Ben Nevis, vanquished!

by vpundir | February 28th, 2008

The C10 to Victoria Coach Station was late on Tuesday night. In fact, it was so late, that had I known, I could have walked down from my place and reached the station before the bus. Anyway, I was able to run into the 22:30 bus as it was getting ready to depart. Good thing I opted for the mobile ticket!

The London-Glasgow overnight bus reached its destination minutes late and I “just missed” the 7am to Fort William. The next bus is at 10, meaning it would deliver me there only around 1pm. Not good, considering that the forecasted sunset is for around 5.30pm.

“You might be able to get a train”, suggested the girl behind the Scottish CityLink counter, and I took from her directions to the railway station. Once I got to the Central Station, I was told trains to Fort William depart from the Queen’s Street Station, which thankfully is a short walk away. At the correct station, it turned out that my train would leave in about an hour and reach Fort William a couple of minutes before noon. Noon is better than 1pm…every minute of daylight is worth it.

So I bought the ticket and walked around the station, clicking a few pictures along the way. Glasgow is a fascinating city – cosmopolitan, modern, and working-class.

My camera’s batteries died before I could take the 5th picture, and I replaced them with Duracell Ultra M3 batteries (this would be an interesting little detail later on).

Of course, due to technical trouble the train never departed at the scheduled time, or with the schedules coaches. The one time in my life when I was on time to catch a train, this had to happen! 🙂 The train finally chugged away about 20 mts late and with only two of the originally planned four coaches, with me inside one of them. This means that I’d need to change over to a conneting train in Crainlarich.

In Fort William, a £5 cab ride took me to the Youth Hostel. On the way there, the driver regaled me with tales of how he does a lot of work for the movies, and how he was the director’s driver for the third Harry Potter movie. He told me how the area where we were going is a favorite with movie-makers (Highlander, Rob Roy, Brave Heart, and the Harry Potter movies have been shot in Glen Nevis) because the scenery is beautiful and being a protected area it doesn’t have any power cables etc to be edited out later.

They had been having some awful weather for the past week or so but this day was looking good – there was still sunlight at 12:35pm.

Right across the road from the Youth Hostel is the beginning of the ascent to Ben Nevis. The pony track, the sign says, takes most people 7-8 hours to complete, though the record stands at about 90 mts, accomplished during the Ben Nevis race, which is organized every summer. The scramblers’ path, I hoped, would be somewhat shorter.

Ben Nevis is the highest mountain in the British Isles, which makes it sound impressive. Ben, of course stands for Mountain, while Nevis is a Gaelic word that can be translated as either Clouds or Poisonous. Thus, Ben Nevis has been variously described as the “Mountain with its head in the clouds” and the “Poisonous mountain”. This adds a certain mystique to it. However, as I’ve been telling everyone who’d care to listen ever since I decided to climb it a few days ago, its summit is a mere 1,344 metres (4,406 ft) above sea level.

The height numbers are slightly deceptive from comparison perspective, though, as here one starts at 50 metres while for many other mountains the starting point is much higher, meaning that at Ben Nevis one has to climb up almost all its height above sea level.

Also, as I dicovered going up Ben Arthur a couple of years ago, the apparent height of Scottish mountains can be deceiving to passers-by going by the foot of the hill. This is because unlike the Himalayas, the Rockies and the Alps which are young-fold mountains and are almost conical, the Grampians are old fold mountains and rarely allow a view of the peak from the foot.

Anyway, enough talk. Down to the action now!

The first half hour was the toughest – with my lungs crying out that they could take no more. Thereafter one gets a bit acclimatized and the rhythm sets in. I suspect that part of it is also that till the time that one can see “home” upon turning around, one’s brain thinks it can persuade one to return to base, but once the visual contact is severed, it is psychologically the point of no return.

Since I didn’t have the luxury of a whole day of sunlight, and since the skies were getting overcast pretty quickly, I kept going up at a good pace, stopping only to click a photo or two here and there. One of the people I passed by on the way up was really interesting – he looked thin and tired and was making slow progress with his large mountaineers’ knapsack. Apparently he was planning to camp in the mountain for the night!

Much faster-moving were the folks climbing down in full mountaineering gear. As we exchanged nods and hellos, a few of them told me about the bad visibility up there. Hmmm…just how bad could it be?

And suddenly, I was at Lochan Meall! While one knows how high above the sea level valleys and lake surfaces can be, it is some experience to climb up a mountain and find a lake up there! It was beautiful there and the clouds relented just about enough to let me click a few pictures.

