Up & Down Ben Nevis

By David Kessler

In this installment: Mounting the Ben.  Causing rain.  Watch out for that last step.  A wish for salve.  Magic Mixtures.

If you've read my other stories from Scotland then you've heard how sore, weak, or positively painwracked my knees were during the trip (I've complained quite a bit about them).   How the condition began and my early attempts at a remedy have not yet been told.

Before leaving on the trip I tested my hiking boots to see if they were still waterproof by weighting them down in a slowly filling kitchen sink.  The water seeped in at a few places and I wasn't sure they could be fixed.  I decided it was time to replace them, but it took so long to find a good, affordable pair that I didn't have much chance to break them in before leaving; My undoing was that simple.

I wore my new boots on the trip over, and by the time I reached Fort William I had a very painful spot where a seam rubbed against the outside of my left ankle.  The next morning I lined several points in my left boot with moleskin bought at the Fort William pharmacy, and pulled it on to hike Ben Nevis.

I had sandals with me on the trip, but Ben Nevis is snow-capped 12 months a year and I had been warned about the temperatures at the summit.  On the path up, a few areas are covered in up to 2 inches of water, and the idea of wearing wet sandals or socks up to a snow capped and windblown summit convinced me to brave the possible discomfort of my new boots.

Tony and Lawrence (2 Englishmen in their 20's also staying at Achintee Farm) and I started up Ben Nevis with our snacks, water, Lawrence's very refreshing thermos of tea, and extra layers of clothes tied around our waists.  I also had my map and compass to help determine how much progress we were making; For most of the trip the map was not necessary, but near the top it came in handy twice.

The day was beautifully sunny at 9am when we began, and quickly became warm, especially as we walked at a good pace up the lower section of trail.  I experimented at how to walk most comfortably in my boots, and kept pace for the first half of the hike.  After that I began to slow them down from their modified "3-peaks" schedule, and we parted company shortly after crossing the Red Burn gorge at an altitude of 640m.

The "3-peaks challenge" is a popular pastime in Britain, which I learned about from Tony and Lawrence.  The highest peak in Wales is Snowden, the highest in England is Scafell, and the highest in Scotland (and in all of Britain) is Ben Nevis.  The challenge is to climb to the summit of all three peaks within a 24-hour period, travel time between the summits included.  The idea still seems ludicrous to me because in order to succeed, you must devote yourself to a schedule so demanding that you can't appreciate the fantastic scenery that are you are busy scaling.  Generally, people begin with Ben Nevis in the evening.  They finish sometime at night, hop in a van and are driven down to the lakes district to hike Scafell at first light.  They race up and down that peak so they can be driven to Wales in time to make the summit of Snowden before sundown.  Tony and Lawrence had decided to do the 3 peaks in 3 days, instead of 1, but they still needed to keep a better pace than I wanted to, so when I slowed down to take in the vistas or rest my ankle, we said goodbye.  Near the top, the path splits in 2 places, and I suspect they were descending one as I ascended another, so I didn't see them again.

Ben Nevis ("Ben" means mountain) is 1,344 meters tall and climbing it involves passing through several stages, defined by altitude, weather, and geology.  At the base of the path you are not even on Ben Nevis, but merely on a part of the Nevis range.  At about 570m you round the bend of the first hill, and make your way onto the main peak, what locals refer to simply as "the Ben".  At the crossover there is a lake in the bowl shaped hollow between the peaks that looked so inviting that I visited it a few days later for a swim (another story altogether).  This lake is noted on the ordinance survey as Lochan Meall an t-Suidhe, but is pronounced "Lochan Meal n' Tee".  Apparently, the entire last word is entirely silent!  (Crazy Gaels!  I have long suspected that the written form of their language was devised solely to annoy the English.)  After passing this lake you cross the Red Burn gorge, which drains right across the path making you glad you wore waterproof footwear.  Shortly after the Red Burn, you enter the first layer of cloud.  I say it was the first layer of cloud, because there was a narrow layer above it, which was clear before entering the next flat-bottomed layer of cloud.  After reaching that second layer, it was never dry again for the rest of the ascent.

Each year, Ben Nevis sees an average of 261 gales, and its summit is cloud covered approximately 355 days; There are locals who have never been to the top in clear weather despite dozens of climbs.  This climate meant that while the day I hiked was 70F at the base, it was quite cold toward the top.  I put on and buttoned up every layer I had with me, and kept as steady a pace as I could to keep my body temperature even.  As I munched on all my snacks, I saw the debris of other hikers' snacks beside the trail.  Based on what I saw the favorite snack food for hikers is bananas, followed closely by Marsbars.  It's possible that Marsbars are even more popular than bananas among those hikers with enough class not to litter, but that will have to await another study.  I collected as much non-biodegradable trash as I could stuff into my pouches and pockets on the way down, and at one rest stop I suspect that the mountain recognized and appreciated this act - or it could have been a trick of my mind and eyes.

Once in the clouds, visibility was constantly changing between 10 to 50 feet, with vague shapes visible beyond that. The Red granite of the lower mountain became gray granite with lichen growing on it.  I took a closer look at one rock, because the lichen on it was stunningly colored, and noticed that the type of rock had not, in fact, changed at all.  The gray color came from a general blanketing of very thin lichen that grew so thoroughly above 750m that it looked as if the rocks were of a different type.

