Friday 29 May 2020

Memorable Mountains 5: Ben Nevis

Fifth in this occasional series of memorable mountains I've been thinking about while the hills are out of bounds is one I've climbed more than a dozen times, summer and winter. Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in Scotland.

I first climbed the Ben, as it's known, over forty years ago by way of the standard walkers route, a long but rewarding slog up a stony path. I didn't then appreciate the true grandeur of the mountain, I was just aware of its bulk and height.

A few years later I began to grasp just how spectacular and glorious Ben Nevis is when I took a winter climbing course. Walking up to the great north face and then climbing through the crags and gullies to the summit plateau was a revelation. The complexity of the giant cliffs sucked me in. Here was world of its own, self-contained, aloof from any other reality.

I climbed two routes with an instructor. My notes are rather sparse - I was probably too tired to write much. Of the first, Garadh Gully, graded II, which means quite easy, I merely noted "2 small ice pitches proved interesting". The second was a little different. "Did what we thought was Jubilee Gully", I wrote. That was another Grade II climb. But the terrain we found ourselves on was much harder than that. "Second pitch a vertical ice wall, bulging at the top - desperate! While on it weather changed and suddenly we were enveloped in a warm wet cloud. Above the ice pitch we moved rapidly together as stones and bits of ice came whistling down". We reached the summit plateau over a large cornice. There was a wide, deep crack some thirty feet from the edge. An exciting day!

Many ascents and years later I had my best day and night on Ben Nevis one May during the TGO Challenge. I went up in the evening after the heat of the day had dimmed and camped on deep snow on the summit. The last of many day walkers passed me descending just above the Halfway Lochan. I was alone with the mountain and would be for the next fifteen hours.

A brilliant sunset lit up Loch Eil and the far western hills. The cliffs of the north face glowed in the last light of the day. I wandered round the summit, lost in the marvellousness of it all.

Dawn came with damp mist and I thought the splendour was gone. But as the sun strengthened the clouds rose and began to dissipate.

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