It was also at that point that I got my first snow. The “snowfall” lasted about 5 minutes along with the gale. I think it wasn’t really a snowfall; instead, the strong wind had picked up some of last night’s fresh snow from the higher reaches and was depositing it as flakes. In any case, it was so light that by the time I got my backpack off, and took my camera out, most of it had been brushed off my t-shirt by the winds.

Withing 10 minutes or so, there was another strong gale with snow. This one was much colder, faster and longer-lasting. A tiny, little snowstorm, if you will. By the time it subsided, my hair was frozen stiff, which reminded me that I desperately need a haircut. Or a bandana.

Patches of snow started appearing on ground soon after that. I was prepared for this – off came the sport-shoes/sneakers (I don’t know the difference), and on the socks went a set of polythene grocery bags before the sneakers went back on.

It seemed like I didn’t have much daylight left – the sun had been playing hide and seek for while, showing its face for short and infrequent bursts of time. So maybe it was time for some final pictures before the summit.

The camera refused to work and said the battery was dead. But I had just changed the batteries in Glasgow, fewer than 100 photos ago! My hypothesis, later to be proven correct, was that the alkaline batteries had stopped working due to the cold and would work once again once it got to room temperature.

Before I knew it, I was walking in almost knee-deep snow. My loose-fit denim jeans, that I have overused and abused for almost 2 years, have taken a lot and I was sure they’d take this too.

Additonally, though, it started to get pretty foggy. One can see how one may lose one’s way around these parts.

As for me, I followed in on the tracks made by others. It is relatively safe to use the tracks, especially the deeper ones as the snow locks your legs and makes the movement steadier and, dare I say, easier. One should take care while using the shallower tracks on not-so-fresh snow, though. The pressure caused by the body-weight of the person who created the tracks melts a thin layer, which freezes again when the pressure is released, i.e. when the person has moved on. However, this refreezing process yields slippery ice, not nice, powdery snow. So there!

Climbing up, I crossed paths with a kindly-looking man and his teenage son. They never made it to the peak and had decided to turn around as it was cold. Hmm…good point, maybe it’s time to get my jacket out from the backpack now, I figured. As for the father-son duo, I think that had I been climbing with my son, I would probably have turned back too, considering how quickly the weather was becoming more and more inclement and the light was getting less and less.

As I kept gaining altitude, the snow started to get harder and slipperier. After a particularly tough portion, I decided I had earned a gulp of water. The water was surprisingly warm – perhaps because in my backpack it was insulated from the outside weather by an insulated vest (see? I went prepared), and an extra pair each of socks and shoes (in case the ones I was wearing got wet and cold). It felt good that I was doing well on the water – of the 3L I was carrying, this was my first sip.

And suddenly I saw it – my notebook computer! Why in the world I took it along for the ride, I still don’t know. Here’s what I do know though – never ever carry a laptop on a climbing trip, unless you really really really need it. And even if you must, get a light small one. But please never carry a huge 17″ one that, combined with the power brick, forms a dead weight of 5kg on your back.

The terrain kept getting tougher, and I kept trudging on till I met the group of five professional mountaineers in impressive gear, the kind that one has only seen in movies like Vertical Limit, probably about a third of a mile from the top.

“You’re not getting anywhere in that, mate”, said the leader of the pack, presently pointing to my sneakers though I suspect he was referring to the whole of me. He went on to show me his spiked snow-boots, and said that as we were going up, we were leaving behind the easy powder-snow and getting into hard-ice territory, which is why they needed ice-axes and such. Of course, I had noticed that the climb had been getting harder for a while, but the tracks had been helping me along even though they were getting shallower and shallower.

“About time to turn back around, mate”, another one chimed.

I turned to have a look down. I was not about to drown after reaching the shore like the gypsy.

“Folks, at this point, I think you’d appreciate that it’s harder to go back down than it is to go up. I don’t think we’re that far away from the top. If you could help me, I’d be very grateful.”

They grudgingly accepted, and I happily became a dead weight for them. I was given an end of their rope, and the nice Welsh guy in front of me stomped his steps really hard in order to make good foothold tracks for me.

The top of the mountain is not what one would expect. It’s a large, open, almost flat area – quite like a plateau! The visibility was so bad that I could barely see the outline of the Welshman in front of me, though he wasn’t more than 3-4 ft away. Thankfully the mountaineers had a map which we followed to find the “summit”, which is essentially a point, on the almost flat surface, marked with a few rocks and a sign. Stupid Scottish old-fold mountains!

It would have been nice to have been able to take pictures at the summit, if only just to show how one couldn’t see a thing. Woe be unto alkaline battery manufacturers, especially to Duracell.

