Sunday, May 27

The Climb

I've always claimed never to mind lodgings too much - I don't usually need five star luxury on my days away from home. And such was the case this time too; The hostel wasn't too shabby and I slept like a baby.

Breakfast closed at 8:30, after which we had a brief, uh, briefing. We were told how to behave on the trail, why we were doing what we were doing; standard boilerplate really. I was surprised to be told that we were going to be making our own way up the mountain in our own self defined groups. I'm still not sure how Ulfa Aid was involved in the event actually; we were self-funded and could have managed the administration too, so this palming off was a bit cheeky considering the circumstances. Those in need are benefiting from this though and that was some incentive, but unfortunately I'm not sure whether I would bother to do something similar via a charity again.

We hit the Ben Nevis path a bit later than we wanted to, at around 9:50am. By our reckoning, it was a seven or eight hour round trip and so we were hoping to be back by 5 or 6pm. How wrong we were...

My baggage-less friend managed to scavenge enough equipment to feel confident enough to start the climb. My leg was okay too; a bit sore but nothing I wasn't able to handle; it seems that you need a different set of muscles when climbing a mountain compared with those you use when sprinting. I was carrying painkillers just in case though.

Our group started with ten members, something that was pretty ambitious from the start. As the different levels of skill became apparent we began to drift: ten became five and then five became even less. Not that this was a bad thing - the last thing anyone was expected to do was compromise their experience in order to superficially keep together. I had a right laugh with my fellow climbers anyway, and the jokes and talk we made between us the journey that much more enjoyable.

Otherwise, the climb was around half of what I had expected. A lot of walking, snacking, checkpointing, stopping for breaks, drinking water from falls, tripping and stumbling. The terrain varied as much as the weather; we walked through mud, clambered over rocks and slipped on snow and ice. I didn't need my fleece in the end, but it was chilly enough to feel it whenever we stopped as well as for my fingers and lips to become truly wrecked.

After having walked for around four hours, we were still not at the top. Perhaps it's the same with any mountain, but Ben Nevis had this habit of presenting deceptive ridges that hid the real top - we had countless false alarms as we overcame each edge. But that just made overcoming the real topmost edge that much more emotional.

The top was pretty amazing, and I don't feel at all cheap presenting it as the highlight of the whole weekend. The bright and crisp snow covered plateau represented five hours of relatively tough climbing, and in return we were rewarded by some awesome views - apparently getting up there with miles of visibility in had was a pretty rare thing to experience. I'm also not ashamed to have done the whole "I'm the highest person in the UK thing) too. Photos of the summit (as well as the climb in general) are on my Picasa.

But the cold reminded us that we weren't supposed to hang around too long (one of the group had a train to catch, even though it was clear to the rest of us that they weren't going to make it). After around 25 minutes or so of acting like the kings and queens of the world we begun our descent, our spirits charged with the achievement of making it so far in the first place. Now, in theory this was supposed to have been faster than going up but it was soon clear that we hadn't really improved on our pace. We weren't in any rush (well, apart from my train-catching friend anyway), so decided to take our time instead.

The way down wasn't uneventful. The weather finally broke, and we were caught in some pretty harsh hail an hour or so into the descent. It felt like something from a film, possibly Lord of the Rings even, each of us on a quest to get home. Revisiting the views and landmarks we had seen on the way up was a pretty surreal experience too; it had felt like days since we started our journey, and each point reminded us of how we felt going up and how closer we were getting to home. It was almost poignant.

We finally got back to the hostel at around eight. The round trip took us about ten hours - five up and five down. Although I was never really worried about the physical side of it, the time was much longer than I had expected - if I was a gentleman I would say it was due to my bad leg rather than the women in our group taking their sweet time.

Despite presenting it as an easy ride before I did it, climbing Ben Nevis was a wonderful experience. I'll stick with my decision not to train specifically for it; ironically if I had I think I would have been disappointed with it. Having said that, the climb was challenging enough to make the whole thing feel like a brilliant achievement of which I am proud. I thoroughly recommend everyone to give it a go; all you really need are good footwear, a good spirit and good company and I guarantee you'll have as much fun as I did today.