Have pen, will travel. Sending letters.
A letter from Scotland. In which is evaluated a winter’s hike up the snow-covered highest summit in the British Isles is pictured and the necessity of crampons.
Scotland, February 2014
this time I send greetings from Scotland, my friend, where we spend a good winter week in the Highlands. I know what you think, but no – it’s not all about whisky. Not solely. We’re actually here to crest a mountain, yes!
Admittedly, mountaineers may argue climbing Ben Nevis really is not much more than a nice winter’s hike, but c’mon – with 1,344 m (4,409 ft.) ‘the Ben’ – as it’s called fondly by the locals – still is the highest peak of Scotland, indeed the highest mountain in the British Isles! So, my answer would be ‘Why not?’ and that’s why we set out for the Highlands. Since Alba’s weather is well-known for having a history of turning any hike into a pretty wet affair (Scottish rain, you know what I’m talking about), we thought being extra clever by making this venture a winter tour.
Once arrived in nocturnal Edinburgh (after leaving a rather autumnal Berlin – this winter really did not spend much effort to live up to its name, wouldn’t you agree?). it was almost impossible to elude the peculiar ‘Britishness’ these single and compact old houses with all their pediments and countless small chimneys were evoking (and before you complain, of course I am well aware that ‘British’ may not be the first thing quite some people in Scotland may think of first in this case, but hey – blame it on my continental ignorance, at least when it comes to historical architecture). It is the permanent breath of history one senses here: the historical substance, buildings, and monuments which surround the flaneur virtually anywhere. It’s actually a bit challenging to give a proper description without lapsing into stereotypes (I’m not going to say it looked like out of a Conan Doyle story … but actually it did). Too bad, our time in Edinburgh was limited as we were just about to leave for the highlands (I did mention this whole mountain ‘venture’ thing, didn’t I?) the very next morning. So, with the mandatory glance upon the famous castle (fortunately just outside our hostel’s door, right across the street!) and a walk to the next pub (studying the subtly nuanced differences between lager and ale – so, don’t you tell me ever again these pub visits are a waste of time and money!), our sightseeing programme was rather limited, I have to admit. After all, this was not supposed to be a city-tour but a mountain trip … yes of course, I guess you got that point.
Anyway, after a short night in some crowded dormitory (fraught with resounding snore-crescendo, you definitely don’t have any reason to envy me for this), we already had to leave the Scottish capital, heading west towards Glasgow (not exactly a ravishing beauty at first glance, sorry Glasgow folks – I’m sure I did just not spend enough time in its walls to discover the picturesque parts of town) and from there further north. Leaving the more urban centre of Scotland behind, we soon were crossing a landscape of stunning wilderness. Snow-covered mountains, broad valleys, and arms of the sea reaching deep into the country. A landscape where any place-name reminds you of yet another whisky brand, go figure.
Exiting the intercity bus upon our arrival in Fort William we were welcomed by a bright winter sun. Imagine, no rain at all! Well, no snow either though. Situated at Scotland’s longest sea inlet, Loch Linnhe, Fort William is also the consequential starting point for a tour to Ben Nevis which is only about 10 kilometres away. So, naturally we did not spend much time in town that afternoon, just stocked up on a few supplies and already left for the wilderness of the highlands. Through Glen Nevis, the valley southeast of town and at the foot of the Ben, we marched – heavy-heartedly ignoring inviting pubs, passing closed camping grounds and sign posts leading to local attractions (like the “Braveheart Car Park” – you’ve seen the movie, didn’t you). Neither did we stop at the Glen Nevis Youth Hostel (which, however, should become welcome shelter upon our return), turned east and crossed the River Nevis, a barrier and sign informing the untrained hiker that hill walking really is a perilous business (glad, we’re not untrained hikers, right?). The sun was already on the way back towards the horizon, the snow-covered silhouette of Ben Nevis right behind us already going to be lost in shadows – it grew cold and colder, I am telling you. When we reached a small birch grove, we decided the spot was quiet and convenient and as good as anywhere else (the ground soaked and boggy though, so I guess there must have been some rain – sometime, recently). We got the tents ready and had a quick dinner before night’s darkness fell.
