Stepping out of the car, the butterflies in my stomach were dancing the quickstep. Rolling and pitching, producing a feeling of half excitement, half terror. Nervous laughter went round the four of us as we looked up and saw the sign, Welcome to Ben Nevis. This was it. It was happening. We were attempting to hike to the top of the UK’s biggest mountain, we were climbing Ben Nevis. Nik had just finished chemo, I was at the un-fittest I had ever been. How hard could it be…..
If you saw my previous post on this quest, when it was still in the far away, all-seems-like-a-laugh planning stages, you would know that this challenge came about in an off the cuff phone call between me and my sister in law. That post, Challenging Myself – Mountain climbing is where its at seems so far away now! The then was now. Having travelled up to Glasgow on the train from London two days before, here we were. Standing at the base of the mountain, the top not visible because of the mist, willing it to be a few thousand feet shorter……
Climbing Ben Nevis
After an early breakfast at our hotel, The ben Nevis Hotel and leisure Club in Fort William, we made the short car journey to the base of the mountain. It was a glorious morning, and I was excited to see that the famous Scottish mist was on full display for us. Standing at the start of the Ben Nevis track, the low lying mist was blanketing the valley below. Tiny chimney pots, the tallest of the trees, just peeping above, the rest of the buildings hidden, unseen below. It was just beautiful, and silent, almost other worldly, and just the perfect ceremony for our introduction and welcome to ole Ben.
It felt pretty chilly as we set out. We had been told to prepare for all weathers, so although there was no rain forecast, anyone that knows Scotland’s weather would know that it can be changeable, and those changes can happen in a heart beat! We had base layers on, then a light middle layer, then rain proof coats. In our bags were the added supplies of waterproof trousers and changes of socks, warm hats, gloves and scarves. We were ready for all weathers!
The start of the track is a nice walk, and you soon warm up!. It has a gradual incline, but the trail is fairly even terrain, and other than a few rocks to step up or small waterfalls cutting across the path to jump over, it was just like walking up a hill. One of the things I was looking forward to doing on this hike was tasting the fresh mountain water. Steadily climbing the path we saw many water falls, cascading down the mountain, cutting their way through the rocks and tumbling through any openings it had made.
We came across a section of the path where the water fall crossed, and pooled slightly, before continuing its thousands of years old route down the mountain. We stopped to take our chance to drink. Leaning at the side of the pool, I scooped up the crystal clear water and drank. It was literally like a life elixir! The pureness, the freshness, just tasted wonderful. I scooped up more and washed my face with it, cooling myself down and cleansing my face. It was like some primitive need to baptise myself in this most natural water. It was revitalising and energising, and just felt so bloody good!
As you go higher up the track, the terrain changes dramatically. You suddenly go from a fairly even ground, to boulders and rocks, that form a never ending, upward winding staircase. When I say never ending, it WAS NEVER ENDING. We found that we were now stepping up various heights and sized rocks, at times having to grab things to try to pull ourselves up by. Thigh muscles began to burn, the lungs began to work harder, our happy smiling faces were now set in concentration and effort.
We had been climbing for about 3 hours when I started to really struggle. My legs were heavy and my lungs were burning. It was relentless. By now, the sun had burn off the mist, so we were being heated up by the gorgeous sun. Off came our coats, but then, when you stopped for a water break, or a little energy snack, the height we were up the mountain meant that it was cold. Within minutes you were cold and the coat went back on. Many people were turning back. People happy that they had got even half way up the mountain were turning back, ready to start the climb back down. I knew how much it meant to Nik to get to the top of the mountain, he needed to do it, so we pushed on. My sister in law was the same as me. She too was finding it incredibly hard going. We joked that despite our training walks and preparation we had done, we suddenly realised that Essex was actually the flattest county in England! What we thought were good hills to practise on, were mere ant mounds in comparison to Ben.