It only rained once on my ascent, but the clouds I was walking through condensed on my clothes as I walked through them, causing rain for all below me.  Even in such a minor way, I have never been a factor in the weather before and the idea still amuses me.

Around 1,000m high I encountered my first large patch of snow, just off the path.  I hiked across to its edge and make several snowballs, thinking I would hide behind the cairn there, and pelt the next traveler.  No one came along for a while, and I was feeling a little divided about hitting some exhausted, fellow hiker.  I decided to get on with the hike, but not wanting to waste good snowballs, I juggled for a little bit and then threw them blindly away, in a safe direction.  As I rejoined the path, that "next hiker" I was waiting for came along, so I struck up a conversation with him and didn't mention my ambush.  He was Dutch, but spoke with a perfect English accent, and wore a "Cymru Wales" pin on his hat.

Later on and nearer to the top I stood at one of the forks in the path.  I chose the steeper though more direct route (definitely the one less traveled based on wear and tear) and followed its cairns until they disappeared into a large area of snow.  My compass told me which way to go, but I saw no path or cairns through the thick mist, and the footprints in the snow only went about 30 feet in before turning around.  I was considering turning back for the more winding path when a father and son duo from Colorado came up behind me.  With the Knox family there to know I was forging ahead I decided to forge ahead and the 3 of us followed my compass and our collective instincts until the father saw a dark shape ahead which proved to be the next cairn.  Leave it to a Coloradoan to provide the extra comfort and expertise to make the trail work.

A little farther up the mountain - in fact only about 100 yards from the top - the trail markers and my map went to the right, while the worn down path clearly went straight ahead and into another snow covered area.  The worn line straight ahead was so obvious that I decided to see where it went.  I followed it into the snow and mist (a combination that reduces perception dramatically) and soon found myself approaching a sheer drop of at least 500 feet!  My first clue that something was wrong came before I saw what was coming.  There was a 2-foot drop in the snow level so sudden and even that it looked like a fault line.  I stepped back from it a few paces, and skirted it around to my left until a brief wind shift cleared the air for long enough to see the chasm I was walking along.  The change in snow level was because the snow there (and possibly the snow under my feet, a possibility I don't like to consider for too long) was not supported by any rock, or indeed by anything at all.  It was simply hanging there by virtue of surface tension, waiting for some weight to release it from its light bond with terra firma.  I returned to the real path and collected rocks to form a new cairn (more of a long, low wall, really), directly blocking the path over the edge and leading to the summit.

I spent about an hour at the summit.  It was cold, windy, and covered with 4 feet of densely packed snow, but the thrill of the place insulated me well.  I ate, I drank, I took pictures, I did some tai chi, and I explored the small number of structures and remains up there.  Then I started back down.

Oh my aching knee!  Much of the mountain path is made up of large, loose rocks, and because of the pain in my left foot, I favored that leg, taking the brunt of the descent on my right knee.  By the time I got back to Achintee Farm (just over 8 hours after starting out that morning) I knew that I needed some hot food and some help for my leg.  I dropped my things in my room and walked slowly out in search of dinner and therapy.

Just across the river Nevis, I saw some function tents being set up in the small park there by the bridge.  It was the "base camp" for a 400 person 3-peaks challenge beginning later that evening, to benefit the Make A Wish foundation.  On hand was a medical van and when I asked if they had some liniment I could use, they were happy to help.  The medical van/ambulance was run by a Mom & Pop team (the only Mom & Pop ambulance team I have ever heard of) who offered me my choice of 2 treatments.  First was a spray liniment from the store, and second was the "Magic Mixture".  They put the choice to me in exactly that way, and I had to pause to make sure I had heard them correctly; then I asked to see the latter.

The wife produced a small cold-cream style jar of iodine colored glass, with a black metal screw top.  On the side was a piece of gauze tape with "MAGIC MIXTURE written on it in block capitals.  I unscrewed the lid and found what looked like vaseline and smelled like wintergreen.

Well, I chose to be treated with the magic mixture.  I rubbed it on, but didn't feel much heat developing; they found this only slightly surprising, so I didn't worry.  Throughout that evening my knee felt steadily better.  I gave them my name and home address for their record of patients treated, thanked all about, and mentioned that I was off to find some supper and to augment their treatment with whatever liquid magic mixture I could find at the restaurant and bar down the road.  The husband especially found this funny and agreed that it was a sound idea.

At the restaurant I ordered a tasty dinner of locally caught fish, and headed up to the bar to find a good drink.  The choice of hard liquors included 1 kind of rum, 1 kind of cognac, 2 kinds of vodka, campari, Martini & Rossi, and approximately 35 kinds of whisky.  What a country!  There was a local man drinking a pint of beer standing near me at the end of the bar, with straight white hair almost to his shoulders, a cap worn almost on the side of his head, and a slightly red nose.  I asked him about one or two of the scotches, but he said he couldn't describe them as he only drank scotch only when sick with a cold.  I tactfully decided not to ask him how often he gets a cold.

Over dinner I tried 3 kinds of scotch, talked to a group of backpackers from Belgium (I had never heard Flemish before), and scribbled a few travel notes in my memo pad.  I walked back to my room very slowly, stopping at the park to say hello to the ambulance duo again, before falling into a very sound sleep that night.

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