Sure Ben Nevis is the highest mountain in the UK. But it’s up and back within the day. And I’ve done Kilimanjaro. I’d done Snowdon the year before and whilst it was a big day it was manageable. I really didn’t think Ben Nevis would be that big a deal. I was very wrong!
As I was travelling solo I decided to find a guide to take me up – thank goodness! I emailed the hotel I was staying at (The Lime Tree) and asked for a recommendation. They came back with Atlas Mountaineering. After I sent him an email the owner Connnor actually rang me and asked if I knew what I was getting into. He explained that even though I was planning to climb at Easter there would still be a lot of snow on the top of the mountain and that I would need to use crampons and an ice ax. This struck fear in my heart as my usual rule is that I don’t climb anything that requires technical stuff – especially in scary snow! He also explained that the weather changed very quickly. I thought oh well maybe the weather will be better than he says and stayed very positive.
I was up early my first morning in Fort William and drove to meet my guide John. He was very experienced and gave me a lot of warnings about the mountain. I hired the crampons and ice axe from him as well as some winter climbing boots. These have a much firmer base so work better with crampons vs normal hiking books. We headed off and decided we would review things about an hour or so in. The visibility was not great – although at that point I was only concerned about taking photos rather than actually being able to see where I was going. Anyway we got to the go/no go zone and John said he thought I could handle it so I couldn’t say no!
An hour later we put on crampons and I had my first go at an ice axe. The crampons were actually great – so much easier to walk in! And the ice ax was heavy but fine. About half an hour after we put them on complete white out descended on us. All I could see was John’s pack. Every inch of me was covered and thank goodness I was exerting myself so heavily or I would have been freezing. At this stage John was navigating using just an old fashioned compass and his hand nearly froze.
At one point John turned to me and said “We’re here” . I asked where we were and he replied that we had reached the summit. Luckily there was a snow covered rock that I could put my hand on and get a photo on my phone. I checked it out against shots on a clear day online the next day and could not believe the difference!
Then came the worst bit – getting down. John was keen to get us down as quickly as possible – so was I but it was hard work on the knees heading down – and scary stuff heading down at quite a fast pace in crampons! Finally after another hour we could take off the crampons. An hour later we stopped for the first time that day – it was about 3pm. Finally I was able to eat something although I was so exhausted by that point I could barely be bothered.
Another hour and a half of painful walking as my soaked socks made my foot slip inside every step – guaranteeing me another lost toenail. I also went through 3 pairs of gloves that day (soaked) and John went through 5 pairs.
I have never been so happy to see a car in my life as I was that day. I asked John how the day had compared to previous climbs – on a scale of 1 to 10 with 10 being the toughest where would this sit? He looked at me like I was a bit mad and said well it doesn’t get worse than total white out. He had been in conditions that bad before but never anything worse which was quite sobering. He also told me how many people disappear on the mountain each year as the weather comes in so quickly and destroys visibility. I can certainly see how this is the case!
Thank goodness I had my boutique hotel booked – The Lime Tree! And I had already checked that I could have room service. I arrived at the front desk very bedraggled and the first thing they pointed out to me was the drying room of which I made good use! I had an amazing hot shower and jumped into my high thread count sheets! Delicious room service was up next with wine and tv and gosh did it feel good! I woke up in the morning to a rather sore body and a very big appetite for the large Scottish breakfast that was awaiting me.
I would highly recommend climbing Ben Nevis in better weather than I did – preferably June before the midges. And if you are travelling solo definitely get a guide. I would also be careful going up in a group (which they run in the summer) and stick close to the guide and other members of the group. It would be so easy to get confused up there and make a wrong turn when the weather comes in. Atlas Mountaineering were fantastic and I would highly recommend them.
Interested in Scotland? Check out my other posts about the Scottish Highlands:
Also published on Medium.