Ben Nevis Hike – 19th September – 20th September 2015:
I have always wanted to live an exciting life and wanted to be someone that after each weekend can sit here and tell you about my spontaneous adventures sky diving out of a plane or something along those lines. The problem with that dream of mine is me! In theory it sounds amazing to try all this adrenaline junkie fun, but when it comes down to it, I overthink things and talk myself out of it.
In reality, my lifetime theory so far is, if it sounds scary then it probably is, so I would rather play it safe. This also results in the regular question of “Did you have a nice weekend” in which I give a dull and miserable response of “Yeaaaaa”. It becomes clearer when people ask me to elaborate on what I did and they realise that I am listing out the Saturday TV guide schedule.
Things changed after a cruise on board Celebrity in May 2015. This was a short cruise with a very special guest speaker on board who is someone I have idolised for a while, Ben Fogle! He is someone who you could listen to for hours. If you were to ask him “Hey Ben, how was your weekend?” He would respond with something epic like swimming with sharks or juggling knives (ok maybe not knife juggling). I have followed his achievements for a while and felt incredibly excited to hear him speak about his adventures. Ben rose to fame on a television programme where he had to survive on a remote island with a group of strangers; they lived on rations and back to basics (food and living wise). After the success of the show Ben continued to put himself through several physical challenges earning him great success. We listened as he spoke about rowing across the Atlantic or his gruelling participation in the Marathon de Sables, to name a few of his amazing accomplishments. As I sat there, I started to feel slightly sad that I have never had the guts or courage to challenge myself in anything, but listening to Ben Fogle, definitely inspired me to make a well needed change.
I know so many people that have run for a charity or taken on all sorts of challenges for various organisations; I have always donated to their causes and respected them for taking it on. This is where I decided to start my adventure; I wanted to challenge myself but thought that I should try to combine this with a good cause. I researched some of the charities I am familiar with; one I particularly wanted to look at was Marie Curie Hospice, as they looked after both my Grandmother and Grandfather when they fell ill. I always respected their work and thought that this would be great to give thanks and support. Luckily they have a section on their website that has all the events that they are organising which you can sign up to and get involved. Initially I searched for charity runs or walks to ease myself in, but I think with a rush of adrenaline I decided to look at something more adventurous and found several mountain climbs. Without a second thought I signed myself plus my trusted travel companion Dipali for a climb to the summit of Ben Nevis. The run or walk went out the window, I have roped us into a dare devil option. This is quite ambitious for someone like me who is firstly afraid of everything; I haven’t even climbed a steep hill let alone hike up a mountain.
The first challenge we then had to face was finding out where Ben Nevis actually is! I work in travel and can give you advice on Asia or South America or anywhere outside of my own country. When it comes to places on my own doorstep, I realise that I have limited knowledge, I agree that is pretty pathetic but in later conversations with friends or colleagues I started to realise that I am not alone in this. We figured out that Ben Nevis is located in a beautiful part of the Scottish highlands called Fort William, so the next challenge was to figure out the very best route to this area without having to spend everything I own to get there. The most frequent way to travel to Fort William is to fly into Glasgow and then take a train which is about 3 and half hours. This seemed bizarre as the nearest airport I could see to Fort William is Inverness so why not fly here? Well, the train to Fort William is a lot less frequent and it appeared that the date I needed did not have a flight that ran in line with catching the train. Our dates are restricted so we have only given an extra day before and a day after the event to stay in Scotland. If we had more time, another adventurous option is to take a sleeper train from London (Caledonian Sleeper) all the way to Fort William which is something I may explore at a later date. Even though Glasgow has more trains available to Fort William we decided to book flights to Inverness and then hire a car. This is another easy option and I would say the quickest solution especially when you are limited with your dates, this also has come up as a top scenic drive with the possibility of seeing the Loch Ness monster, what more would you want from a journey. I already felt excited to have passed this little challenge and I decided to surprise my Dad with the fact that his wuss of a daughter is being brave. He seemed surprised and very proud of my decision and decided to join us and drive us all to Fort William for support! In truth, my dad is a very adventurous and sporty man; the trip to Ben Nevis is very much his kind of thing, he probably wanted to take on a personal challenge as mountain climbing is something he did a lot as a young boy.
