The peak of Ben Nevis is crowned in cloud, a thick monolithic cloud that squats on top like a fairy-tale monster guarding a mountain dwelling. To reach this cloud is the Nevis trekker’s first quest. It is up to the cloud one looks through every rest; to the cloud as a star to gauge one’s distance to this Highland’s highest heaven. But then once across this boundary, once the trekker has passed into the belly of the beast: then they are Jack, climbing up and up and up, having no way of knowing how much more ‘up’ there is. Once in the cloud, you enter a different world, a timeless world, a world hanging in the sky; a world of mists concealing faeries and dragons and lost knights, a world of half-light, where wind swirls and flurries about your feet and where glowing, ethereal patches of snow shimmer suddenly above the sharp black rock, then vanish. It is a land of the unreal past or the real land of the dead.
Reaching this place, the highest point in Britain, was the high point of my year so far: the culmination not only of a morning’s trek and weeks of prepping and begging and fretting, but, with Hollywood-suspend-your-disbelief-coincidence, the half-way milestone of a year of trying one new thing every week.
A pity then that of all the thinking spots I could have chosen to dwell on these twin achievements, I chose the one where it’s rather difficult to dwell on anything. The world of the mountaintop may be dreamlike, but like an opium dream it comes with a rude awakening. That’s the problem with mountains I guess: you drag yourself all the way up to the top of them only to realise when you get there that, actually, the top of a mountain is the last place in the world you want to be. Even in late June, a few minutes loitering at the peak leaves your face soaked in icy droplets and your fingers numbed to total immovability.
And this was Nevis on an unexpectedly good day: in a sobering pre-trek briefing our hitherto giddy-with-anticipation group had been forecast thick fog and incessant rain. We had been forecast 70 mile-per-hour gales that would likely send us cartwheeling over fatal gully edges unless we dropped and cowered curled on the ground. We, by which I mean the 83 people who had gathered to trek to the top of Ben Nevis for Macmillan Cancer Support, had been prepared in fact for the strong possibility that it would not be safe for us to trek to the top at all. And that even if we could, visibility would be so poor we wouldn’t see where we were trekking anyway.
In the event, these were false forebodings. The weather for our ascent was kind – mildly warm, dry, with a most un-gale-like breeze, and although cloudy, clear. In other words, perfect weather for trekking and enjoying the view; a view that would have made Sir Walter Scott weep with rapture. When walking up the lower reaches of Ben Nevis it is against the backdrop of an ideal glen sprung straight from a Romantic artist’s imagination; and as you go higher you rise above the valleys, above the surrounding mountains, and there opens beneath you an expanse of hills and lochs like so many tranquil ponds amid garden rockeries. It was as though the gods had said to me, “Child, it is high time you had a good view to go with your hummus – now go forth and be a modern mountaineer”. Should I eat falafel wraps every day till the end of my days, never again will it be while taking in such a view as on that day.
As for the trek itself – it was strenuous, but not impossibly so. The path is sappingly steep in places, in others an almost imperceptible incline, but it is not the steepness of the path or even the distance that is difficult: it is the fact that it is constantly uphill, and is almost as constantly rocky, slippery and uneven. The path is something else too: it is crammed with people. Listening to the news you’d think half the world was at Glastonbury Festival last weekend; it would appear the other half were climbing Ben Nevis.
I’ll be the first to admit, I do not behave well in crowds. When caught in a slow-moving mass I am seized by anti-social claustrophobia, a most shameful affliction characterised by huffing, shuffling, rude exclamations, and a barely repressible urge to shove zig-zagging children in the face. This crowd, however, the Ben Nevis crowd, was a collection of individuals each carried up the mountain by a cause, a charity, a memory; or, as in my case, all three. And because of this, we humbled and inspired and carried each other – what is a little British mountain when you’re walking for relatives with cancer, or orphans in Syria? Never have I seen such camaraderie between strangers, camaraderie that went beyond pats on the back and words of encouragement to offers of food and equipment – between complete strangers. Even the children weren’t that annoying: and I can forgive a child for being annoying if its parents drag it up a Highland on a Saturday morning.
I did though briefly find this camaraderie frustrating: as we neared the peak, every person passing us on their way back down called out “Just five minutes!”. This was encouraging at first, but as five minutes, then ten minutes, then fifteen passed, and passing people were still cheerily calling out “five minutes!” as if a mantra, I began to wish they weren’t all so jolly eager to encourage those who hadn’t made it yet. To worsen my mood, when as a joke I pre-empted someone by asking “Is it just five minutes?” my victim replied, “Oh no, I think it’s more like ten” – vexatious woman!
Knowing now though what I do about the inhospitable peak, perhaps my climbing comrades weren’t telling us how far we still had to walk, but how long we should stay on the top. For five minutes was all it took for my gloves to soak, for my hands to freeze – five minutes on the highest point in Britain, before I legged it. I scrambled back down through the cloud as fast as my tired legs, my empty belly, an almost vertical slope of snow, and the loose rocks would allow. Which was not very fast at all. It took me a good hour to get out of the cloud: the monster had settled more snuggly on the mountain and lowered since I had entered it. It was the only truly unpleasant and painful hour of the whole day, the only hour in which the question “what am I doing here?” occurred to me as a reasonable one to pose. But once daylight burst back upon me, once feeling had returned to my fingers, once I saw the view again; I remembered.
The hardest part of going up Ben Nevis was coming down. Along the whole six miles or so of loose and slippery rocks you have to pick your way like a poodle with a fresh pedicure. What is more, your legs are shaking like a drunk’s off the drink and you are too tired to focus on your feet. The fact that I only fell over once I still consider a form of divine deliverance. That’s another problem with mountains, I guess, the hardest mental part comes after the hardest fatigue.
But at least, when the hardest part comes last, it makes you appreciate the rewards of finishing all the more. And mine came courtesy of the pub at the end of the path, where I had the best cup of tea of my life and reflected on the lessons of the first 26 weeks of this year: the world is beautiful, people are remarkable, and there is nothing quite like a cup of tea.
Onwards then, to the next 26 weeks.
I climbed Ben Nevis in aid of Macmillan Cancer Support. I am delighted to say that every one of the 83 people on the Macmillan team made it safely to the top and back down again. If you would like to give to Macmillan, my fundraising page will remain active until the 28th September 2013.