For whom the Ben tolls…

I’d be the first to acknowledge that the campsite in Glen Nevis is not everyone’s cup of tea. It’s a huge site that seeks to maintain a sense of regimented order that many folk are trying to escape when sleeping under nylon.

Its rules list runs to a minor essay (I particularly like the one which suggests that people who like to party should look elsewhere) while its neatly manicured lawns and Tarmac driveways contrast starkly with the rugged mountain architecture towering above.

Despite this, it will always have a special place in my heart after I tumbling into it sweaty and tired after completing the West Highland Way. Its showers were luxuriously hot after a couple of night’s wild camping, its shop well stocked.

And even when it’s packed, as it was in early July, you can still manage to find a relatively quiet corner and achieve some disconnection with the families and their squealing kids.It’s also well-placed for a trek up Ben Nevis and the highest inches in Britian.

Views from the mountain track, Ben NevisI had no plans on climbing the Ben again by the mountain track. I’d done it a few years ago on a journalism assignment to walk the three peaks in style (i.e. via more engaging routes than the quick up and down of the 24-hour sprint).

We’d been partly successful, although bad weather forced us to reconsider our plans for an ascent on the Ben via the Carn Mor Dearg arête.

I hoped to tackle the ridge on this trip but a sudden surge of interest for the other half to join the thousands who trudge up the Ben every year changed my plans once again.

I wasn’t too bothered. My other half is not walker but what she lacks in mountain-goat agility she makes up for with sheer determination and bloody-mindedness. The interminable slog of the mountain track would be a good test of her resolve.

We spent the evening watching folk in brightly coloured anoraks hobble down the path through high drizzle. The more we looked, the keener we were to give it a go. I hoped we get some decent weather the following day.

I awoke early the following day and felt the tent shaking in a stiff wind that was rushing down the glen. I normally find this sail-like flapping reassuringly soporific… today it forced my out of my sleeping bag to assess conditions.

The Ben was shrouded in a high mist and the miasma swirled with every gust, giving the hillsides a sinister edge. I made some tea and watched the hill. As I did so, the conditions became more benign decided that it would be good to go.

We kitted up and, ensuring we had extra clothes for the no doubt chilly summit, we made our way to the start of the branch path, which leads from the Glen Coe youth hostel and campsite. After a quick check of the forecast at the information board, we joined the line of other walkers and climbed in full morning sunshine.

A well-engineered, steadily climbing path clings onto the hillside all the way to Red Burn and views of Glen Coe quickly open up. We made steady progress and leapfrogged with other walkers as the various parties took their rest breaks.

The path was in better nick than I remembered, no more so that at the pass of Red Burn where, in a sudden gusty downpour, we turned onto a hard-scaped staircase, diverting off the ugly, broken scar of the former route which now would be given leave to repair itself.

This path restoration was further confirmed by a small collection of temporary buildings providing some refuge for the workers. The straps used to transport the incongruous green boxes by helicopter were still wrapped around each one.

It’s easy to think that Red Burn represents the half-way stage of the climb, but this is dangerous. Seemingly endless switchbacks now greet the walker through increasingly steep and shattered terrain. The higher you go, the more exposed to elements your become which in turn makes going all the harder. We pressed on into the cloud.

The first walkers of the day were now on the return from the top and offered words of support to those trudging wearily on. Our fellow hikers were a wonderfully mixed bunch. The hardcore hiking fraternity we accompanied by a procession of one-off wanderers decked out in an array of inappropriate clothing, including voluminous full-length plastic macs that threatened to carry their owners off the mountain in a strong gust of wind.

Thankfully there were no flip-flops or jelly shoes on display, something I’d witnessed on more occasions than I care to remember while walking in the bowl of Snowdon.

The merciless uphill continued and my climbing partner began to ask the inevitable: ‘How much further?’

Crossing some old, mucky snow on the way to the summit of Ben NevisTruth be told, I couldn’t remember, so I avoided an answer as I was pretty sure that the Ben had a sting in its tail – it’s always much further than you think.

Eventually, we reached the final push and found more evidence of path repair – a low Anderson shelter and a mechanical, tracked earthmover – and a small, grubby snowfield that needed to be traversed.

Safely crossing this little bit of Alpine excitement, we followed the path to summit, skirting the precipices of the climber’s gulleys on the north side of the Ben. These fell away into mist making it hard to discern the extent to which glaciation had taken a huge, broken-toothed bite out it the Ben’s backside.

The top was cold and no views were on offer. Also in scarce supply was a nook out of the winds as all the best spots were taken. We quickly ate, took photos and I realised that I hadn’t brought a lighter to make a summit brew – nice work!

Summit satisfaction over, the realisation dawned that it was time to retrace our steps and go back down.

On the way off the top, we bumped into the footpath team working hard in the gloom. A walker asked me how far it was to the top, causing one of the workers to say that he was asked the same question hundreds of times a day.

‘What do you tell them?’ I asked.

‘I say it’s another three hours,’ he replied, dryly.

With tongue most definitely in cheek, my climbing partner enquired if they had to walk up here every day for work.

‘No, there’s a bus stop over there,’ he replied, pointing into the mist, ‘didn’t you know?’

Although the walk back down the Ben feels sufficiently different from the ascent as the fantastic views are more readily appreciated, the real sting in the Ben’s tail becomes quickly apparent.

Going down is actually harder than going up. I now remembered this from last time. While the ascent is a very focussed affair, the fatigue-ridden retreat is seemingly endless and has no mercy for your knees and the soles of your feet.

We hobbled on. Red Burn seemed to take an age to reach and other mental milestones marked on the way up became ever more distant. We still greeted walkers on the way up, including a group looking to bivouac for the night. Many overtook us with in minutes, though, heading back fro the glen and deciding that the summit of the Ben would be better bagged another day.

At the end, we were too late to enjoy a burger topped with haggis at the excellent Café Beag. We trudged back to the tent and had a beer, my other half wondering if she should bathe her feet it.

She looked at the hill again, watching the trail of folk making their way down and summed up her experience in a beautifully laconic way:

‘I can’t say I enjoyed that, but I didn’t hate it either.’

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3 thoughts on “For whom the Ben tolls…

  1. Sounds a good camp site. Rules and regulations are aimed at chavs, idiots, and noisy partying drunkards who should stay in the city instead on inflict their rabble behaviour on others when the only protection you have from them is canvas. Its like having fools march through your bedroom at home – not good.

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