The Wild-West Highland Way #8

Monday 5th May
The Ascent of Ben Nevis – 4,406 feet (10 Miles)

When I woke up, the first thing I did was to switch on the T.V. for the weather forecast. It was pretty dire, but the view from my window told a different story. It wasn’t too bad, and it was then that I decided – today was the day!

I went to tell Colin and we made ready, packing our stuff into the small day sacks that Erik and Malc’ had so kindly left at the B&B for us. When we arrived here, Mrs McKenzie said these two sweaty, panting men had left something for us. We were relieved to find it was just the sacks! They had left a message on what looked like a disabled parking disc. It said: “What a walk – we beat the pack carrying service!” I was pleased for them, but I couldn’t get this picture in my mind of some poor disabled person coming back to their car to find a parking ticket stuck to their windscreen.

Rather than walk the 3km or so to the youth hostel, we took a taxi. It cost £3 and dropped us off at the youth hostel. Although it was quite warm, and a tee shirt was sufficient for now, we had all the gear stowed away for whatever could be thrown at us. It looked like we might need it too, as we saw that the weather forecast was written on the information board in RED! It was telling of temperatures of minus 15 degrees at three thousand feet, and we were hoping to go to over four thousand. Ah well, we could always turn back and come again tomorrow, but seeing as we were there, we set off.

The ascent of The Ben is one long uphill walk. I make no bones about it, but I’m also not complaining. The difference from other mountains I’ve been up is that you start from almost sea level, so you really have got to climb every foot of the way. The weather was still fairly good, and the views more than compensated for the hard work. We gradually gained height and had to put another layer on as the temperature began to fall. We were soon at the same height as, and could plainly see across the valley, the vitrified fort I was at yesterday. The defence ring could be seen far more clearly now. The view up the Glen was good too. Yet, the more we climbed, the more spectacular things were becoming. More and more distant lochs that had been hidden by surrounding hills were slowly revealed and our wonderment grew.

More clothes went on, including gloves and a balaclava to ward off the now very cold air. One surprising fact was that we were not seeing many people. We had seen about five so far, and we didn’t know whether they had been to the top or not. Halfway up the mountain, we passed Lochan Meall and entered the snow line. We looked across Glen Nevis and could plainly see Freddie’s farm and the West Highland Way path threading through the woodland far below. We took many pictures of the views, and also of our surroundings as now we were seeing frozen waterfalls, banks of snow and rime ice.

The weather then began to change and we had to contend with horizontal snow driven at us by strong winds. It was very stinging on the face, but we pushed on. We were nearing the top now, but could not see it. A guy coming down said he had been up, but couldn’t see anything for the clouds. We still decided to go for it and he told us of a short cut across a large snowdrift. We thanked him and set off for the final part. I had got my card from the mountain rescue people on how to get off The Ben in white out conditions without falling into Gardyloo gully, and we both had compasses to hand.

As we approached the last few yards, I hung back and let Colin top out first. The wind was screaming and the snow was blowing, but the elation from us both was far more powerful. Here we were, bank holiday Monday, the two highest people in Britain, on top of the most popular mountain, and we were alone. We stayed for a good forty minutes, taking photos and marvelling at the views. We could only remove our gloves for about thirty seconds at a time though, as it was so cold the feeling in your fingers started to go after that. Also, my camera kept flashing the ‘low battery’ light, but as I had only put new batteries in the previous day, I knew it was due to the cold. To my amazement, there were two Snow Buntings flitting around. They seemed unaffected by the strong wind and cold. If I’d have had any food to give them, I would have but today they were unlucky.

We ‘explored’ the summit, noticing that there was a shelter, but it was under about three feet of snow. There is also a stone refuge hut perched on top of a cairn-like structure, but we didn’t go in it. Gardyloo gully had the most amazing cornice of snow hanging over it. It was by far the biggest I’d ever seen. It made a good foreground for photos when the weather cleared to give a dramatic backdrop. The weather abated slightly and we enjoyed our situation before (unnecessarily) following the mountain rescue card off the top to see how well it worked. I can tell you, it’s spot on! One of the guide poles had been broken off, but following the instructions led us right to the stump.

We turned our back on The Ben and started down. Again, we didn’t see many people near the top, but we did see more lower down. It’s easy to see how dangerous situations develop when you look at some of the stuff people were wearing. One guy had trainers and a thin cagoule with just a t-shirt on underneath, and no rucksack. I told him it was very cold higher up, but he just shrugged. I think that maybe I should have told him about the body they had found last Saturday that had been there for months!

It had taken us just over three hours to get to the top of Ben Nevis, and about two hours to get down (mainly because we kept stopping to talk!). The surrounding mountains had acquired a fresh sprinkling of snow and it all looked just too good to be true. At the bottom we went into a shop and bought yet another roll of film. I thought I had brought enough with me, as I had ten rolls, but I had run out. We visited the cafe, and just as we sat down, the heavens opened and it rained really hard. Just how lucky can you get? I rang Erik up and asked him what it was like to own a rucksack that had been up Ben Nevis! He was very pleased for us that we had done it, and we vowed to walk with him and Malc’ again soon.

We caught a taxi back, and later that evening went out and let ourselves go completely at a Scottish evening in Fort William. The following day we went to Freddie and Feyas’ lovely house in the hills, and Wednesday we caught the bus back to Glasgow. The bus trip back is interesting, as it runs a lot of the way parallel to the West Highland Way, so you see things from a different angle.

We got the plane home and, on arrival at East Midlands airport, went through the usual X-ray procedure. My stomach knotted when the examiner suddenly perked up and said: “Wait a minute, wait a minute,” to the guy passing the luggage back. “Oh God,” I thought, “some international drug dealer has slipped something into our sacks, and we’ll end up in the Bangkok Hilton.”

“EXCUSE ME SIR!” The words cut through to us like a knife. “Could I just have a look in your bag please?” The customs man slowly extricated Colin’s things whilst asking salient questions about the West Highland Way. Had some Scottish drug baron used Colin as an unwitting Mule? Would we rot for the rest of our lives in the ‘Glasgow Hilton’? To our relief, there was nothing untoward in there. Apparently, the problem was the gift Colin had bought for his son. It was called a radiometer, and it was like a small windmill in a light bulb, but it was powered by the sun. I think it made a different picture from the usual stuff on the X-ray screen! Cleared of international offences, we were released into the community without charge. We reflected on our wonderful holiday. If only it was the 28th of April today, but it wasn’t, so we sighed, swapped boots and went outside to await our lift home.

I wonder what I can do, if anything, to top that walk? Almost everything was perfect. The only things I can think of that I missed doing were a trip up the ski lift at White Corries, and a pint in the Clachaig Inn. Still, there’s always next time!

The company was the best, the mountains have done exactly as I feared they would and I can’t wait to get back to them. Just after I had got back, the front cover of the walking magazine I have had a picture looking down Glencoe, and it brought it all back.

Don’t do the West Highland Way as your first walk, because after this, it must be downhill! Seriously, if you do the walk, I hope the weather is as kind to you. I have enjoyed it immensely and would recommend it as the top walk in Britain.