Wet, bedraggled and miserable: not us but one of the first couples coming down the mountain as we struggled up the precipitous paths near the bottom of Ben Nevis. It was barely nine in the morning and hadn’t been light for long and before us stood an attractive but very soggy teenage couple.
“When did you leave to get to the top of the mountain,” we asked. “Two o’clock this morning,” came the reply, “we’re both so wet – look – soaked through this jacket. Our feet are wet and cold. It was terrible.”
They had set off to see the sunrise from the top of Britain’s highest mountain but all they had seen was mist. In daylight the popular path to the summit is tricky and easy to lose your way in the mist but in the dark it must have been terrible to say the least. A romantic plan scuppered by not checking the weather forecast.
My sister Sally (over from New Zealand) and I had set off from the visitor centre on the long path that leads to the first rocky outcrop, hoping to get up and back over the ten miles of so in about seven hours one October day.
Our first encounter was with a family who spoke Hebrew and English with a mid-Atlantic accent – whose youngest member – a small girl – skipped past us as we began to regret wearing so many clothes. I refrained from making a joke about bringing tablets down from the mountain and we struggled on. We had barely reached the first incline when the first returners appeared – those who had already been to the top. Some had left at 4am some at 5am but all in the dark meaning they had used torches to light their way over the boulders which made up so much of the way. And then we also met the bedraggled romantics who where perplexed they couldn’t see the sunrise – just a grey wall of rain. A triumph of hope over practicality – and something to argue about in years to come – whose idea was it?!
On we pressed and got talking to a group of young female students who were clearly out with the male tutor. Wrong. They described themselves as a ‘group of middle-aged women who wanted a challenge’ and the tutor was a professional guide called Dave. They were very pleased with my description as they explained they had been students twenty years ago. Dave had words of wisdom on survival and history notes. Apparently, the Victorian Observatory on the summit was supplied by two relays of ponies who carried their supplies of port and cigars and whatever 19th century weather observers ate up in shifts.
Onwards again and now we were being overtaken by group after group – some couples, some groups of guys on a weekend and some family parties. But all going faster than us. It was then that Sally made her first and only joke that worked time and time again. As some strapping chaps strode past she’d say: “When you get there put the kettle on!” And without fail the reply (amid much laughter) came back: “OK – of course!” or “Will do!” or “Tea or coffee?”
The pathway is a mixture of neatly laid rock steps, gravel paths and jumbled rocks and boulders over which you have to clamber (often on your hands and knees) and where a slip could lead to a bad fall. It climbs steeply to a valley where below is Lockan Meall an t-Suidhe also known as the Halfway Loch. As we reached this point, I asked two elderly bearded men if we were halfway – and they said we were – in fact halfway was further up at the ford. It was the first of many inaccurate instructions from walkers including how far it was, when it got dark or if we were nearly there. We weren’t.
At a gushing water fall the Middle-Aged women’s guide Dave instructed everyone to put on their wind proof jackets. He also stopped us from taking a short cut – which he said was damaging to a bed of Alpine plants. But it didn’t stop everyone and despite Dave’s warnings some walkers who took the short cut saved themselves a good mile.
By now there were doubts. Could we make it? A trio of Liverpool hikers were having problems convincing one of their number to keep going as he wanted to go back. And the Middle-Aged Women had lost one of their number whose vertigo had forced her to give up. A very round gentleman had sat down on a rock and despite encouragement from his thin partner he said: “No more. I’m going back.”
Onto the hardest section of zig-zag paths of rough rocks where every footstep had to be carefully placed. The question now (apart from the putting the kettle one on) was, are we nearly there? As we approached the final rocky stretch the answers varied from, “only about ten minutes,” to a few hundred metres further on to “at least half an hour.” The mists had come down and the temperature dropped, and we realised how easy it would have been to wander off the path – and even worse than falling over a precipice treading in human feces. There was plenty of evidence of those caught short as tissues and loo paper dotted the bleak post nuclear war landscape of broken rocks. Worse was to follow later when Sally went behind a large rock to spend a penny to discover piles of human waste including toilet paper and tampons. A rock we named prosaically as Poo Rock.
It does beg the question – the average walker must spend eight hours with no toilet facilities – with very few places to hide in order to relieve themselves other than to poo or wee in public. This is something the tourist board and travel bloggers don’t mention as they only describe the joy of climbing Ben Nevis. Mountains over the world must be covered in poo – a thought best not dwelt on. Apart from poo there was litter, especially at the summit where the trash of choice was first banana skins, then orange peel, then sandwich wrappers and the odd can and crisp packets. I counted only one dog poo bag, two cigarette butts and several discarded woollen hats. For the litter pickers of this world Ben Nevis presents a challenge as there are no litter bins.
