Climbing Ben Nevis

There are few things I love to do more than I love hiking up mountains. They don’t really have to be mountains. A large hill will do. But there is something about reaching the summit that just makes me feel completely free. Maybe I’m just tired and light-headed, but while I am suspended up there above the world I imagine I can go anywhere.

It should be noted that this is not something I do very often, nor is it a pursuit in which I have any expertise. However when I recently visited Fort William in Scotland, I could not resist the opportunity to walk up the highest peak in Britain.

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The view from the campsite in Glen Nevis the night before the ascent was breathtaking, although the summit itself was not visible. From this vantage point the mountain did not appear quite as forbidding as described in the pamphlet I had picked up from a walking store in town. The glow of the evening sunshine and the first wisps of cloud spilling down the hillside gave it an almost ethereal appearance.

I set off early the next morning while frost still coated the grass and the outside of my tent. The walk would take four hours up, and another two or three to get back down. For the first half hour or so my path fell in the shadow of the mountain. The sun had not yet climbed high enough to reach the lower slopes.

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Eventually the sun made an appearance as I continued upwards. This first section of the trail was was littered with bags of rock and grit for maintenance after the winter, and I stopped for a quick chat with the crew carrying out the work as they finished their morning cup of tea.

After a little over an hour, I reached a wide plateau. The even ground provided a much appreciated rest for my legs. More clouds were beginning to gather, and I would soon be walking through them.

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The path grew steeper again, and after emerging from the cloud it forded a small stream which fell away into the empty space below me. Looking out across the valley, the peaks of the surrounding mountains were just visible above the cloud bank.

From this point the trail was increasingly covered in snow left from the winter, and the going became much more difficult. I had been warned that at the top the snow would be waist deep, although it was packed so densely even here that my feet only occasionally broke through.

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After another hour’s walk, maybe a little more, I reached a point where the path was no longer discernible. The snowfield spread out before me and there seemed to be one high point ahead of me and another off to my left. It was difficult to say which was higher, and I had no idea that the actual summit was still completely hidden from view.

Luck and an educated guess led me to the right-hand path, and after about half an hour I rounded the side of a small rise and I could finally see just how far I still had to go. The last section of the trail was marked with a line of cairns which thrust through the snow like signal beacons.

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When I reached the summit, I could have spent hours there. The sky was the most beautiful blue and the sunshine was dazzling. The word that kept running through my mind was ‘glorious.’ I ate my lunch seated on the remains of the 1883 meteorological observatory, trying to soak in the view, to absorb it into myself and imprint it on the backs of my eyelids.

I never wanted to leave.

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Of course, eventually I had to. On the way back down I could feel how tired my legs were. The muscles were numb and shaky, but gravity did its work and at times I almost broke into a jog.

Passing back beneath the layer of cloud I entered a different, much greyer world. Retracing my steps past the same places I had seen that morning felt oddly anticlimactic, but my memories of snow and sunshine and mountain peaks would keep me going for days.

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The only question now is: where do I go next?