Ben Nevis, Scotland

Approx 1,700 words
© Joel Seath (2011)

April 2011

Ben Nevis, Scotland

I wake knowing today is the day planned for the ascent of Ben Nevis. It would be fair to say I have some trepidation. The mountain is some four and a half thousand feet high and what will it be like? This is the highest peak on this huge island home and I would like to get to the top of it; yet, it is a mountain all the same and I’ve never climbed right to the top of one before: the mountain of Brocken, in Germany, broke me early; on Beinn a’ Bheithir, my travel partners gave up on me. I vaguely think of going up the Ben but I realise now, after the event, how this is just vague.

When we park up, down at the foothills, I look up at the mountain and say: ‘That doesn’t look so bad; I thought it would be higher.’ Of course, this isn’t Ben Nevis. We must first traverse around Meall an t-Suidhe, this duplicitous rock, along the mountain track trail, before we take any significant upwards route. I don’t yet realise what’s in store. It’s easy to know things in retrospect. At this stage I am naïve: I wear my t-shirt and have a light woollen jumper around my waist; I leave my coat in the car because it’s a warm day. Later, we see a sign on another route down, which tells us how eight climbers a year die on the mountain because they’re inadequately prepared. As we begin to ascend I become irritable: I know the guides say this will be an eight-hour walk, up and down. I see a snow-capped mountain in the far distance: that must be Ben Nevis. It isn’t. I don’t know for sure which mountain we’re on. We can’t see the peak. Then the ascent starts in earnest. (I read the Wikipedia entry for Ben Nevis, at my computer as I type from my notebook some days on. It says: ‘the path is not unusually steep apart from in the initial stages.’ Don’t believe this!) It is difficult on endless rocks and smaller stones up the old pony trail to what used to be the summit observatory, zig-zagging along the contours. We stop frequently for water and chocolate and cake. I need the sugar. I look up. I don’t see Ben Nevis, nor a peak. We just don’t seem to make any progress, despite having already walked for hours. We are high, but the Nevis Range around us is also high and rises as we do. We walk at a similar pace to other groups around us and overtake them, and are overtaken by them, as we alternate breaks. As we go higher, talk lessens; brief greetings with other groups lessen. We become focused on the task. Hikers in specialist mountain-wear overtake us, and descend past us, as do day-walkers like us, in shorts and t-shirts: a group of young men, one with a carrier bag full of provisions; some young girls and their excessively enthusiastic small dog; the couple with the plastic walking sticks who don’t talk to one another. Our party includes two children. As we climb, I realise that this has become a personal mission: one step, one step, endlessly one step. I must watch every single step I place. We seem to drop into our personal drivenesses. It becomes a singular affair as we spread out on the mountain in our travelling groups, in between groups.

Near the top, I think: we’re near the top. We’re not. This is an endless mountain. I see a bluff and nothing beyond it but sky. That must be the top. It’s not. We have passed the small loch trapped between mountains, half way up or so, a reservoir of melt-water perhaps. It is way below now and the nearby range has become a far-off fall, not a continuing equal perspective. I can see the town of Fort William way below and the lochs and the headland of Morvern. Clouds and haze prevent a view out farther towards the sea in the west. Up above: the grey moonscape of rocks to the bluff. We passed the first snowsheet, and this was a novelty. I don’t realise, at the time, we will travel through more. Up at this height, around the bend on the bluff, waystation trail posts have been constructed every few hundred yards: square piles of rocks, head high. The eldest child, a teenager — just (he’s even disconnected from his iPod for this ascent) — and I add a rock or two to each waystation point, at first, as we pass: us high altitude artists. Art is a temporary distraction though. As we turn another trail corner, we think we’re near the top; however, there is a way off point which stretches, snow-ridden, away from us. We stand and stare. There’s a tangible sense of some group sigh, exasperation, a mixture, I guess, of ‘there’s more to go’, ‘there’s an end, perhaps, up there’ and ‘I can’t go farther.’ I say: ‘I haven’t come this far to turn around now. I’m not climbing for nearly four and a half hours not to get to the top.’

We’re over the worst, I feel. My determination, I think, implores the others on. In the near-distance there is what looks like it must be the summit. We push up through more snowsheets. My socks are wet inside my walking boots, but the boys only have trainers on. It’s colder up here, but not so cold as to be freezing in just my jumper. I have a brief sense of being inadequately clothed. The youngest child, a couple of years younger than his brother, is tired and cold, but he’s determined too. He pushes on up around the snow and over the rocks. His brother and I walk on faster, leaving the other adults behind. We’re determined, stupidly so. The end must be in sight. Here is a plateau. It must be the top. We see a waystation post of stones. There doesn’t seem to be anything higher here. This is it. I shake my mountain partner’s hand. When the others arrive, we take photos. The boys’ father points out across the plateau and says: ‘That part is higher’. I know he’s right, but am content enough with this being the top here. And yet, somehow, I also know we must walk the last section over the snow. The two of us walk out in exploration, like scouts, leaving the children and their mother on the rocks. When we’re sure, wordlessly, the rest of the party are beckoned, from afar, over the snowscape. We’re sure when we see, eventually, some stone piles which look like ruined houses. There is a small shack up some steps. There is an ordnance survey concrete pillar up on a plinth. I climb those seven steps. This is it: the highest mountain point on these islands.

The mountain summit is in the fog and clouds; five feet of snow is crusted on the edge which just falls away down, down into the deep glen. It is nature-quiet, utterly, except for the crunch of people’s footsteps on the snow, brilliant white and clear. I stand at the OS pillar and feel as if on top of the world. Everest is six times higher than Ben Nevis, but this is what it must feel like. I wonder how many started out today and actually made it here: we see the girls and their small dog, still lively but less so now. We sit and stand and just take it all in for a while. There are wispy fog clouds drifting over the mountain cliff edge. We are in the clouds. The sheet of thick snow looks like an arctic ridge. We could be at the North Pole. I sidle up to the edge, look out over it, don’t dare get too close in case the snow gives way. There are glacial blue streaks in the brilliant white. And down, there is down. One of the girls says: ‘I’ve climbed for four hours, I’m not going yet.’

Standing at the very top of a mountain, looking out over the snow plateau and at the cloud wisps over the cliff edge, sensing the weight of the presence of the drop, hearing practically nothing, nothing, is utterly otherworldly. I try to find words up there.

I see the clouds blacken around us. It’s four in the afternoon. It’ll take some hours for the descent. As we start off across the plateau of snow again, I realise suddenly that there is now an urgency. The weather may close in and I’m not clothed well, and neither are the boys. I have a tremendous need to get off the mountain top because of this, though I would like to stay in the quiet up on top of everything. The eldest and I run down the snowsheets: his feet are wet and cold and his hands are red raw. I tell him to keep moving. ‘My feet,’ he keeps saying. Despite our urgency, I see the play of others in the snow: they throw themselves down the snowsheets, tumbling over and over. Some indeterminate distance farther down, after the mix of danger and novelty of watching people slipsliding, makeshift sledging down the possibly perma-snowsheet, the sun’s warmth returns and makes its presence felt on us and I feel out of harm’s way again. Now for the luxury of down, though the novelty of this soon wears off: calves and thighs and soles ache on the stones down and down and down.

At the bottom, at the endless bottom, I ache. I see the warning signs that tell of climbers’ deaths. I realise the naivety of my climb and the good fortune of our weather today. I write, a good night’s sleep and lazy long morning on, knowing I have climbed a mountain here, made it to the top as many have, but as many haven’t, stood on the utterquiet snowplateau as if standing at the top of all land.

Ballachulish, Scotland
April 19, 2011


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