Ben Nevis, Scotland

Ben Nevis — the tallest peak in Great Britain, stands at roughly 4,400′ above seal level.  Since the base of the five mile climb is actually near sea level, hikers get the joy of actually ascending nearly all of that elevation.

The hike starts out simply enough — along a flat trail beside a river, sloping gently upwards towards rocky sheep pastures.  The trail crosses over a sheep gate that people can climb, but sheep usually cannot.  Just in case some of the sheep are exceptionally bright, there’s about three of these gates in all.  After the last one, the trail gains a little altitude, and "Fort Williams" can be seen — it’s not much of a fort now, as most of the rock structures lay in ruins.

We are fortunate enough to be hiking in good weather, under mostly cloudy skies.  The air is cool, and we’re wearing just one layer of polypropylene and our backpacks as we ascend.  There’s another smaller peak called Mt. Meall that stands at 2,000′ and blocks our view of Ben Nevis at the start.  We have to climb part way up that before we can really see our final destination.

However, as we reach about 1,000′, the wind begins to pick up considerably.  At first, it’s just a stiff breeze, but as we continue, it gets stronger and stronger, to the point where gusts begin to kick up dust and literally throw us off balance.

To the sides of this rocky trail, most of the hillside is grassy with a few granite boulders strewn about amidst the high and scattered sheep.  The wind can be seen traveling across the surface of the land by means of watching the waves in the grass.  But seeing the waves coming is little help, for their intensity is now such that we have to crouch down or grab hold of a boulder along the trail to keep from falling over.  Despite the growing wind, however, the skies have not changed appreciably — the clouds are clearly moving across the sky, but it’s generally still great hiking weather.

As we reach the half way point, at the saddle between the Mt. Meall and Ben Nevis, there’s a mountain lake between them the size of maybe two football fields.  On finding a 5′ tall rock wall that was constructed for shelter, we hide briefly from the wind to have some lunch.  Despite all the wind, the hike is actually quite enjoyable, and the wind simply adds to the challenge of the ascent.

Leaving the saddle to continue upwards, we can see a pair of long, very steep waterways flowing through multiple ravines on the face of Ben Nevis.  They are not quite steep enough to be called waterfalls, but looking upwards, we can see that the wind gusts are literally lifting the water out of the stream bed and scattering it about the hillside.

So we continue onwards, striving for the summit against what is clearly going to be ever-increasing resistance.  By the time we reach 3,000 feet, the views of the valley and town below are just spectacular.  This is why we hike these mountains — for "the mountains reserve their best views for those who are willing to climb by their own effort to the summits."  (Rene Dumal)

At this point, we are high enough to see the shadows that the clouds cast upon the hills and valleys below.  We can also see the speed with which those shadows traverse the surface of the earth, going over rocks and hills as if they were nothing at all.  Unfortunately, the clouds are also becoming larger in both size and number, and the patches of sun fewer and farther in between.

Starting upwards again, the added resistance of the wind becomes increasingly palpable — as if we were actually walking through water up to our waists, having to force our legs through something we cannot see.  The gusts, on the other hand, make it more like walking through the ocean in that there are waves that keep coming and coming, almost knocking us off our feet.  Ocean waves, however, come at almost regular intervals, while the gusts are completely unpredictable in frequency, strength, direction, and duration.

On the few cases where the wind is actually at our backs as we climb, we are literally pushed up the mountain.  On more straight and level parts, the added boost of wind power propels us forward with such force as to make us almost glide across the ground like a figure-skater.

By the time we are within 300 vertical feet of the summit, we are nearly touching the ceiling of what had formerly been a layer of stratocumulus clouds.  It’s not clear from where we stand just weather we are ascending into the clouds, or weather they are descending towards us.  In a matter of moments, the answer is clear enough — not only are the clouds dropping down to our level, but they are also rising up from below.  In fact, they are nearly racing up from all directions, up and over boulders on all sides at greater and greater speeds.  I watch in astonishment at how fast, ferociously, and furiously the wind and clouds are traveling across the surface of the ground, as if they are angered to be inconvenienced by this mountain of an obstacle in their path.

Soon, the summit is less than 50 yards away, but it continues to come into and out of view.  It’s as if it were a magical, ethereal destination, trying one final trick in its attempts to allude us.  At this point, we’ve struggled far to long and hard to let something like visibility get in the way of our goal, so we press on, and reach the summit after roughly 4.5 hours of effort.

Now lest we imagine that to be the end of our expedition, victorious in our quest, we still have to get back down again.  Simply turning around and repeating the same experiences in reverse would be far too easy.  So to make the trip a little more interesting, not 5 minutes into our descent, it starts to rain.

At first, it was just a few drops here and there, and we thought that perhaps by dropping below the dew-point, we would return to the relative comfort of the blustering winds.  That, however, was far from the case.  Instead, that gentle rain soon became a deluge, which upon combining with the wind, turned into an extremely cold shower from which there was no easy exit.

We could still see the trail, and fortunately we had extra layers to don for protection from the elements, but it was rapidly becoming less and less enjoyable.

My rain jacket is hooded, and I could hear the pelting of the rain on the back of my head as loudly as were I under a tin roof.  Further, I could actually feel the wind driving the rain into my back as if it were small rocks and stones, which upon turning around, was exactly what they were.  The rain was now hail, and we tried to expedite our pace to lower ground where we would merely get the wind-blown rain instead.  Fortunately, the hail was not that big, and it did indeed subside after dropping a mere hundred feet or so down the mountain.  The wind, however, had merely redoubled its efforts to move the mountain.

There were parts of the descent where the force of the rain on our faces was physically painful.  I had a baseball cap with a long bill on under my rain hood, and only by looking almost straight down at my feet could I protect my face.  I still had to look up now and then to make sure we stayed on the trail.  During those times, I could see sheet after sheet of rain being blown about, including a rather ominous one coming right at us.    Standing on the trail as this massive wall of white water approached at high speeds left me with a sense of being a deer caught in headlights — there was nowhere to go!  On a positive note, the formerly invisible gusts of wind could now be seen quite clearly.

Wave after wave of rain and wind pelted us on our descent, but we continued downward.  At one point in what was a series of steps in the rocks on the trail, I put my foot out to step downward, but gravity simply failed to pull me down against the force of the wind that sought to push me back up.  I’m quite sure it was only momentary, but it seemed to last several seconds as I stared at my overhanging foot, wondering when or where it would actually touch down on the step below.

When the trail happened to turn such that the wind was again at our backs, it no longer provided the assistance in our travels that it had on the ascent, but rather forced us to be all the more careful of our footing on the way down.

By the time we reached the lake around the midpoint again, we began to get cold, and our feet were soaking wet.  We stopped briefly to put on yet another layer of cloths, and pressed forward. 

We could see large groups of people coming towards us who were actually still making their ascent.  Whereas we had traveled through breathtaking beauty on the way up, and only faced the harsher side of the journey on our way back down, these travelers would just be entering an environment that  we could not leave soon enough.

By now, however, we were almost as wet as we were going to get, we still had food, water, and adequate warmth, and were merely trudging through whatever was left of the elements as we began to enter the valley below.

Around 1,000 feet, the wind died down.  By around 500′, the rain gave us a welcome reprieve, making it almost pleasant to complete the final part of our journey.  Soon, we crossed the sheep-gates, followed by the river trail, ending finally at our car.  We were very wet, very tired and sore, and glad that we had made the endeavor to climb Great Britain’s highest peak and return in basically good condition.

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