7 Lessons Learnt from Climbing Ben Nevis

This was a very personal goal for me. It was the highest priority on my 30 list, and after climbing Snowdon and Ben Lomond, I wondered whether we could really do it.
The first day of our Scotland trip, we had planned to do it, but I was taken ill with a severe migraine that night so we put it off.
The second day, after much ado, we called it off. The weather was heavy rain.
The third to sixth days we were in and around Aberdeen.
As our holiday drew to a close, I felt more and more miserable and started acting like a complete brat. I didn’t work out why until day 6 when I hit my head and nearly died (you’ll remember this was confirmed by a doctor when we got back and I landed in hospital). The thing I was most regretting? That I would never have even climbed Ben Nevis.  Yes, there was an “even” in there.  And this is how my lack of sense of achievement undermines my confidence.
So on the evening of the sixth day, I drove us back to the west side of Scotland and we slept at the foot of the mountain. In the morning, we packed some snacks and water, and began our ascent.

Rush hour in Scotland, several hundred sheep crossing the Youth Hostel path on Ben Nevis late afternoon.
Rush hour in Scotland, several hundred sheep crossing the Youth Hostel path on Ben Nevis in the late afternoon (on the first day when we didn’t actually climb it).

It took about 8 hours to get up and down. I learned several things:
1. Those respect the mountain people take it too far with their scaremongering. If I’d known it was going to be as straightforward (I did NOT say easy) as it was, I would’ve done it on day 2. I wore trainers and I had my waterproof and gloves.

We built a snowman from snow on the slope. It was the size of my fist, and sits on a 2x4 plank of wood.
We built a snowman from snow on the slope. It was the size of my fist, and sits on a 2×4 plank of wood.  Curiously the lack of ice axe and crampons did not hinder us.

2. You don’t need a fancy hydration system. I took a plastic 500ml bottle of water, I think 750 would have been optimal but a litre would have meant expending too much energy on carrying it up. There is a waterfall around 2/3 of the way up where you can refill anyway.

Waterfall Ben Nevis
Waterfall on Ben Nevis.

3. You don’t need trail mix, energy bars, kendal mint cake and other expensive walkery foods. I took some ready-made Morrisson’s Chicken Salad sandwiches, a cereal bar and a banana. If I’d been closer to home, I would have made my own sandwiches.

Carn Dearg (the mountain next to Ben Nevis) from Ben Nevis
Carn Dearg (the mountain next to Ben Nevis) from Ben Nevis

4. You only need 7 hours of daylight left to set off (you can do the last hour in twilight/darkness if you have a torch), so if it’s 11:00am in August you probably haven’t missed it for the day (we thought this on 3 separate days).

The waterfall that you could refill bottles from (we stopped for lunch beside it).
The waterfall that you could refill bottles from (we stopped for lunch beside it).  It goes on up but my head is in the way, despite my best efforts.

5. You don’t need a headtorch, a normal torch will do (or the flashlight on your phone if you’re confident about the battery life) and you don’t need one torch each, one between two or three is enough unless you’re stupid enough to separate from your companions.

The drinking water fall, from in front of it.
The drinking water fall, from in front of it.

6. Wellies and a map are FAR more useful than crampons and an ice axe.

The remains of the old Victorian observatory on top of Ben Nevis.
The remains of the old Victorian observatory on top of Ben Nevis.

7. More people attempt it than we saw at the summit. Loads of people (about 50%) turned back before the top. While this is fine, I do suspect they then go back to work telling everyone they climbed Ben Nevis when they didn’t actually get to the top.

The trig point at the top, proving we made it.
The trig point at the top, proving we made it.  As the little sign to my right so rightly observes, I do have a weak edge.

8. The top has an emergency shelter so if the weather turns, you can hide out (this one’s more of an observation than a lesson).

The emergency shelter is in that hut at the top of the remains of the old observatory.
The emergency shelter is in that hut at the top of the remains of the old observatory.

After I got so worried about climbing without a spare pair of tractors in my daysack, I am at my wit’s end with the shitty advice coming from “respect the mountain” type people.  Where do they actually get off?  Being an anarchist and a minimalist and a free spirit and having lived among Irish travellers, I am firmly in camp “disrespect the mountain” if it means I’m not carrying so much crap with me that I’m never going to get to the top.  If you’re wondering whether it’s okay to go up or not, and it’s summer conditions, just go for it.  As long as you’re not a complete moron it’s going to be fine.  I mean, you would really have to try to get killed in summer on the tourist path on Ben Nevis.  At which point, your last thoughts should probably be “whoops.”

