Ben Nevis Blues
Fort William, Scotland
As I made my way up the switchbacks, I took a look down the steep sides of the mountain. One wrong turn in the increasing fog could spell disaster, for the sides were so steep that I was getting vertigo just hovering near the ledges. There were no handrails up here. The park service just assumed that everyone would have the piece of mind to just keep away from the edges, and hope that no one would get lost off the trail. Which, by the way, was by now being led by cairns, large rock constructions, instead of arrows giving you the direction to walk.
As I was nearing the top, I continually saw people coming down from the other direction. They must’ve been locals, for they looked at my increasingly tattered, under-dressed style and would remark, “You’ve gotta be very brave to go up Ben Nevis like that!” followed by the occasional giggle that said “you sorry ass.” I would just nod my head, laugh with them, and keep moving. Praying that they were wrong.
Soon the shit really hit the proverbial fan, when it started raining. Not just normal, warm rain, that one would expect in summer (like in New York), but freezing rain. Lovely. Not only was I cold, getting cramps, and doubting about finishing the climb, but the rain was so cold that it immediately froze to my jacket as I made my way up this fecking mountain. I could feel that I was really getting myself into deeper trouble, every step I took.
Out of the fog appeared a guy in a long Aussie trench overcoat, sitting on a rock with his head in his hands. He looked exhausted; he had long greasy hair, heavy clothes, and wore some cheap-looking construction boots. With the rain coming down, dripping off him, he looked pathetic. Perhaps this was a Ben Nevis casualty?
He looked at me, disdain in his eyes. “Mate,” he said, “never thought it would be this hard.”
“Yo man,” I told him, trying to encourage him, “don’t worry, the top is only 20 minutes away.” I actually had no idea how far from the top we were. After a few moments of idle talk I left him, the cramps in my legs reminding me to keep moving.
Within another half an hour or so, I was finally at the top. Or at least I believed I was at the top; I just wasn’t walking near-vertical anymore, and I couldn’t see a foot in the pea-soup fog!
While I was walking around trying to look for the all-important firetower (I was told that it was a great place to have a photo) I ran into two young South African teenagers who had been sitting down in the dirt, jabbering about how great it was to be at the top. Very happy to meet me, I asked them if they could take a photo of me at the top, holding a can of Irn-Bru – Scotland’s infamous soda, which tastes like anti-freeze. I had hoped that I would be able to open it and have a couple of swigs when I got to the top, but I was so cold by that time that opening it just wasn’t an option! So they took the photo, and the onset of increasing cramps and fears of not being found alive within the next hour, convinced the two of them to jog with me down the mountain. I led the way.
As we jogged along, I could feel the blood returning into my extremities, which was good. I knew that I had to keep my body heat up for this, for there was no way I was dying on this lump of rock. The continual pounding of my feet on the granite was bonejarring. After a while it was as if every step was like walking on nails. A third of the way into it, the fog became even thicker than before. It was so thick that I couldn’t see more than a foot in front of me, and I lost sight of the fading shapes of the South Africans behind me. I had no clue where exactly they were as their voices receded, along with their footsteps.
When their voices faded, I knew I had lost them. They were either tired from my jogging down the mountain and stopped, or they took a different way down. But I knew that there was only one way down and one way up, and it was on this trail. I then had an alarming thought: could I have stepped off the trail? I really didn’t know where the hell I was going in the fog, and figured that as long as I put one foot in front of the other, I’d eventually make it back down. I lost sight of the cairns that were supposed to lead you down.
With the disappearance of the South Africans’ voices though, caution got the best of me and I stopped. I slowly began to walk, in the same direction I had been going. And sure enough, the trail morphed – into a cliff! A nice 150-foot drop loomed right in front me. I thought I heard my bowels release, but instead out came a massive fart. I would’ve been killed; as expected I was off the damn trail. I backtracked the hundred yards or so back to the bend where I stepped off, and proceeded to cautiously high tail it again back down the mountain, this time paying more attention to what I was doing!
Soon the fog began to clear, and the rain gradually slowed to a halt. My vision increased as the familiar Scottish vista broke through the fog, and rays of sunlight streaked through the gray clouds. I could see that the South Africans were way ahead of me, their shapes diddy-bopping down the trail almost half a mile away. And they didn’t even care that they had lost sight of me! Oh well. If I had fallen… I tapped my shoulder. My trusty strobe.
I passed the Germans on the way down. They were slugging it up the mountain, their heavy packs weighing them down. As I passed them I made it my business to look into the bright blue eyes of the German woman. I could see her solid features fill with recognition as I approached. She began to give me a bright smile when I said, “Our engagement’s off!” It got a big laugh from them all!
When I finally reached the bottom, I thought I’d broken bones in my feet. The continual pounding of my boots on the rock really wore them out. They were really sore, and in dire need of a massage. The South Africans waited for me at the bottom, seeing me come out of the fog as I made my way down. When I finally caught up with them, I explained how I almost fell off the mountain. They gave me some worried looks.
“But even if I would’ve fell off the cliff and survived, I would’ve had this to back me up.”
“What is that?” One of the South Africans asked me.
“This.” I pointed at my trusty strobe. I twisted it, to turn it on.
And it didn’t work.