Thursday 8 May 2014

Ben Nevis Hike

"Thank you so much!" I utter gratefully. 3 French walkers from Fort William Backpackers offered me a lift from the hostel 2 miles down the road to the start of the mountain track. The kind gesture saved me 30 - 40 minutes of road-side walking and I was able to begin the trek renewed and ready after breakfast.

The sun is beating down as I cross the suspension bridge to the start of the mountain track. It's a deceptively gentle slope at the beginning. I begin my ascent away from the river and up over a stile. Within an hour, the path became increasingly rocky and steep. I soon find a comfortable and steady pace at the start, taking in the incredible views of trickling waterfalls, large rolling mountains and blue pool lochs. 

The conversations strike up naturally, with fellow walkers musing about the lovely weather and whether I was walking alone. I soon reach Loch Meall T-Suide at 570m, where I drop my rucksack and sit on a rock to contemplate which route to follow.
Left fork: the dangerously beautiful way
Right fork: the summit of Ben Nevis 

Loch Meall T-Suide, often dubbed the 'half way point'
approx 40% of way up.
A family stroll pass me and ask if I'm lost. "I really really really want to go Ben Nevis via North Face, but I don't want to go alone." 
They smile at my statement, but the father suggests against it, stating that the conditions along the arete ridge would be very difficult and that it would be better to have winter equipment. 
I stay for a further twenty minutes and watch every single walker turn right towards the mountain track. In the end, my rationality prevailed over my impulsive stir for a challenge. I decided to continue up the mountain track, following the advice of fellow walkers. 

Within an hour of walking, the mountain track suddenly turned into a pathless expanse of white, steep and icy snow.

My eyes widen in surprise. I knew Ben Nevis was snow-capped, but I never envisioned an ascent up an icy slope. I stop and cautiously watch the walkers ahead of me: Stick to the footprints. Take it slowly. Use your walking pole as an anchor for balance.

I proceed by taking each step attentively. The snow isn't as bad as it looks, it's a few inches deep, compacted but not too slippery. It's a slow but gradual crawl to the summit. I follow a stream of walkers ahead of me, the visibility is excellent and I soak in the views of white dusted peaks. 

The cairns bob into view, marking the cliff's edge. The slope starts to even out, I glance upwards, see the observatory and the a stone pillar. I'm here! 1344M on top of the UK!

The germans at my hostel were on the summit, whooping and taking pictures. They offer to help me climb the cairn, which is roughly a head shorter then my height.
Me: Don't worry, its ok.
German guy #1: No really, I'm a soldier I can help you!  

I take up the offer and climb up with a helpful boost. We spend 20 minutes on the summit, gradually adding further layers of clothing such as hats, gloves and a snood. 

On the summit! 
We soon begin our descent. The germans speed ahead of me, where as I take measured steps. No way am I going to slide off a cliff today. I bump into the French walkers (the ones who gave me a lift) and greet them cheerfully.
I subsequently bump into the family "Well done!" they shout as we exchange smiles. My heart inflates with joy: the elation of the journey, the summit, and meeting so many caring walkers when I was riddled with doubt about doing it alone. Emotionally, it was fear mingled with anxiety, the unknown, the wanderment and the willingness to tackle them head on. I am outside my comfort zone, but it makes me feel so alive. 

It's a slow descent. I felt a wave of relief as the path changes from snow to rock. I quicken my pace, but my legs/knees begin to twinge in pain. 

Overall, it was approximately 7.5 hours up and down. I trudge back to the hostel and microwave a macaroni cheese as a tasty post hike dinner. To my utter delight, Bank Street Lodge assigned me to a dormitory room with just 3 beds. I spend the evening chatting with Elisha, a Irish girl who'd just walked The West Highland Way, and I sleep soundly after a long yet highly rewarding day.

Trip Tips

  • Transport to Fort William from London was £24.70 x 2 with a YP's railcard. Book way, way in advance to get the cheapest price possible. I booked my tickets approximately 2 months before travel.
  • Navigation wise, the mountain track is very straight forward. I only got my map out once. I did it on a clear day but remember that the weather conditions can cause havoc on your sense of direction. 
  • The alternative route I wanted to do was Ben Nevis via Carn Mor Dearg. This route takes in the view of the North Face, which is missed if you opt for the mountain track. There is a thin, arete ridge to hike across. I hope to return to Ben Nevis and attempt this route in summer conditions. 
  • Accommodation wise, I stayed at both Bank Street Lodge and Fort William backpackers. Both were £17.00 per night with free tea/coffee/wi-fi. I enjoyed my stay at both. Fort William Backpackers had more vibe whilst Bank Street was more comfortable due to a small dormitory.
  • The mountain track is approximately 2 miles from the town centre. Don't forget to make time for this if you do not have a car.
  • My legs really hurt the next morning - be prepared for this! :)
  •  Any further questions or comments about attempting Ben Nevis, please feel free to comment here or email me. 

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