This song sums up my attitude to the prospect of my own death by misadventure, learn it, before you canoe back down Everest being towed by mountain dolphins:

When we reached the summit, I didn’t really have a sense of achievement. I guess I must be developing a good sense for things such as the top of the mountain really being a halfway point not an end. And this was borne out, because (as with Snowdon) the descent was far more painful on my poor damaged lower leg bones and on my feet. When we reached the little wooden bridge (we took the Youth Hostel Path as it’s got free parking and less hikers before it joins the “tourist path”), the magnitude of the achievement struck me. Not the physical demands because let’s be fair I’d barely done any exercise for a month before we climbed it and I found it was only the compression on my leg bones on the descent that caused an issue. The achievement was that I was able to fulfil a promise to the me from the past who wrote the 30 list. Ben Nevis was one of the most important things on the list. A gateway to bigger things.
I guess now I need to try and work out what those bigger things were.
Any ideas?

Britain's highest war memorial. Because one generation's pretentious junk is another generation's national treasure.
Britain’s highest war memorial. Because one generation’s pretentious junk is another generation’s national treasure.  Actually if you read it, it’s for soldiers from Fort William, the nearest town, which makes more sense than the “Nepalese War graves” all over the UK – why oh why aren’t they home on their mountains where their hearts belonged?  Didn’t they give us enough already?

This was a Travel Tuesday post but it’s taken my internet 8 hours to upload all the pictures even though I’ve well reduced the image sizes.  We really need to get the internet fixed but we have no way of contacting BT since our phone line being partially severed is the whole problem.

Climbing Mount Snowdon

So I’m currently on this massive energetic spree that’s seen me start the week by driving to Snowdonia National Park on Monday (10th) and climbing mount Snowdon, and will end the current week with me being in Aberdeen or possibly Skye, I haven’t quite decided yet.  Suffice to say people are getting worn out from being around me.

We started Snowdon after I’d been up all night the night before, so I was able to start getting ready pretty early, and we set off on the three hour drive around 9am in the morning.  The internet said to allow 6 hours up and down to climb Snowdon, so we knew we had plenty of time.

We arrived around 1:30pm due to traffic and parked in a pretty decent car park that was a fair bit cheaper than the one 100m down the road.  I would recommend parking in a municipal car park – we paid £4 (normally £5, drops to £4 after 1pm) and the other one was charging £7 but so many people were parked there for some reason!  There was the option of a train to the top but I wanted to walk up.

We followed the signs for the mountain and followed an easy tarmac track as it started to ascend, until we got to a point where the tarmac became a track made of aggregate.  There were plenty of sheep but no goats.

Plenty of sheep but no goats.
Plenty of sheep but no goats.

Up was up, and there was so very much of it.  We didn’t have enough water, since SOMEBODY (naming no names but it wasn’t me) drank nearly the whole bottle in one gulp, but there was a little cafe/shop about half way up the mountain, so we bought more water, and it wasn’t a complete rip off.  I also had a rocket lolly for the sugar as I needed a bit of energy.  We had taken some Linda McCartney meatfree sausage rolls with us that I’d cooked, and these ended up being our lunch.  They were tasty as usual.  The path passed under the train track for the first time.

We got to a point where the path passed the train track a second time, and then the whole experience took a turn for the worse.  Literally it was like someone had put a hood up over the whole area and all we could see in every direction was pure white fog.   It stayed this way for the rest of the journey.

We reached the top and it reminded me of that level in Tomb Raider II where Lara is jumping around on pieces of rock – I think it was called Floating Islands, it was one of the last levels in the game anyway, and the greenery and lack of any sort of view beyond the edges of rocky outcrops at the top of Snowdon reminded me of this.  We avoided the cafe/train station and anyway they were closed, and we just got back down again, we didn’t rush as much as on Ben Lomond because it wasn’t as cold, but I was certainly glad of my snowboarding gloves.  We reached the top at 5:10pm.

Snowdon in Snowdonia
Floating islands!!

The descent was a killer, and my bones under my knees were protesting painfully at every step, which was a nuisance because there was so much down to descend and I heartily wished for a scooter or some rollerskates (but my skates were at home and anyway they’re aggressive inlines so no good for cross country) so I could save my leg bones the trouble.  When I got back to the tarmac I did the rest backwards and pretty much everyone who passed me started to do the same, it was a LOT easier and I think it saved my toenails.

We stopped to catch our breath enjoy the view for a minute just at the exact moment when a shepherd was gathering his sheep with his sheepdog and a whistle.  I’d seen it all before on One Man And His Dog (the reality TV show about shepherding from years ago) but in the area I’m from we have fields and gates, so as a child it was rare to see the sheep being gathered up by a dog like that.  It was very special to be able to watch this and I tried to get some good photos but I only had my phone with me (my camera weighs 1lb I’m not taking that up a mountain!!)  so I don’t think they came out so good.  Judge for yourself:

There are sheep in the distance being rounded up by a sheepdog.
There are sheep in the distance being rounded up by a sheepdog.  They’re those dots around halfway up on the far right of the picture.

