The Ben Nevis trail, starting from the youth centre, is flat for about 100 yards and then it makes a sharp zigzag rise until it meets up with the more gradual trail that began at the main car park. The all-knowing information board estimates 40 minutes of walking to get to this point so I had a target to aim for right from the word “go”.
Except that I’d underestimated the path I’d chosen. From the start point, the trail looks steep, but when I actually began to climb I realised it was even steeper than I’d expected.
No easy start to break me in gently then. Within five minutes I was sweating, blowing slightly and experiencing serious knee burn.
Despite this, I wasn’t worried. My limited walking experience had taught me enough to realise that once I was warmed up and found my rhythm, things would start to get easier.
10 minutes in, still climbing steeply and my body was screaming for a short break.
I ignored it.
I decided then and there that, although in my practice climbs I’d taken 2-3 minute breaks every half hour or so, I wasn’t going to do that today. I was just going to keep going and take no sit-down rests until I reached the top.
I would have to pause my walking occasionally for 20-30 seconds to drink (drinking or eating while you’re walking and slightly out of breath, as I’d discovered on my previous walks, was not a good idea), but otherwise I would just push on.
If I had to slow down in places, fair enough, but I wasn’t going to rest until I hit the summit.
I also quickly decided that the MP3 player was a bad idea.
I’d hoped that some fast-paced music would distract me from the pain and help me to keep a good pace but I quickly found it annoying. Billie-Joe telling me that he “once was lost and never was found” seemed like a bad choice of lyric for the task at hand, and by the time he started asking me if I knew my enemy I decided that the chief antagonist was the guy screaming in my ear.
The MP3 player went away for the rest of the trip.
But when was I going to meet up with the car park path? I was keeping a good pace and I felt sure I should have reached it by now.
After 20 minutes I radioed down to my Dad – who could still me through his camera zoom – and I was relieved to be told that I’d passed that point ages ago.
Weird that I didn’t see it but all that mattered was that I seemed to be making good time.
The severity of the gradient had eased a bit and although the path was quite rocky and uneven, in contrast to the start of the walk, I was moving a little more easily.
The trail curved around the side of the hill I was on and I lost sight of the start point.
The youth park path is steep but it got me warmed up quickly and I reckon it saves at least 10 minutes, both ways, compared to the main car park route. A good choice.
I finally ran into some traffic after about 25 minutes – two lads coming back down. I asked them, jokingly, whether I was near the half-way point and they seemed a bit confused by the question. They then told me that they hadn’t made it to the summit because the weather was too bad.
Was this my cue to turn back?
Even more concerning, they told me they’d set off at 10am that morning. In other words, they’d been on the mountain for six and a half hours and still didn’t make the summit.
I’d have been somewhat reassured if these two chaps were overweight and swigging out of beer cans, but they looked pretty fit and healthy.
My confidence took another small hit.
I was foolish to be put off by this. Just because someone is reasonably fit, doesn’t mean they’re equipped to tackle a tough mountain walk. Even a very fit person can struggle if they haven’t built up their legs to cope with a long, steep climb. I’d spent the last ten months sweating on a cross-trainer. I was ready and didn’t need to compare what I was attempting to do with what everyone else was doing.
I decided to press on. The weather was supposed to improve slightly as the day wore on so I figured it was no use making my decision based on what other people did.
After a few more minutes I ran into another two walkers coming in the opposite direction. I asked them the same question about reaching the summit and they replied in the same fashion: “No, the weather was too bad,” helpfully adding, “but you can aim to reach the half-way point. That would be a good achievement.”
I decided not to tell them I was attempting the Three Peaks challenge. Mainly because I didn’t want to hear any more discouraging comments.
10 minutes later, another small group of walkers. Despite the fact that, by this point, I should have known better, I asked the same question again. Only to be met with an almost identical response: “The weather was too bad. If you can reach the half-way point you’ve done well.”
When I met the next set of walkers, I smiled, nodded and kept walking. Lesson learned.
The path had turned into a long set of rough steps, similar to those on Scafell Pike. Hard on the knees and a bit of a grind but I pressed on.
The foot traffic was getting busier and I passed quite a few small groups coming back the other way but, after the steps made a short, steep zigzag, the path emptied and I was alone again.
Now the path flattened out quite a bit and I could see it was going to make a long loop around before it crossed the stream, the landmark that supposedly marked the half-way point. Encouraged, I picked up the pace and even found time to appreciate the scenery. Ben Nevis itself is not much to look at, but the surrounding views are epic.