My mountaineer friends advise me to climb down quickly, at least up to Lochan Meall, as there seemed to be a storm gathering. They themselves were planning to camp for the night by the ruins of the observatory whose walls would provide their tents some cover.

Climbing back down really did prove to be very tough, especially when at one point I lost the tracks. But then, the clouds parted a bit, and I could see the tracks some 20-25 ft to my left, down a slope that led into a cliff. I tried lumbering towards them, but kept slipping and falling. I was losing daylight quickly, so I decided I needed to use the slippery surface to my advantage. I sat down and slid towards the tracks, ready to dig my heels in were I to slide past the tracks – it would be painful to ram my heels again and again on the icy-surface, but the prospect of sliding into the cliff wasn’t too appetizing either.

Thankfully, all that concern was dissipated as I made a perfect landing and fixed my foot into a comfortably deep track. Some swift progress, and I was out of the woods (icy snow?) before I knew it.

The jacket came off pretty quickly as it was restricting my movements. Upon reaching Lochan Meall, I took a break and celebrated by ravaging both my granola bars – the first food I had had since the morning. It’s good that I climbed on an empty stomach – I was travelling light. It would have been impossible to do on a full stomach.

Further down, I met the father-son duo from earlier, sitting on a boulder sipping coffee.

“Did you make it to the top?”

“No, I turned back”, I lied. A father is not just a human being to his children. He’s a hero, an idol. He’s strong and wise and capable. I’m sure my little lie made both the father and the son feel much better about their trip.

On my way down, I saw 3 black sheep grazing, evidently oblivious to the darkening skies – maybe this is an everyday affair for them. Bemused, I made a bleating sound, and the one closest to me looked up, startled. So I repeated the sound and the confused little thing stopped grazing, looking at his other two companions in turn to see where the source of the sound was. Very amusing. I had had my entertainment for the day.

Once at the bottom, I used the Youth Hostel phone to call a cab which arrived in 10 mts and took me to the bus station. I don’t think there is an evening train to London from Fort William. Besides, the trains are pretty expensive compared to the buses.

The timetable said the next bus to Glasgow would leave in about 1 hr 40 mts. A little hungry, I went into the Morrison’s store, whose back serves as the bus stop by the way, and bought myself some unhealthy, fried, greasy Indian snacks.

As I was walking out, I realized I was out of cash! I needed cash because I needed to buy the ticket from the driver in the bus – no ticket counters around here.

No problem! I was sure I’d be able to get it from one of the two ATMs outside the store. Neither turned out to be in working order. Hmm…so I walked back in to Morrison’s to figure out what cheap stupidity I could waste some money on. And found the perfect one – I like Ice Age and Chicken Run, and Robots was alright, so I bought the £6 triple pack, and got some cashback from the store.

Back at the bus stop, I started to enjoy my cold vegetable pakoras. Arrghhh! Cold! She didn’t warm these up. Oh, well! There was no way I was going back in just to get the snacks heated – the trip from the bus stop to the far end of Morrison’s is too tiring, you see?

Just after I got done with the food, a girl with a familiar face came over and sat down next to me. Oh, I remembered – I saw her on the train while coming here. So I asked here if she communted from Glasgow, which would have been pretty odd if it were true. No, she told me, she had just come over for a meeting. She was born and brought up in Dublin and works as a project manager for a communications company in Skye. She had had a morning meeting in Glasgow and an afternoon one in Fort William and was looking forward to returning home to Skye. When she had checked a half hour ago, the driver had told her to come back around now, but when she tried getting into the bus just now, she was told to come at 7.

“You do realize that this bus in front of us is going to Glasgow?”, I had to say.

“Oh! Oh, that’s right! My bus is that one a few stances further down.”

“Alright! Have a safe journey.”

My bus left punctually at 7.10 pm. Evidently not many people like to travel from here to Glasgow at night. At the Buchanan Bus Station, I was able to find a London-bound bus ready to board. By the time I had breakfast at Dnister Cafe by the Victoria Coach Station, I had slept for a whole 11 hours – throughout the 3 hr journey from Fort William to Glasgow and the 8 hr journey from Glasgow to London.

Nevis, you are a tough little brat, but I beat you!

Click here to check out my pictures from this trip of 27 Feb 2008.

2 Responses to “Ben Nevis, vanquished!”

  1. explorish says:

    the most surprising thing about this story is… no surprise ;).

    what impressed me most, and i take my hat off, is your lie.

  2. Maverick says:

    Hmm…so you expected me to carry my laptop up the hill? I probably need an image consultant 😉 LOL LOL LOL

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