The date has arrived for our trip and we have an EasyJet morning flight direct to Inverness, which will have us there before midday. We have a car booked which we are collecting at Inverness Airport from where we can make a slow drive over to Fort William, taking approximately 2 hours. Inverness Airport isn’t too big so we make our way out quickly and collect our car. As we set off the drive is beautiful, you will drive through the main city for the first 40 minutes or so but then as you’re approaching the Loch Ness area you end up on small winding country roads with the Loch on one side. We pull up at a stopping point to take some pictures, and yes I won’t lie, we are looking out for the monster. After an unsuccessful few minutes not finding Nessy we continue on towards Fort William driving for another hour and a half. The mountain range starts to appear as we get closer (which is also spotted on your approach into Inverness Airport). As this is late September the weather is quite temperamental and visibility on top of the mountain can be limited, looking towards the mountains, the tops are completely covered by clouds.
For people like us who have not ever hiked before then you should try and do a little research to prepare yourself, there will be an essential kit to have for any mountain hike so try and purchase hiking boots / a good quality day pack to carry water and energy boosting snacks and for those that may prefer walking aids, you can take hiking poles which are helpful on steeper climbs. The company who are organising your hike (in our case Marie Curie) will send you a detailed essential kit list, I recommend visiting an outdoor (hike specialist) store for the correct equipment and advise, all the staff are experts in hiking so can help you pick out your equipment. I have my boots and back pack with all my snacks and water; I decided not to get any hiking poles as I didn’t understand the point of them in all honesty.
Fort William is a very quaint little area with everything highly geared at hiking; we must have passed hundreds of outdoor shops. If you have forgotten any of your equipment then you will definitely have a second chance to grab some last minute kit. There is also a good selection of restaurants and places to stop for a drink. There are several groups like us that are preparing to tackle Ben Nevis, this September weekend; it seems to be a popular time. That will again be down to weather, September isn’t too hot or too cold but this still doesn’t guarantee a clear summit or ice free mountain.
Hotel wise the charity has a preferred hotel where they arrange for you all to meet the rest of the group early in the morning called the Moorings Hotel, we checked out the rates for staying here which were not bad however, we managed to get a much better rate for the Premier Inn. I also opted for this hotel because of its location, it is only ten minutes from our main meeting point but it appears to be in a more central position, allowing quick access to the local shops or restaurants. The hotel has its own restaurant for your convenience and as this is just a 1 night stay to have a good rest before our hike; the hotel meets all our needs. After a short wander around the area and a quick stop off at the local supermarket we spend the rest of the evening at our hotel and get an early night.
The next day we manage to wake up very early allowing us time for breakfast before we have to make our way to the Moorings Hotel, during breakfast I notice one or two other early risers with Marie Curie t-shirts on which is weirdly reassuring, I looked over to them with my Marie Curie shirt on and we give each other supportive nods, it is a silent exchange of “Good Luck”. After breakfast we take a short drive to our meeting point, this is where we have to register and check in for the hike,. You are required to return here after the hike and check out for safety reasons so that they can account for everyone on the mountain. The organisers also provide you with additional snacks and water if needed and check through your essential kit to make sure you are kitted out correctly for your climb. The most important part to the meeting point is that this is your last chance to use the toilet as there will not be another loo for hours, well there is another opportunity but that will be behind a bush or a rock (expect a mountain goat to watch you in action).
Once we have checked in we make our way out towards the hotel car park, make sure you have a camera (or camera phone) with you as there are some stunning views of the mountain. The clouds are very low today so we can’t see the peaks; it isn’t especially cold but very fresh. The best part is how clean the air is, the whole time we have been in Fort Williams I have noticed how clean the air is; I am not used to being able to smell greenery and nature around me, I am almost trying to sniff out petrol fumes and the odd dog poop smell that we are so used to in London. After a few minutes wait, several large coaches pull up to take us to the base of Ben Nevis, I make it onto the second coach which sets off towards the mountain. The feeling in my stomach right now is strange, I almost think there is an element of fear because I am unsure what to expect and if we will be safe. (You would think I am climbing Everest with the way I am behaving).
