Sleeping on Ben Nevis, Scotland

According to those in the know, life begins at 50. Very useful if, like mine, over the years there was a dodgy kick-off, several false starts and a couple of non-runners.

Eventually though, Father Time has propelled me to my half century. I still can’t believe I am 50. Yes, I’m in denial. Wanderlust has a white knuckle grip on me and time is running out.

Britain's highest urinal

Emergency shelter

So, being a balding, ‘slightly’ overweight, middle-aged adventurer, I decided to spend the eve of my birthday (12th April, 2012 and yes the next day was Friday 13th) wild camping on the summit of Beinn Nibheis – that’s Ben Nevis, Scotland to my fellow Sassenach countrymen.

Unfortunately, heavy snow wiped out my plans of wild camping amongst the rocks which put Plan B into operation – a night in the emergency shelter.

The following ramble is my account of sleeping in Britain’s highest urinal. I can only thank god that it was frozen in there.

Seems like a nice day…

The morning of the 12th heralds a sunny commencement to my night under the stars. Bright sunshine and marbling of white and blue. The guide book timed the ascent at four hours for most hikers and with dusk at 8.30pm, I had plenty of time to fuel up with a pre-walk lunch.

Over a beer and chicken panini, oh, and another beer, I check the route – again.

It’s 1pm as I reach the Glen Nevis visitor centre. With boots and sack pulled on, over the River Nevis footbridge I go. Mixed feelings of adventure, trepidation and the fact I’m 50 tomorrow slow my pace.

Things are on the way up

The sky had taken on the gray of a elephant’s hide as I slowly ascend the mountain path. There’s no rush. I mentally thank the Friends of Nevis (www.friendsofnevis.co.uk) for their marvellous path maintenance as I step my way higher. I just hope it doesn’t fool people into thinking it’s an easy day out.

It’s not cold as I climb but small flakes spiral down as I take in the wooded slopes of Glen Nevis. Stoats, weasels, pine martins and even a badger have been sighted on the Ben, but I have to make do with a crow and grubby, off-white lawn mowers.

A little history – constructed in 1883 by James MacLean for the princely sum of £793.6s.3d, the path’s original purpose was to transport provisions by pony to the summit weather observatory. The track, much wider and better than today, was good enough for an early Ford motor car to ‘bag’ the summit.

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Summit fever

Not the only one

Stinging, freezing sleet keeps me looking at my Vibramed feet. People are turning around at Lochan Meall an t-Suidhe and suggest I call it a day. But I’m a man on a mission and press on with renewed vigour – I’m only 50 once. The track steepens as I cross Allt na h-Urchaire or Red Burn, known as the halfway point.

A couple slip and slide descending closer on the slushy ice. As the chap passes I can’t help notice the rigid flag secured to his rucksack. 50 today! it announces. We stop, chat, congratulate and go our separate ways. I hope I didn’t steal his thunder by confessing my plans.

Black as night, a crow plops down a few yards ahead. Over five minutes later it’s still hopping slightly in front, head turned back, staring at me. ‘I’ve only got uncooked couscous‘, I tell him as a gaggle of cow-hide booted feet return him to the snowy breeze.

Five Finger Gully on my right is hidden in the gloom and then it hits me. Zig-zagging up to around 1,200 metres I stumble onto the summit plateau and into a white out. For a moment I forget I’m in Scotland. It could be the Alps, Pyrenees, Dolomites… it brings home that even British hills should never be underestimated.

Goal in sight

On reaching the first summit cairn the scene is a winter wonderland. It’s then I realize I’m travelling against the tide as an avalanche of dogs, then kids, then bigger kids with mortgages and cars, head for sanctuary. The ice sculptured cairns play hide and seek in the low cloud as I near my goal.

Slowly but surely through the all consuming murk, a feint domed outline appears with a trig point standing proud to its left. I try to picture the Temperance Hotel (opened during 1894) which catered for walkers and wealthy tourists (ponies were available for hire), but to be honest, I can’t. In fact, even the observatory ruins are entombed in a snowy grave.

Two snow buntings greet me at the triangulation station. Sun lit blue glistens on the crunchy, white carpet. I’ve bagged Ben Nevis, all 1,344 metres of it. But it’s not about height, it’s about the hike, the doing. Snapping photos, I decide, ludicrously, to pitch my tent.

Thirty hilarious minutes later, I’m sweating and breathing hard. The deep snow and hidden scree is impossible to peg into, while the knife bladed, gusting wind, floats the tent inner up-on-high. With the green outer mummifying me, I admit defeat. Beaten, chilled but happy, it dawns on me that I am alone.

Timetable of events

6pm. I’m shivering with inactivity. A couple join me at the emergency shelter, their summit conquered. Its wide open silver orifice beckons me into its icy guts. I climb the dangerously slippery stones of the observatory tower remains, then slowly, grovelling on hands and knees, enter. Protected from the wind roar, the quiet is strangely unnerving.

As the couple leave in the fast fading light, the attractive young lady offers to take my photo and I gladly agree. Squatting, to stand would be painful, in the doorway, one for the album is recorded into tiny little bytes. This is her first mountain and I wish her many more then bid them both safe return.

Abandoned again, my decision is made and for the night of 12th April, 2012 this tiny refuge will be my boudoir. Hacking compacted snow from around the door frame, with a tug and a grunt the doors finally clang shut. In hindsight, it would have been advisable to get my head torch out first. Now, all I have to do is locate the central heating thermostat…

Celebrations on Ben Nevis

11pm. Woken by an exposed, frosted nose, I regret not bringing spare socks and wrap my feet in a Paramo top. Toasty. The howling wind brings unseen snow. During the night the gale drops and true silence rules. Spooky. But in no time, the fan is switched back on and the wind roars on. Sleeping face up, I try to avoid rolling off the wooden platform, while the mat froze fast in the ice and stale urine.

