiday, you’d bet that he’d be there. He’d come to Scotland so much (for the past 20 years) that I was really expecting to see his photo in some of the pubs in Edinburgh, his most favorite of cities.
After a few swigs of water and eating my Cornish pastie, I continued up. In no time the Germans were back on my tail, pumping their legs mechanically like drivetrains. It amazed me how in-shape Europeans from these countries were. They were always into the outdoors and exercise, and were quite at ease in terms of doing strenuous outdoor activity. They always adjusted to it naturally, like the turning of a switch. While people like us city-dwelling Americans always had to learn and adapt, just I had in the Army, coming straight off the streets of the Bronx. This time the Germans went by quickly, not saying anything. But not more than 75 yards ahead of me, they stopped for yet another break. This time they said hello, with the woman smiling, saying, “We’re beginning to see way too much of each other,” as I went by. I laughed with them and somehow hoped that I’d pass them again, so that I could say some kind of wiseass remark like “Our engagement’s off!”