Once we arrive at the base car park, we meet our assigned mountain guides who will be placed at various check points on the mountain for our group. We all huddle around one of the guides who explains how our day will be and what to expect. The part we are not prepared for is the fact that we have a time frame to hit the summit; if we don’t make it by this time then we would be made to return back to the base! That threw us a little bit as we were hoping that this could be done at our own pace (as stated in the correspondence from Marie Curie), there will be some members that are slower than others so the shock was expressed on most of the groups faces. I check the time and it is 8am, we have been advised our summit cut off is 1pm. I read online that it should take around 2-3 hours at a steady pace to reach the top of Ben and another 2 or 3 hours to return back down. I decided that we have more than enough time and that it will not be an issue to get there by 1pm.
After a few minutes we are making our way past a gate and through a grassy area with a path way towards the mountain. The path has a slight climb which starts making me think “if it is like this the whole way, I could run up there”. I think this is either called denial or stupidity as the climb would never be this easy otherwise they wouldn’t call it a challenge.
Up ahead of us in the distance I can see the first coach group who have a 20 minute head start on us, we have our second coach group with us and I start to have a look at my fellow challengers. The group is a very mixed age group; there are young people, older couples and teenagers walking with their parents and a few have even brought their dogs along for the climb. Impressively the older couple seem to have a very steady pace and are out doing some of the younger ones! I am into people watching, I look at our group and you can see which ones are in this for a leisurely stroll and which ones are really going for it. The category that Dipali and I fall into as this is a first time experience for us is the leisurely strollers, the first half an hour of your walk isn’t too strenuous and is a very scenic path. Because it is still early we feel that there is plenty of time so we are making a lot of stops in between the walk to take pictures. The gradual climb allows you time to look back and take in the most stunning scenery; my camera is out and snapping everything around me. I never realised that such a beautiful landscape existed so close to home.
The thing to remember with the early part of the climb is that whilst this seems more like a stroll in the beginning, this will dramatically change as I am now finding out. Initially we come across a section of large boulders that requires you to step quite high and pull yourself up. The path has now changed and it is becoming more and more narrow and boulders that seem to be getting higher and higher than the last set. This is where I am now seeing where the challenge is, with each high boulder I step up onto, the more I can feel my breathing getting heavier and my legs being tested. I have also started to see the reason behind hiking poles! I turn and notice that Dipali is putting her hiking poles to good use with a slight look of “I told you so”.
The struggle up the mountain is taking its toll on the group and some of the boulders have us scrambling on all fours at times which I definitely wasn’t prepared for. After we are get over each cluster of high rocks and boulders we are finding sections on the side to catch our breath. Dipali also suffers with Asthma so this is extra challenging for her with the slight change in the air as well as using our energy to climb. One of the mountain guides has seen us chilling on the side and notices that Dipali is breathing a little heavier. He stops to assist telling her that she should take little breaks to adjust to the new altitudes, he then looks at his watch and advises that with the pace we are going and the amount of stops we have made that we will miss the summit, heartbroken I am now silently panicking and thinking “we have so many sponsors, not finishing is not an option”. He has now turned to a lady who is climbing with her son, who is struggling over a boulder, she looks so determined but is finding it difficult to climb the boulder so her son turns to offer her a hand, I find it slightly odd that the guide is sat and watching her without assisting so Dipali and I go over and help her to climb the last little step. We encourage her as she is actually quite emotional, which makes me realise how much this challenge means to people, with the fact that we potentially may not make the summit within the cut off has also made me realise how much this means to me. After all our encouraging, ‘Mr Happy’ (the mountain guide) turns to the lady and her son and says “you can carry on for a bit but then you may as well turn back, you are not going to reach the summit”. Perhaps as it is Sunday he had a very heavy Saturday night and would prefer us all to turn back so that he can basically go home!
