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 realise 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…

Ben Nevis
Ben Nevis
Ben Nevis
Ben Nevis