From my starting point I’m approximately one hour into my walk up Ben Nevis mountain. It’s raining with a slight headwind and for once I’m wearing the right gear, equating to comfort and safety. In front are a young couple. He’s soaked, his jeans hanging low in the style of some hip hop rapper type dude. The showerproof kagool offering him little protection as the rain has already broke through. She’s in a worse state. Her footwear is open toed sandals, no jacket, instead she’s wearing a cotton or light wool smock, with neither a hood or back pack in sight. We are all in the early stages of climbing Ben Nevis.
I ask if they are OK, “Yes” is the reply. Who knows? They may be about to turn around any minute, this may be as far as they planned to walk. Maybe.
When leaving BANK STREET LODGE, one of the great hostels in Fort William, shorty after breakfast, a story from climbers the previous day was buzzing around in my head. A group of five were making a successful ascent of Ben Nevis until dense cloud descended. By all accounts the density was such the group lost sight of each other. Their loss of coordination resulted in one of the party developing a panic attack. A very frightened individual screaming, crying, shouting out for friends, wet and cold is a recipe for potential injury or harm to follow. Luckily the cloud lifted, friends were united, the climb was abandoned.
Before leaving I took some useful advice from experienced climbers Alan and Sue at Calluna just down the road. First was advice on clothing and accessories which should be taken along. This I followed implicitly. My plan, as I was climbing alone, was to crack on. Except for intake of provisions, I wouldn’t be stopping for photo opportunities and long chats with fellow walkers. By my calculations I was around halfway into the climb when the rain stopped. The sun made an appearance allowing a vista of wonderful panoramic views to open up. Then just as quickly rain returned, rain clouds obliterating the sun as if someone had drawn a pair of curtains in the sky.
My climb was steady, comfortable and rewarding to body and soul. Only once did I need to heed Alan’s instruction. As I began the final section I hit a surprising amount of snow, in both depth and expanse. I soon lost my route. Thick cloud and a heavy snow base resulted in the proverbial hand in front of face syndrome. In reality I couldn’t see more than 10 yards around me. The advice: If in doubt don’t guess the route. Stop, take stock of the situation. Sure enough within ten minutes other climbers had joined me. The cloud cleared enough to once again safely sight the way ahead. Collectively we walked the final fifteen minutes together and reached the summit of Ben Nevis.
We shook hands, as they began congratulatory hugs, photographs and text messages probably telling loved ones they had reached the highest peak in the United Kingdom. It was genuinely heartwarming to see such pleasure amongst the group. I also felt a pang of regret yesterday’s group from the hostel hadn’t been so lucky.
‘What a view’…or should that be, ‘Where was the view?’ All I could see was snow and cloud. With laughter, clinking of glasses and bottles I left the “We’ve made it revellers” to their brief party as I made my way down. Not surprisingly those on the way up wanted to know how far before the summit. Brief and thankful conversations took place. I was Mr. Popular simply by knowing the final distance they had to trek. Strange in a way.
I must have been around half a mile past the snow, when confronted by a sight which stopped me in my tracks. Coming towards me were the bedraggled couple I’d come across some hours ago. Yes hipster jeans and open toed sandals were aiming for the peak. Oh my goodness what a sorry, wet, dishevelled sight they had become. They tried for a cigarette but the contents were in the same state as this pair, completely soaked. I flicked open my moral compass, deciding to walk on or tell them. I decided to tell them. “Do you know just around those bends in the path, you have at least twenty minutes’ walking in snow…” I was going to finish off with…”before you reach the summit”. She interjected.
“Snow in June? You’re f******** kidding me” I pointed at my boots and trousers bottoms, still carrying the remnants of June snow. Perhaps not the right time to explain this wasn’t new snowfall, just old snow which hadn’t cleared due to low summer temperatures. At this point I looked at her sandalled feet, and winced. I’d seen distress flares glow with less ferocity than this woman’s feet. She then turned her unbridled wrath on what was quickly becoming her ex-partner. Why didn’t he know about the snow? Why wasn’t she told to bring boots? She then moved on to throw doubt on his parentage. His I.Q. (or lack of) also came in for scrutiny. His apologies and “I didn’t knows” did nothing to quell her tirade. She had moved on to lost passports, forgotten birthdays and ex-girlfriends. I thought if this goes on any longer I’ll be able to sell tickets. Domestic altercation on a mountain, roll up, roll up.
“Is there anything I can do, make a call to someone? I have a spare kagool, or socks…” In a pleasant, calm voice she said, “No thanks, we will be making our way down now!”. With the opportunity available I make a swift exit. I didn’t look back but soon realised high pitched yelling does carry well at this altitude!
I managed to capture a few photographs as the weather improved as I made way down. Taking the opportunity to ponder if there is a better way to spend time either up a mountain or on a coastal path. Either one is my own little piece of utopia.
Making my way to the Glen Nevis visitor centre I informed staff of the couple I’d come across, hoping they were still on there way down. We will check, but we’ve had worse I was told. What’s that old adage?: “Prepare for the worst, hope for the best” Don’t underestimate the walk or climb your about to undertake. Ben Nevis is a challenging and very rewarding experience, hope I get to sample it’s delights again in the near future.
Snow in June, is it climate change? No just Ben Nevis saying, “Now you didn’t expect to see that today, did you?”