As soon as the next day broke, looking out of the tent I eventually discovered the real Scotland. You know, the one I was expecting all the time. It was foggy. Grey. Wet. It rained. A nice mizzle surrounded us as we were having the first cup of tea that day. Gently drizzling rain soaked everything as we packed the wet tents and gear; a gorgeous downpour accompanied us on the stone-flagged, stepped path towards the Ben. A path which actually pretty soon turned into a creek running downstream. Imagining that wading through the water was just half the fun, we were progressing the ascent, finally advancing into snow-covered heights (in the meantime, of course, more crusted by frozen-over rain). Most of the hikers and hillwalkers we meet en route were already on their way back (to a dry and more comfy place, I assume) and they did not have good news regarding the summit: snow and ice conditions were not exactly favourable as a mountain guide (who took the time for a sort chat) remarked. Hearing his “No crampons, no chance.”, I remembered how well our’s were stored … at home.
At a snow-covered plain close to Lochan Meall an t-Suidhe (the so-called Half-Way Loch, but aren’t these Gaelic toponyms much more melodious) at 600 m above sea level, we were finally making camp for that night. Freshening wind, constantly tearing at the tent and rapidly decreasing temperature made it seem a rather unattractive idea to go outside and fire up the stove again, so dinner basically consisted of a ration of rum (now you regret you stayed behind in your cozy warm study, my friend, don’t you?) and a handful of nuts that night.
Wind was staying with us all night, but the mountain seemed a bit shy the next morning, hiding behind a thick veil of clouds, covering the valley in fog. Anyway, now we were there and none of us seemed ready to just turn around and give up that quickly – you certainly can relate to that sentiment. At least we could have a walk and a look, getting an idea of what might await us. Nothing ventured, nothing gained – you get the idea. Through mist and noticeably thickening cloud cover we were approaching the summit and soon had to traverse a steeply sloping gorge. At this first crux it appeared that recent rain may have had redound to our advantage: crusted snow, rather loose than icy. Despite, or perhaps because of that crumbly, brittle snow crust, the traverse became a bit of a challenge (Somehow still heard that guy and his “No crampons, no chance.”). Completely ignoring the actual path up (which, to our defence, was hidden by fog and snow likewise) we were heading straight up the steep face of the mountain. Quite an endeavour, actually, in particular for the first man blazing a trail in steeply sloping ground and ankle- to knee-deep snow – making a path by almost creating steps up into the thawing deep snow.
Finally arriving at the summit’s plateau sight completely went to zero. Total whiteout, literally. Can you imagine that? Baffled we were looking at each other and around us, trying to find any clue to what might be the real summit, the ‘highest point’ up here in that impenetrable whiteness. Walking around a bit, more sensing than really seeing our way, we kept eyes close to the GPS device … which informed us about an altitude of 1,342 m. Although that’s still 2 m below the official height of Ben Nevis (remember: 4,409 ft. i.e. 1,344 m), we finalized that would be close enough (And I dare you to challenge our race to the top, I dare you!) – steep faces and deceiving overhanging snow clearly encouraging this decision.
However – as always, the summit was only half the way. The real challenge is to not only make it up, but also successfully descend again. Despite that remarkable slope, but thanks to the soft snow, we managed to do so in only a fraction of the time we had needed for the ascent – returning to the base camp triumphantly. Race to the top of Ben Nevis: accomplished!
The other day our way further back into the valley did – of course – lead through a variety of heavy rains. Completely soaked upon arriving at the River Nevis again (which was converted into a torrent by these days of rain in the meantime, a real raging current), we all agreed to have deserved the pleasures of a dry and warm bed in the Glen Nevis Youth Hostel right in front of us. Furthermore a great opportunity to also dehumidify tents, boots, and sleeping bags; the evening later culminating in a pint (well, I admit – maybe two or three) and good portion of Haggis as reward in the next best pub.
And of all things, when hearing about our successful adventure, the fellow at the hostel’s reception desk wanted to know when we had to put on our crampons … go figure.