It is around 10:30am now so we have been walking for over two hours, we have made a fair few stops and our pace of walking has slowed down with the change in path. Before we started the walk, Dipali and I made a pact that if one of us feels they can complete the challenge and the other cant, we agreed we will split up, this agreement was made as we knew that if we split, neither of us would be alone as we have done this through a large organised group. The donations have been made to us as a team so if at least one of us can complete the challenge then we have succeeded. As we continue walking, the words of ‘Mr Happy’ are ringing through my head in a weird negative but encouraging way. My pace has quickened, strength in my legs have picked up and I am starting to climb up a lot quicker, as I turn back I notice I have created a gap between myself and Dipali, as I stop and wait for her to join me she smiles and mouths the words “Jess just go”. Dipali has grouped herself up with the lady and her son so I know that she will be ok, plus, we are not so remote that your mobile phone won’t work, I have full bars and 4G!
I continue on and my pace has quickened dramatically, before I know it, I am alone! I have left the group behind me and I haven’t caught up with the group from before. I did a little mountain climbing research beforehand on methods of climbing and people have said in various online forums that the best way to tackle a boulder (some not all) is to try and run up, I decide to give this a try as I have noticed, tackling it slowly is forcing me to use more energy. I test it on a small section of boulders that are not terribly high; I take a slight run up and hop up quickly over each rock. It’s worked! If you stop and think about it too much and then take each step slowly, it slows you down and drains you out quicker. I feel proud of that little test, I have turned to see if anyone was watching me and if they are as impressed as I am, sadly again I realise I am all alone and the only witness is a couple of mountain goats that are stood on the edge. They then expertly run through a whole load of boulders and I swear one of them turns around to look at me again and gloat! To be fair, I have two legs and no hiking poles, they are on all fours so the champion is still clearly me (I tell myself).
After a little while I am passing people from the Marie Curie group again, did I take a wrong turn? I thought I left this group with Dipali, I then notice that this is coach group one! This has put into perspective how much of a pace I have managed to reach by having ‘Mr Happy’ tell us that we are all destined to fail. Everyone in this group are pushing hard to reach the top, although I am starting to see people turn back as they are tiring out. I am pushing on and as I pass some of our group they encourage me and say I am nearly there! I look up and see that they are right; I can see the peak under a low cloud. I finally decide to have a stop, what a lovely location I have selected, I am at a waterfall with a natural mountain spring. Still alone I take my camera out and decide to take pictures of the beauty around me, it is such a nice scene that I no longer care that I am on my own. I refill my bottle as this is supposed to be the best water (so I have been told, if I am wrong I will spend a lot of time in the toilet). As I relax for a few moments, other climbers are coming down from the mountain (not part of our group) and greeting me and telling me to keep going, I am nearly there. I have come across this a few times as I have passed a few people; there is a lot of respect and encouragement for each other, I assumed there would be a lot of competitiveness but it is in fact the complete opposite.
I continue onwards towards my goal without any clue as to how much further I will have. It can be very deceptive because from the springs if you look up you can see a peak, this looks as if it is fairly close, so with my lack of skills in climbing I am telling myself that I am probably another 20 minutes away. I see a guy jogging down from the mountain and I decide to stop him and ask roughly how much further I have, as I wait for him to say “you will be there in no time”, I nearly pass out when he tells me there is still almost another hour maybe less! I croak out a disappointed thank you and realise I still have a lot of ground to cover. I check my phone for the time and estimate that with the pace I have managed so far I should hit the summit by 11:50, I then cheer myself up as that is an hour and ten minutes earlier than the cut off so I decide to do a weird celebration mountain dance, alone obviously!
The air is becoming colder and my breathing pattern definitely starts to change as I climb higher, I also notice that it has become eerily silent. The greenery that I had around me earlier has almost vanished and I feel like I am in Mars (I haven’t actually been to Mars). The surface is all grey and rocky, there are a few plants growing in between but not much. I start to believe I am close, I have noticed piles of small rocks which must have been placed by other climbers; they will add a rock to mark out their climb and route. These markers I hadn’t noticed on the lower part of the mountain so excitedly I decide to add my own rock as this must mean that I have almost reached my goal.
