For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel's sake. The great affair is to move. ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON

Monday, 10 August 2009

Up The Ben


I was quarter way up the mountain and had stopped for yet another rest. I wasn't as fit as I thought I was. How we fool ourselves! However I'd lots of good excuses for pausing a while - for instance, to admire the wild flowers on the lower slopes: spearwort and buttercup, harebell and heather, the yellow-petalled tormentil; to take some photos before I disappeared into the grey murk beyond; and to drink in the view of Loch Eil meeting Loch Linnhe, a view constantly changing as sunlight interplayed with fast-moving mist.

The mountain was Ben Nevis (an anglicisation of the Gaelic 'Beinn Nibheis', which means either 'venomous mountain' or 'mountain with its head in the clouds'). I'd wanted to climb it for a very long time. At 4409 ft it's the UK's highest peak. There are only 7 other mountains over 4000 ft in the British Isles - all of them in Scotland, and 3 of them (Carn Mor Dearg, Aonach Mor, Aonach Beag) almost within a hammer's throw of the Ben itself. The other 4 (Ben Macdui, Braeriach, Cairn Toul and Cairngorm) lie 40 or 50 miles to the north-east in the Cairngorm range. (I've previously climbed Ben Macdui and Cairngorm, but would love to climb Braeriach and Cairn Toul. The Cairngorms is a special, unique place - its vast, bare, windswept plateau like nowhere else in Britain, resembling more an Arctic tundra landscape.)

Anyway, here I was, now nearly half-way up the Ben, at the Lochan Meall an t-Suidhe, nearly at the point where the Pony Track I'd been following begins the interminable zig-zags which take you lung-burstingly to the top. I'd deliberately chosen this easier and popular 'Tourist Route' up the mountain. Quite honestly, my present level of fitness would have been tested quite severely - possibly catastrophically - on any of the more strenuous and scrambly routes. As it was, I was still rather shocked when everyone from young kids with something-to-prove to skinny grannies with lethal trekking poles and state-of-the-art walking gear all seemed to race past me. (Hey! I'll have you know, this is no hill virgin, no rookie randonneur, this is a twice-baptised Camino veteran you're elbowing out of the way here! Respect!)

Near the top the steepness lessened. I crossed the corner of a small snowfield. A couple of high gullies were also filled with snow. On the broad summit, ghostly in cloud, stood a cairn, a war memorial and the stone ruins of an old meteorological observatory which had been built in 1883. (The Pony Track had been laid at the same time - so that ponies could bring up supplies.) A snow bunting (these rare birds are almost tame on some of Scotland's highest peaks - I'd seen them before on Ben Macdui) pecked at crumbs from walkers' packed lunches. A Dutchman offered me a celebratory swig of 50 year old malt whisky. Then it was down, down, down - back to Achintee in Glen Nevis where I'd started all those hours ago. (It took me 4 and a quarter hours to reach the top, and 2 and a quarter hours to return. I stayed at the summit three quarters of an hour. It was really cold up there.)

Here's a view of sublime Glen Nevis in the clear, rinsed light of late afternoon.

13 comments:

Grace said...

Just catching up on your posts. Your photos are breath-taking. I have got to get myself over to that part of the world someday.

The Weaver of Grass said...

This makes me worn out just to read it Robert - but the views are stunning and I am sure it did your soul good even if your legs found it hard work.

Wanda said...

When I enlarged your last photo, it lterally made me gasp...the gentle green slopes of the land is magical...Such a beautiful valley!

gleaner said...

It must feel good to have done the climb and I suspect it may have inspired you to do another climb soon.

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Forget those gung-ho grannies and the teenagers galloping past like they were taking a flight of steps to the balcony at the local cinema—getting to the top of a mountain isn't about how slow or fast, it's just about getting there. You got there! Good job—and great view.

Now I'm going to go sulk with envy for awhile.

Rachel Fox said...

It's not about speed! Well done.
x

Raph G. Neckmann said...

How glorious! Those views are exhilarating.

Bonnie, Original Art Studio said...

Simply breath-taking to look at your photos - and from your description of the journey - a little bit breath-taking for you in a literal sense. Who cares? You did it, and enjoyed the scenery. If it becomes about speed, so much is missed.

The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks everyone for your comments.

Since I've been forced to do huge mileages by car recently - as part of my new job - I haven't been dashing round on my feet as normal, so my fitness levels have dropped. I've now made a resolution to do some exercise every day if possible to keep myself in shape. I think I'm still reasonably fit - but not as fit as I'd like to be.

However, even if I were some super-athlete (no chance of that!) I think I'd still want to stop, look around, observe things. Those 'hill runners' who pass you as they run up the mountain must miss out on an awful lot. But - to each his or her own. People have many different ways of spending time in the Great Outdoors, from serious sport to gentle ambling, from cycling and kayaking to taking photos of dragonflies to watching birds. Geting out there, into nature - away from the desk and the office and the car and the kitchen sink - that's the main thing.

How did you guess, gleaner? Later on in the trip I climbed Stac Pollaigh, then, just before I went home, Ben Hope, the most northerly Munro (mountain over 3000 ft) in Scotland. Of course, by that time I had got more practiced and was gambolling up the hills like a mountain goat ;)

Delwyn said...

Hello Robert

These pictures show a wonderful landscape of hills and mountains, not unlike New Zealand where I grew up, although the highest mountain there, Mt Cook, is 12,349'.

I would have loved to have been at the summit with you, taking in the views - in very warm clothing though...

Happy days

Happy days

jay said...

I call that a real achievement, whether or not grannies were passing you! That's no easy climb, by the sound of things. Mountains have never been for me, unless I can go up by car, train or plane, but I admire those that climb, and a small part of me understands why.

Dominic Rivron said...

Last time I climbed the Ben I got offered a swig of whisky too. The weather was foul and I'd taken refuge in the big tin box near the summit. I opened the door to climb in to find it already almost full of people, sitting in the dark. I joined them. All had a great chat sitting there in the gloom, aided by the passing round of the whisky bottle. A freezing gale full of hailstones was raging outside. General whisky-fuelled hilarity when the door was opened and someone in hotpants with very pink legs could be seen staggering round the summit. A great day out.

The Solitary Walker said...

Dominic - I hope you invited her inside, poor thing..?