Now within reach of the summit we met two men of Indian sub-continent heritage with Leicester accents who were even slower than us. “We’ve been left behind,” they said, “the others have gone on ahead and even worse they’ve taken all the chocolate.” It was the perfect incentive to keep going: to seize back their chocolate rations. With just yards to go and with thick mists swirling around and a freezing wind a family passed us with small children seemingly oblivious to the elements and the uneven ground. It was if they were just out for a walk in the local park. Children and dogs seemed ideally suited to the craggy landscape – why send adults up mountains when kids and our four-legged friends make light work of it – without a hiking pole or an expensive multi-pocket rucksack but instead with a Thomas the Tank Engine backpack containing only a packet of Wotsits.
Sally’s joke about the kettle had its thirtieth outing – a lesson for stand-ups – if a joke works keep it going. And then the replies came as the returners passed us a second time – a man wearing shorts with red knees from the cold, the Middle-Aged Women and Dave shepherding them back down and lads in trainers and football shirts. There was another professional guide who cautioned us away from the edge of the cliffs – he was charged with walking a very unsteady older man on his ski poles along the path past the ghost-like cairns. And there were the bearded ones – tall men with all the gear – sporting huge mountain-men beards. Each one returning Sally’s kettle joke with “hurry the tea’s getting cold,” or “the café’s run out of milk” or “I hope you’ve got some digestives to dunk.”
And so, to the summit – a rock strewn wilderness of ankle breaking stones – the tumbled remains of the observatory, a locked emergency shelter and a tall cairn proclaiming the closest spot to heaven in Britain. And there was the litter of course and scores of people eating cheese sandwiches, pouring themselves cups of tea from flasks and saying how cold it was. Everyone was friendly and polite sharing their stories of how the mountain was ‘on their bucket list’, or part of the Three Peaks Challenge (which meant a quick photo and off), or something they’d always wanted to do in memory of a loved one. There were several small shrines to the departed including one for a tiny child complete with a candle. A candle that in the unrelenting wind was unlikely to ever burn.
Tucked away in a corner of the observatory was a party of men quietly munching their lunch. I asked them if they were from Leicester and they said yes. We reminded them they had left two of their colleagues behind and had taken their chocolate with them. At that moment the two Leicester slowcoaches appeared claiming their chocolate amid much laughter and sighs of relief. To celebrate they asked Sally to take their photo and in return gave us what they called ‘Hindu sweets’ or Gulab Jamun – round balls of sticky sweetness – the perfect sugar rush to help us to start the return journey.
In the face of a freezing gale-force wind, we set off along with others struggling to get creaking legs to work. Sitting down on the rocks on the summit – even for a few minutes – meant muscles begin to lock up. Some of those who now followed the stony path back down seemed barely able to walk – some were either holding onto their friends to steady themselves, and some going so slowly it was unlikely they could get down in day light. But not wishing to encumber myself with them I pushed these frail types out of the way and headed home. OK – I didn’t but we noticed coming up those coming down almost without exception forced us to the side while they strode past with only one thought: to get to the Ben Nevis Inn for a drink. Mountain etiquette, there was none.
We thought that since we had reached the summit at around 1pm after five hours we would likely to be the last to make it as darkness fell around six in the evening. But no – more hikers were arriving as we made our way down making us wonder how they would tackle the near vertical path in the dark. The answer came when more than one person ran down the side of the mountain over the rockiest of ground and not on the path but cutting out the zig-zags, and no doubt arriving early for the that drink at the bottom. And that dear reader is where we headed for and a couple of pints of beer – possibly the best beer we have ever tasted having completed a nine-hour hike – or a very long walk with added boulders.
Why did we do it is a question I’ve been asked. Last year my sister Kath survived a cancer operation and before the surgery we climbed the Merrick – the highest mountain in southern Scotland. We set the Ben (as it’s called) as part two a year later. Sadly, Kath deemed herself unfit for Ben Nevis and remained at the bottom but joined us for a drink to celebrate. Sally had stepped in and so – that’s the reason why we did it – and it means I’ve now climbed two mountains.
The Observatory was run by the Scottish Meteorological Society from 1883-1904 before finally being abandoned in 1916. It must have been a pretty bleak life up there but since they built a path for the ponies to carry up their port and cigars it encouraged tourists to visit – something that continues to this day.
For details for the work of the journalist Harry Mottram visit www.harrymottram.co.uk and follow him on FaceBook, Twitter as @HarryThe Spiv, Instagram, YouTube and God knows where else!