The last mountain guide is in my sight now (albeit a cloudy sight) he then tells me that I am half an hour away. After passing him I am hit by thicker clouds and much colder air. I can see people in the clouded distance walking the last leg of the journey. Very faintly I can hear cheering so I start to speed up my pace as I am so excited by the fact that I am going to complete this challenge. As I approach my last leg, I am almost having to reassure myself that this is not a dream and that I really am about to achieve the first adventurous thing in my life. There is a rush of emotions that I have never ever felt before as I am generally not a soppy person. I start to think of my family, the ones who are no longer with us and wonder if they are watching over me and if they are proud, I had each of them in my mind when I began this trip and even told myself that I cannot let them down. I am finally at the top and make my last few steps over some more boulders and into thick clouded fog. There are a few people on the top taking photographs near the marker to show their achievements off to the world.
The top of the mountain isn’t what I was expecting or prepared myself for. The clouds were so thick and the cold just started to take over my body. Climbing up a mountain takes a lot of physical energy and I had not noticed that not only have I been sweating, the sweat had soaked through to all my clothes. With the drop in temperature at the top, my sweat has turned into freezing cold water which is causing me to feel quite cold. I reluctantly had carried a thick fleeced jumper in my back pack which I almost left behind as I didn’t want the additional weight, thank god I had it with me as I quickly put it over all my layers. The second little drama I start to have is my head starts to feel light, this could be down to the air but I mainly believe it is my own stupidity for not hydrating much along the way and not eating anything to boost my energy. I sit on a cold rock and decide to have a little picnic for one, the main thing I have is water and chocolate cereal bars. I start to feel lost without my climbing pal and hope that she hasn’t given up, I see more people approaching the top, my head bobs up like a meerkat hoping that I will see Dipali take her remaining steps to the top.
After I eat and hydrate I decide to join the other victorious climbers and take some pictures at the marker. I am also trying to pro long the time on top of the mountain; even though it is absolutely freezing I want to be here to congratulate my friend as I still have hope. The view is really limited but I quite like the fact that being so high up, I literally have my head in the clouds. I attempt a few snaps from the top to see if you can capture any view but it is too foggy. Twenty minutes go by and my body can’t take the cold anymore, I need to keep my body moving so I decide to give up and begin my journey to the bottom. Before I leave I locate another mountain guide who has been placed on top to mark off a register for those that have reached the summit.
The walk back down begins easily and nothing too strenuous, some of the rocks are slippery because the fog creates dew. I have located a handful of Marie Curie climbers who reached the top with me and are now making their way down. I befriend a couple and walk with them, it is nice to have some company, plus we are all on a major buzz about what we have just done. It seems like a lot of hard work to walk for so many hours just to spend a few minutes at the highest point of a mountain, perhaps for someone who hasn’t climbed before you would ask why people love to do this. The answer is, the feeling of accomplishment when you reach the top, a feeling that can become an addictive drug. This is an addictiveness that I was not expecting to feel at all, I have tackled strain on my legs, hours of walking, a mixture of weather but I crossed the finish line and I definitely want to feel like a winner again.
Thirty minutes walking back down I see a familiar figure in the foggy distance. I am not one hundred percent as to who it is at first because this person has a woollen hat on, but when I see the hat wearing figure smile at me I realise it’s my best pal Dipali, she didn’t quit! I am so happy to see her again and we quickly approach each other as if we have been on a long expedition and not seen each other for months. She explains that she has been walking for a while, the little groups she formed along the way decided to call it quits and head back to the base. Dipali said that she kept saying to herself, “I am going to go on a little more just to see how far I can get”, she wasn’t at this point intending to go on to the top. I then told her she is at the last marker, the summit is only half an hour from here, and she would be crazy to stop now, she is so close to the finish line. I agreed to continue back down to the waterfall spring (it is a lot warmer there) and I will wait for her. Again we have split up for just a little while longer, I know that it would bother her not to complete the climb especially as it is now within her reach.
After an hour, I am sat back at the springs taking pictures and drinking some natural water. I feel really good about the climb, I start to see Dipali walking back down towards me looking a lot happier, and I am pleased she continued onwards. The fact that she didn’t turn back with the rest of her group or allow the mountain guide from before put her off even trying has made me very proud. I honestly believe that the mountain guide may have put off quite a lot of people in our group because a lot of the group members I passed going up, I never passed again heading back down, this leads me to believe they gave up. Luckily, Dipali is a lot stronger and determined to complete something she has started; she has proved that with her perseverance, she has joined me in achieving our challenge.