The path start to climb again and before long I was ready to ford the stream that plunged down the mountainside.
I checked my watch.
That meant I’d taken just 1hr 10mins to reach this point.
A quick bit of mental arithmetic indicated a possible summit time of 2hrs 20mins, and a possible total time of 4hrs 5mins.
That was ridiculous. I checked my calculations again but got the same result.
Either this wasn’t really the half-way point or I’d not paced myself properly.
But I didn’t feel like I’d pushed too hard. The walk was tiring but no more than when I started. Best of all, the weather was still pretty good. It was cool but the sun was out and the wind was mild.
I knew that would change soon.
I moved on and around the next corner I reached the start of the famous Ben Nevis zigzags, a steep section of path that works its way up the side of the mountain.
The trail was more exposed now and patches of snow and ice appeared accompanied by a moderately strong wind. Blowing across the mountain, when I zigged the wind was in my face, when I zagged the wind was at my back.
Before long I reached the cloud cover and everything beyond the mountain disappeared. There was now more snow than rock and the path started to become a little slippery. I stayed well clear from the edge so there was no danger of falling but I still had to watch my steps more closely.
The temperature was dropping quickly and was now well below freezing. Coupled with the wind I started to feel the cold for the first time. I sat down briefly and pulled my hat and gloves from my bag. A quick drink and then I pushed on again.
About half-way up the zigzags, on one of the corners, after seeing no signs of life for about an hour, I met a trio of walkers. They were well kitted out with backpacks and walking poles so I risked asking them the question and was greatly relieved when they said, yes, they’d reached the summit and I only had another 60-90 minutes to go.
However they also warned me that, further up, the path was under several feet of snow. I had flashbacks to Scafell Pike. Walking in deep snow is slow and exhausting.
Nevertheless, the fact that the summit was reachable was more than enough encouragement for me to press on.
I’d hoped I was near the end of the zigzags but they just seemed to keep going and going.
I rounded a corner and the path completely disappeared.
I’d clearly reached the top of the zigzags and my map told me that I had a final looping climb to reach the summit, but the visibility was too poor to see it.
I passed another group of walkers on their way back down. One of the members, clearly concerned to see me walking alone, asked me if I had a map and compass because the visibility higher up was very bad. I reassured him that I had a map and compass, as well as my GPS, although I couldn’t help wondering what good a map and compass would be in low visibility if the path is invisible.
GPS in hand I pushed on in the direction indicated on the route I’d downloaded.
I can’t stress enough how important the GPS was to my success. If you don’t have a mountain guide, I would consider it an essential piece of kit. Top of the range devices can run to hundreds of pounds but my basic model was only £70. Make sure you get one with a screen that shows the route; cheaper devices that only give you a longitude and latitude are much slower to use because you have to manually calculate your location and the direction you need to move.
To my dismay, my assumption that I could follow the footsteps of the people that had come before me was incorrect. The snow I was walking on was frozen solid with only a thin layer of loose powder on top. The wind was much stronger now and was blowing the surface material about, destroying footprints within seconds of their being made.
The good news was that the ice, although a little slippery, was much easier to walk on than if I’d been wading through 2-3 feet of soft snow.
But not being able to see the path made me nervous. I knew that, at this stage, there was a sheer gully to my left and that, with this much snow, there would almost certainly be a substantial cornice overhanging it.
And without being able to see the path I was solely reliant on the path the GPS was showing me.
Worse still, the visibility ahead of me had dropped to about 20 metres. Beyond that point, there was no division between ground and sky and all I could see was an eye-watering whiteness.
If you’ve never experienced this kind of condition where you feel as if you walking into nothingness, trust me, it’s a surreal feeling.
I consciously began to ease to the right of the path shown on my GPS to ensure I was staying clear of the gully and I was relieved to see the first of the large cairns that marked the final pull to the summit.
The visibility was bad enough that, after reaching one cairn, I couldn’t always see the next. But, by following the direction indicated on the GPS, I only ever had to go 10-20 metres before I sighted the next one.
Walking was much slower now. Some parts were very steep and the crosswind was strong and blowing sleet into my face. With my left hand shielding my eyes and my right-hand holding my GPS out in front of me it wasn’t easy to keep my balance. A couple of times gusts of winds nearly took me off my feet.