Highest person in Britain

2am. Squashing my phone illuminates my sleeping bag, so I check the time. Happy birthday I wish myself then drift away again. I wake soon after. Something’s wrong. Fumbling for my head torch, I notice I’ve half slid off the mat onto the metal floor. My body heat has melted the snow and soaked my bag. Like a slug dancing in salt, I slither back into position.

5am. Shafts of daylight illuminate my cell. I now know why I could never go to prison or become a monk. No sun yet so my attention turns to brekkie. The night has turned my water to icy slush. Amazing really. It was buried in my sack and the pipe is insulated. But the milk, in a knackered metal water bottle, is fine. Minutes later, the pan is steaming with hot porridge, chocolate powder and sprinkled with brown sugar. But it is my 50th birthday.

It’s cold, very cold

While I’m having my oats, it occurs to me that during the night I was the highest person on the British Isles – my small claim to fame. But the clock is ticking and the descent awaits. About three hours is average. In 1984, Kenny Stuart won the Ben Nevis Race (top to bottom) in an unbroken time of 1:25:34, but he wasn’t carrying couscous. Thankfully, the stove is behaving itself, so I defrost my boots.

7am. Time to go. No need to dress. I’m wearing five layers just to stay warm. Packed, I venture out to be greeted by a snow bunting chorus and a mountain sunrise. Perfect. The distant snow capped hills remind me of the Nepalese Himalaya. But before shooting can commence I have a pressing engagement. Not easy when you’re a human onion.

Mother Nature

The scything wind forces on my last line of defence, waterproofs. I’ve never been this cold, even at 5,500 metres. Light yellow forces through the patchy white while an ominous, eerie cloud rolls towards me like the blades of a rotary mower. With the camera shutter clicking faster than a fiddlers’ elbow, I stand, grinning manically. The view towards Sgurr a’Mhaim, Stob Ban and their close relatives is simply magical.

Foolishly, to work my Panasonic Lumix TZ10, I remove my gloves and leave them atop my rucksack. Finally, after every conceivable angle has been covered, I take some more. Wishing I could measure the wind chill, gloves and hands are reunited to a symphony of painful gasps. Mother Nature has been very kind to me. Her birthday present of a beautiful dawn is one that I shall never forget. But the excruciating cold gently ushers me through the snow.

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Handshakes and greetings on Ben Nevis

‘Happy Birthday to you’

8am. Standing by the summit cairn, one last 360 degree contemplate completes half the journey. It’s a shame that the mind cannot recall that special moment and replay it, emotions and all. Think how happy we all would be. I bid farewell to the 1,344 metres (4,418 feet) of lava which began formation some 420 million years ago. And I have the top all to myself. Totally wonderful.

Stumbling through the night deepened snow, even before I locate the last summit cairn, hikers appear. Staring at their feet they pass in silence. Blinding sleet has again descended, spoiling the view for these early birds. Turning for one last gaze, the top is consumed in whitish gray. I hit the iced over zig-zag path like a young gazelle, slip, arms and legs waving like a 80’s disco dancer, then proceed cautiously, like an old stag.

The Halls family

Lone walkers pass me with a cheery ‘morning’ but not stopping. Dropping below the snowline, the track comes alive with chatter and colourful Gore-Tex. Just before my return to Lochan Meall an t-Suidhe, a group stop me to enquire what time I reached the top. Recounting my story, jaws drop, hands are shaken and birthday greetings offered. As James Brown once sang: ‘I feel good’.

Tinny, electronic phone music stops me. Friends, the Halls family from Looe, Cornwall sing Happy Birthday. Buzzing with texts, I pocket my mobile to savour later. What a memorable day it’s going to be. Out of the wind and sleet I start to warm up – fast. I’m still wearing thermals, merino wool top, fleece top, fleece jacket and waterproofs. Something has to go. Most of it actually. Before I strip, a large group of youngsters (in their twenties) are putting clothing on. We chat. I go through my spiel. They congratulate me and sing Happy Birthday. I wish I’d filmed them.

A little reflection

11am. Like a salmon returning to spawn, people are like waterfalls and I get in the way. For over 25 years I have learnt, most of it by trial and error, the way of the outdoors. But even now, it still amazes me how many people venture out unprepared. A lady passes me in jeans, t-shirt, jacket and the thinnest soled fashion shoes. A bottle of water and no rucksack compliment the look. I think about the ankle-turning ice and deep summit snow. Head down, she glides past. Sometimes you have let people make their own mistakes. I’ve certainly made mine.

I suddenly want to be alone. At a way marker post, I drop down to the river Nevis. A few minutes to take in the last 24-hours. The inviting, crystal clear water gurgles past. Looking back, the trail is thronged with eager feet. Blissfully unaware of the snowy treat ahead, I bid them safe voyage. In a second, I’m back in real time. Time for a quick shower then lunch. And beer, lots of beer.

Beinn Nibheis / Ben Nevis

You’ll probably think I’ve lost the plot, but I want to thank Beinn Nibheis for letting me summit and return safely. Outdoor people know that hills and mountains can give immeasurable pleasure to those who care, but punish harshly those who decline to show respect.

My birthday dawn has given me new ideas and a fresh view of life. No matter how small or seemingly irrelevant, never lose the sense of adventure.

Please note: The Ben Nevis emergency shelter is exactly that, a shelter for emergencies. For my part, I did not put myself at risk. The adventure was well within my experience, level of fitness and equipment. I placate myself in the knowledge that if a fellow hiker had suffered a trauma, I could have offered assistance. I would also like to point out that all my rubbish and more was taken away with me.

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'One of the best things I have ever done'