We pushed on, and after another hour and a half of climbing, I knew that I was coming to my limit. My legs were now at the stage that they were struggling to push up the steps, so I was getting wobbly. The air was thinner as we were 3000 feet up the mountain. I was honestly exhausted and I knew I had to climb back down again. We rounded a bend on the mountain, and my sister in law, who was just in front with her husband, was walking towards us. She too was done. Had nothing left in the tank. We were also incredibly aware that we had about a 3 hour trek back down. I felt tearful, but knew it was my time too. We had reached just over 3/4 of the way, but would climb no further.
Turning to my husband, I knew as soon as I looked at him that he was going to climb on. His determination was in his eyes. I worried, I knew he was struggling too, but I also knew that he had to do what he had to do. Cancer had taken so many choices away from Nik, he needed to take back some of the control it had robbed from him. Kristian, Mandi’s husband had continued to climb on when Mandi turned back, so we said our goodbyes to Nik, and we watched him slowly make his way onwards up the mountain. I was so scared that he was on his own. We worried watching him go. Mandi called Kristian to tell him that Nik was following slowly on behind him. Kristian, who is super fit and cycles hundreds of miles a week, told us not to worry, he would find him. Watching Nik become a little ant, moving up the mountain in the ever increasing distance, we turned to make the slow trek back down.
It took us a further 2.5 hours to get back down the mountain. Coming down was as hard, but in a different way. You were suddenly aware of how high you were, as you were looking down the mountain, not up! It was also tough on your knees. We stopped a few times for an apple, or to just sit and marvel at the beauty of the mountain. It really was spectacular up there. The air, the views. the quiet. Everything
A fair while after we set off back down, we got a call. Kristian had found Nik, and he was still climbing! Mandi and I both burst into tears. We were both so aware of the need he had to do this. I cannot tell you how proud I felt. My husband amazed me with his whole attitude to the bastard that is cancer, now look at him, almost at the top of blooming Ben Nevis, 4 months after finishing 8 months of daily chemo. We cried like babies. Gawd only knows what people thought as they passed us on the trail. But, we didn’t care. Hugging each other, our aching limbs suddenly forgotten, we carried on making our way down the mountain.
Reaching the bottom, we felt victorious. How could we feel even an ounce of disappointment that we didn’t get the last 800 feet under our belt. Suddenly, we had conquered that mountain. Ben Nevis had provided us all with what we needed. Mandi and I knew that we had pushed ourselves to our absolute limit, and got 3/4’s of the way. Nik and Kristian had got to the top. Kristian even went right up to the monuments that are on the flat summit. It was a victory. Nik had conquered his own mental challenge, which I know was the biggest victory. He had conquered so much more than that mountain!
It took Nik and Kristian a total of 8 hours to get up and down the mountain. To be fair, Kristian probably could have done it in an hour (lol) but he stayed with Nik the entire time, willing him on, encouraging him all the way. It felt incredibly emotional seeing them come down, Nik using is sticks like crutches, inching his way down. We all felt immensely proud of ourselves, incredibly lucky, raised thousands fro MacMillan Cancer and know that we shared a beautiful experience. Id love to say that the broken way we felt for the following week taught us a valuable lesson, but it would seem not…. We have agreed to do Snowdon in march. Pass me the gin………..
So, what can I tell you about climbing Ben Nevis
- Have the right boots. They must be suitable for mountain hiking. Its the ankle protection and supportive sole you need.
- Make sure you prepare for all weathers
- Layer up. those clothes will be on and off
- take energy rich snacks with you
- have plenty of water with you
- TRAIN – Do not underestimate this mountain. It is an incredibly tough climb for the moderately fit
- Keep an eye on the weather. We gave ourselves an option of three days and watched the weather.
- Make sure you book a hotel with a bath. You will be so grateful of a soak after!
- Book a hotel near by. We stayed in the Ben Nevis Hotel and Leisure Club, just a few minutes drive away.
So there we have it. It was one of the hardest, but most rewarding things I have ever done. What do you think? What about you, have you done anything that has challenged you? Do you feel the need to adventure still? Anything that has felt like a huge achievement to you? Tell me everything, you know I love to know!