And then the wind seemed to die down.
And the gradient eased off.
And in front of me was a pillar that looked suspiciously like it could be something that would mark a summit.
Any doubt was removed when, over to my right, I saw the old observatory shack.
There was a two-foot high step up to the pillar and as I jumped onto it the calves in both of my legs went into full cramp.
But I didn’t care.
I was at the highest point in the country and I was 1/6 of the way through my challenge.
And my summit time was 2hrs 40 minutes.
Another quick calculation and I realised I had a chance to complete the full ascent and descent in just 4hrs 40mins.
I shot a quick video to prove that I’d reached the top and then I sat on the ledge and ate half an energy bar. I found a text message on my phone from Leanne. It said:
“I’ve found the Ben Nevis summit on Google Maps. I’m up here waiting for you.”
I tried calling her but, unsurprisingly, no signal.
I allowed myself 2-3 minutes to rest and then set off back.
The visibility at the summit was virtually non-existent. It was only after watching a YouTube video of someone else’s Three Peaks attempt that I discovered that 10 yards behind the summit was a sheer drop that, disturbingly, I never saw. I also learned that the pillar that I reached by climbing a two-foot step is usually about eight feet off the ground. Which gives you an idea of how deep the snow and ice was. The sheer drop that I didn’t see was probably hidden by a cornice. Fortunately I didn’t feel any urge to explore the summit but I would suggest watching some YouTube videos before attempting any of these climbs so that you have an idea of what to expect and where the hazards are.
I realised that I’d made the classic mistake of allowing my excitement of reaching the summit to cause me to forget to note the direction in which I’d arrived. With no landmarks and nothing to see around me but white on white, this can be a potentially disastrous problem. Once again the GPS came to me rescue. I simply reversed the route and set off back the way I’d come.
Only five minutes after setting off back I met two people on their way up. It was nice to be able to tell them that they were nearly there.
The rule of mountain walking seems to be that going up is tiring and going down is painful. You may have gravity on your side but the impact of stepping down several thousand times takes its toll.
I had plenty of energy to spare but the descent was proving to be as painful as the test runs I’d carried out on Scafell Pike and Snowdon.
The pain I experienced where my right leg meets my groin had started aching just before I reached the summit of Ben Nevis and it grumbled with every step.
Along with my feet, ankles and calves.
But none of this was unexpected and I found it fairly easy to ignore the pain and just plod on.
I met another lone walker on his way up the zigzags. Feeling a sense of responsibility now that I’d been to the top, I asked him if he had a GPS. He didn’t, so I warned him about the low visibility, the invisible path and the gully he needed to avoid. He thanked me and pushed on and I’ll admit I felt some concern. Without a GPS I could easily have lost the cairns and wandered away from the path. In fact, if I hadn’t had my GPS I probably would have turned back rather than risk walking onto a cornice.
A little subdued I pressed on.
Shortly after the half-way point I was overtaken by the two walkers I’d met near the summit. They appeared to be a father/son team and I was pleased to learn that they were also attempting the Three Peaks. They’d started 15 minutes after me and were moving at a pace I couldn’t match. I figured the next time I’d see them would be as they came down Scafell Pike and I was still on my way up.
Feeling no desire to race them I focused on keeping up my own pace.
I reached the steps and this was easily the most painful part of the walk. Each step down sent shockwaves through my sore groin and ankles and the care needed to avoid falling slowed me down a little bit more.
When I was about, by my estimate, 30 minutes away from the youth hostel I used the walkie-talkie to let my Dad know where I was and to give him time to get the car ready to go.
Reversing the steep climb down to my start point seemed to take forever and reaching the final, flat 100 yards was a great relief.
I managed a few painful stretches before falling into the car.
My total time for Ben Nevis was 4hrs 45mins.
This was well beyond my expectations, especially given the bad weather conditions near the top. Even now, writing this, I’m still not sure how I managed it. A mixture of adrenaline and enthusiasm perhaps?
Whatever the reason, my 90 minutes of wiggle-room had just become 2hrs 15mins.
But I’m not ashamed to admit that I was in quite a bit of pain in both legs.
Could I recover in time to tackle the next mountain?
Category: Three Peaks Challenge
About the AuthorDavid Congreave began working online in 2001. He is now an SEO and Internet marketing consultant, a writer, and an editor. He lives and works in Leeds, UK with his wife, Leanne.
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