Sunday, August 15, 2010

Ben Nevis: There and back again

Getting ready to start the uphill hike
The kind owner of Achintee Farm welcomed us to the hostel with open arms, in spite of the fact that we were early and walked in on him fixing the toilet.  He assured us that we could easily make the ascent of Ben Nevis ("Mountain with its head in the clouds" or "Mountain of heaven") if we left soon (it was about 11 AM when we arrived), as there was no guarantee that the fine weather that day would still be so fine for the rest of our stay in Fort William.  The days are so long in that part of Scotland that, even if we got stuck at the top of the mountain in the gloom in the evening, he told us we could just wait a few hours until dawn when it started lightening up again and we could see well enough to pick out our way down.

"You're capable - you can do it.  I trust you,"  he said.  That was quite a compliment, coming from a native who knows the terrain like the back of his hand.  With his rich Scottish brogue, he added, "Aye, and you'll sleep."  We were soon to discover how true his prediction would be after we returned from the hike.

Up the Mountain Track to Ben Nevis, Scotland
We set off up the trail, which quickly turned into a long and steep climb up stone steps crafted to keep trail erosion at bay.  The land fell steeply away on one side as we settled into the rhythm of climbing. The mind wanders as I climb, the ache of my legs a distant murmur that I can ignore as I imagine that I am a hobbit off on a grand adventure.  Another step, and another, until it all runs together and all I can remember is that I have always been climbing, and my streams of thoughts have coalesced into an ocean on which I am adrift in daydream.  Then, lo and behold, the climbing stops, the ocean disperses, and I look about myself in befuddlement, stray memories clinging like dew to my conscious: how did the top come so fast?

Allt a' Mhuilinn ("stream of the mill") valley - north face of Ben Nevis on the right, Scotland
The land abruptly flattened once we reached Lochan Meall an t-Suidhe ("Halfway Lochan").  From there, we turned off the main tourist track, up Allt a' Mhuilinn ("Stream of the Mill") valley, which is bordered on one side by the brooding north face of Ben Nevis, towering 2300 feet above the valley.

North face of Ben Nevis, Scotland

The north face of Ben Nevis was immense.  It looked like giants were emerging from the earth.  Clouds shrouded the summit.  We stopped to stare countless times.

Making our way up the side of Carn Mor Dearg, across from Ben Nevis, Scotland
We went off trail and beat our way up the steep side of Carn Mor Dearg ("Great Red Peak"), opposite the north face of Ben Nevis.  Going off trail went against every American trail etiquette sensibility that we had, but our host assured us that because so few people go this route, they encourage this approach to spread out any wear and tear we hikers bring to the land. 

The vegetation was different what we were used to.  We would occasionally sink to our knees in spongy vegetation.  This mentality of "two steps forward, one step back" soon became maddening on this incredibly steep slope and I quickly learned to distinguish what type of grass grew on firmer ground.

Red deer, Ben Nevis, Scotland
The red deer had no problems traversing the terrain.
Sometimes we had to clamber over piles of large rocks, which required a delicate sense of balance.  At one point, a boulder I was perched upon began to shift.  I immediately began to step onto the next rock, which also began to move ominously under my weight.  I will never forget the sense of sheer terror that cut through my heart at that split second as I had a vision of the rocks giving way under me and the boulder just above smashing into me.  I managed to lean forward and hug the rocks in front of me (this should give you an idea of just how steep the slope was) while J. coached me on where to place my feet and hands.

Ridgetop, Carn Mor Dearg in background, Ben Nevis, Scotland
I promptly broke out into tears once we made it to the top of the ridge.  And then I was fine and we went on.

Carn Mor Dearg Arrete path, Ben Nevis, Scotland
Which was just as well because the scarier parts were still ahead: the Carn Mor Dearg Arete.  But I was able to face those parts with equanimity.  The scary bits came when the trail dropped off the ridge-top and hugged the ridge.  During those times, the trail was a thin, pitiful thing that you could just barely make out in the jumble of rocks scattered on the side of the mountain.  It was a matter of thinking only as far ahead as where to make your next step.  We would pause to catch our breath and look back and have no idea how we got to that point.  We were hugging rocks, blindly feeling with our feet for secure footholds.  At one point, the trail petered out and we stood there, leaning against the mountain, looking at the mess of rocks and looking at each other. On one side, the mountain, on the other, a long uninterrupted fall to the valley floor.  Then we spotted a rock jutting out that we thought just might take us to better ground.  Once we made that move, we easily spied a way back up to the ridgetop that we couldn't have seen one step before.

Looking out over Allt a' Mhuilinn valley, Ben Nevis, Scotland
We took a break at the head of the Allt a' Mhuillin valley, absorbing how far we had come.  The north face of Ben Nevis loomed even closer on the left.  On the right was the slope that made me cry.

Getting closer to Ben Nevis, Carn Mor Dearg Arrete path, Scotland
We finished the rest of the Carn Mor Dearg Arete and made it to the base of the Ben Nevis summit. A boulder field rose up before us, a massive pile of boulders that looked like the aftermath of a battle between giants. We scrambled up the boulders, occasionally crossing paths of scree, loose rock that likes to slide and take you with it. Knowing the cliff edge was to the right, we made sure to keep to the center of the boulder field, always veering left whenever we encountered obstacles.

Summit of Ben Nevis, Scotland
These rocks were very annoying to walk on.  I was very tired of rocks by this point.
We had no idea we were close to the summit until we climbed a boulder and unexpectedly stepped onto level ground.  The ruins of an observatory and other buildings were scattered about the summit.

Cornice of snow on cliff-edge, overlooking Five Finger Gully, Ben Nevis, Scotland
There was snow at the summit, even in June.  J. pointed out this cornice of snow, whipped out to a fine edge over Five Finger Gully.  Snow can be deceptive, making you think you are on solid ground, when you might actually be treading on a cornice that may crack and send you free-falling to an unpleasant end.

Trail under construction, Loch Lhinne in background, Ben Nevis, Scotland
We walked out of that cloud.
We took our time descending Ben Nevis. Down and down we went over rocks. There were always rocks, even in the midst of such green country.  My ankles were weak, my knees tired.  Down and down we went, all 4400 feet back to Achintee Farm.  It took us 8 hours to climb Ben Nevis via the Carn Mor Dearg Arete path.  It took us 2 hours to descend.

We slept well that night.

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