At the bottom, a cup of tea would have been nice but everywhere in Llanberis seems to close at 5 which is odd for a tourist hub.  I think a lot of people avoid the Llanberis path because it’s seen as the “easy” tourist path, but as a seasoned hillwalker I found it to be both a challenge but not unachievable.  The length of the walk makes it the longest with the most ascent of any of the Snowdon paths and I am not sure you should legitimately be able to say “I’ve climbed Snowdon” if you’ve never done Llanberis because all the other routes start about half way up so the ascent is far less!  I thoroughly enjoyed the tourist path because there was hardly anyone on it and I hope that this was just a quiet day because I’d hate for the halfway cafe and the places in Llanberis to go out of business just because people are walking route snobs.

The other thing about Llanberis is that’s where the train goes from, so a lot of people get the train up and walk back down again.  I balked at the price because it’s £15 for a single or £20 for a return ticket on the train!!  I thought about how many shanks’s ponies I could buy for that much money and decided it wasn’t worth the price of a pair of shoes to go up in a train, even an awesome uphill mountain train.

In the absence of any open eateries, we went back to Conwy and got a McDonald’s from the retail park drive thru then drove home.  I was glad we ate something because every freaking motorway between Conwy and our house was closed and I had to divert the car so many times!

Travel Plans 2015

It was raining so much that I couldn't get my phone out to take pictures once we were out of the car!
This was how much of Scafell Pike we could see when we looked across the water. I can’t show you the left hand side (where we were headed to park) because it was raining too heavily to get my camera out of the car.

Sometimes travel plans just go wrong. Other times they don’t materialise at all. I made a plan to climb 3 mountains during the February half term, and I climbed a grand total of half. How do you so comprehensively fail to achieve a goal? Well, it turns out you can’t climb a mountain when the path leading to it has turned into a white waterway. It’s simply too dangerous. So I turned back. While it’s irritating as all hell and disappointing and all the rest of it, I don’t think there’s any shame in knowing when to stop. I trust my own judgement and I really wasn’t confident that the mountain was safe.

It was hard, having bought petrol, made plans, hoiked equipment and trudged all that distance, only to have to admit defeat in the face of white water and whiter fog, which was closing in rapidly. But I know I made the right decision.

It has affected my bigger picture of travel plans for the year though. I had a progression of mountains planned for the year, and hikes, cycles and walks, and now I need to re-order things and try to make it all work with even less time, a problem that’s compounded by the fact that my current work contract has been extended by 5 months, meaning I won’t be free to properly travel until the end of July.

Here’s my current plans for 2015:

1. Climb Ben Lomond and Ben Nevis.

2. Hike the West Highland Way.

3. Climb Scafell Pike.

4. Visit Orkney

5. Visit the Broughs at the top of Scotland

6. Walk Hadrian’s Wall.

7. Cycle the Pennine Way

8. Spend the night in a castle

9. Climb mountains on the Via Ferrata in France and Andorra

10. Climb Serra do Gerez and Serra do Estrela in Portugal

11. Drive to Morocco via Spain (and France, Andorra and Portugal)

And here’s my current music plans:

1. Steeleye Span, March (like, this Sunday).

2. Lynyrd Skynyrd, April.

3. Download festival, June.

When compiling my list, I tried to group things by location, so for example all the Europe stuff can be done in the same trip because it’s all along the Morocco route (or at least, a meandering journey in the direction of Morocco). Again, my UK-based travelling is all in the same relative direction from me – it’s all northwards (except the Pennine Way, which starts 100 miles south of me, but it does end about 150 miles north of my house), with an emphasis on the West of Scotland. As for #8, there are plenty of castles in both Scotland and France which open their doors to tourists – if you can afford their rates. I’m hoping to get one for a cheaper price before tourist season kicks in, but you never know.

For the music plans, I chose a mixture of styles and picked one at £20 (Steeleye Span), one at £40 (L-S) and one expensive festival (Download) so I could see the maximum amount of bands, genres and time-periods without going to a different one every week or bankrupting myself.

A big factor in all my planning was my car. All of my plans are very dependent on my car working and being hospitable inside. I’ve added curtains and put one of the back seats back into the car (they were all removed before) so there’s somewhere for a passenger or rabbit if we need it.

These are the curtains to the car camper - tutorial to follow.
These are the curtains to the car camper – tutorial to follow.

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