As I mentioned before, I have never climbed a mountain, I have no knowledge or skills in this and made an automatic assumption that the climb up will be hard but the climb down will be a doddle. For those of you that haven’t climbed before, may also have this theory like I did. The descent is in fact the most difficult task, so be pleased with your climb but, be prepared for the hard part after this. When you start a climb, you have energy, your legs are strong and your goal is to reach the highest point and cross that finish line. All the strength in your legs is used for climbing, now as I begin my descent, my legs and feet are aching, I feel tired too. The rocks you tackle when climbing up are a lot harder coming down, you will be constantly stepping down at an angle trying to keep your balance as you do this. The climb down is something I wasn’t expecting to be so hard, Dipali and I have reversed roles, she is easily manoeuvring down the mountain whilst I am struggling, and my legs want to fall off my body. This is a massive and hard lesson learnt, try and keep some strength and energy for the descent or you will burn yourself out like I pretty much have done.
Half way down the mountain we notice another familiar face heading up to the summit; it is by now around 3pm so quite a late climb. It’s my dad, who only intended on exploring the area around the mountain. He advises that he started to walk up to see how high he could get, but now he wants to go all the way. I don’t want to kill his determination even though I am worried that the daylight will start fading soon, I let him continue as we head onwards to our base. I cannot wait to finish this day, my feet are in complete agony and I keep asking Dipali why I can’t see the bottom of the mountain yet! After another hour and a half I eventually see the gate we passed at the start of the climb, my pace speeds up so that I can get off the mountain. We have been through a few of the weather elements today, the start of this climb has been sunny and warm, the top of the mountain was freezing with little ice chunks on one side and our walk down has been a mixture of wind and rain, rain is the enemy as it makes everything very slippery.
The climb is over; we see a few more of the group that made the summit waiting for a coach back to the hotel. The coach pulls up before we know it and we are finally sat down and heading back to the hotel, I am so relieved to be sat down. Once we arrive at the hotel, I finally see the rest of our large group having tea and snacks. I didn’t realise how many of us took part in the challenge but it makes me see how many sadly didn’t finish it. Everybody gave it their greatest effort, I cannot help but feel they were discouraged by some of the mountain guides, whilst I appreciate they will want to look out for the climbers safety and I am by no means an experienced climber I still feel that a lot of the group would of completed their journey with a bit of enthusiasm from the experts. Either way, we congratulated everyone; every participant in my eyes is amazing. The best way to finish the climb is to receive a medal from Marie Curie, I can’t honestly say I have ever received a medal to represent something difficult and challenging that I have done, a memory of my first mountain.
After resting for a while and re energising we meet up again with my father who has returned from his victorious climb (I wish I could get him a medal too) I wasn’t expecting him to climb (under equipped I might add) he did it in record time as well! We are not staying in Fort William so will be making the drive back to Inverness as we have an early flight home the next morning.
I would recommend Ben Nevis to anyone who wants to experience a hike for the first time; all fitness levels are welcome as you will set your own pace. It is not a race so try and stop where you can and embrace the surroundings. For experience you can hire a guide to accompany you and offer the safest route based on your level of fitness. Take a couple of days and combine your climb with a stay in Inverness which is a beautiful city, I should have extended my stay here as there is a lot to see and I didn’t give myself enough time to sight see. Fort William has a lot of hiking routes so if you decide to spend a few days there are several routes you can do.
The climb has been one of the best decisions that I have ever made, it is hard work but if you take it at a leisurely pace and appreciate the landscape and scenery around you, then it is a beautiful and enjoyable experience. It has come as a surprise to all of us how much we have enjoyed this and I know that when I get home I will need to find another mountain to climb, I am addicted. The feeling you have when you get to the summit is something I want to feel again. I will need to build up some experience and skill but perhaps the best way forward is to tackle Snowdon and Scafell so that I can tick off the Three peaks. I am one down so two more to go. For a big challenge (perhaps when I become fitter) you can take the three peak challenge, this is where you complete the three climbs in 24 hours. I am not quite there yet, maybe someday…