Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Why I love working on Ben Nevis

As a summer ML I have a  lot of varied work. However, taking clients up Ben Nevis has been a recurring theme over the last couple of years, particularly working for Macs Adventure. I always get asked how many times I have climbed Britain's highest mountain, and I honestly don't know the answer.  Not because I have lost count, but because I have never begun to count.
 "The Ben",  as climbers like to refer to it, has many faces.  There is the magnificent North Face, accessible from the Allt a Mhuilinn path, which is the domain of roped climbers both in winter and summer. There is the Carn Mor Dearg Arete, a hanging curtain of rock that frames the Allt a Mhuilinn approach and is a huge day out for experienced hill walkers and winter mountaineers.
However, most people first climb it via what used to be known as the Tourist Route.  In recent years the name has changed (I think the latest version is "The Ben Path"), but the experience is the same- a broad and often crowded motorway that climbs relentlessly from glen to summit. Experienced Scottish hill walkers love to deride this route.  It's a slog.  It's boring.  It's very very busy.
In winter, even this path is a serious undertaking, with the average year round summit temperature below freezing, the upper plateau is almost always encased in snow, ice and mist. In summer there are still hazards a plenty on this route, with cliffs and gullies to the north and south of the path, snow filled couloirs and cornices lasting until late June, and the temperature at the top usually a good 10 degrees colder than in the glen below. Nevertheless, if you climbed it on a typical Saturday in the summer holidays, it would feel more like Blackpool Pier than a remote Scottish Munro (complete with wind, rain and fog).  The wildlife has long fled in terror, the path is littered with bannana skins (and worse), and most of the people you meet have never climbed a mountain before.
So why do I enjoy working there so much?
The people that walk up Ben Nevis with me are a mixed bunch. Many have set themselves a personal challenge. Some approach the climb with little experience and a great deal of trepidation. Others already enjoy hill walking but like the banter of walking with a group. For a large proportion, it is likely that this is their first visit to Scotland. We advise everyone that although the safety and logistics will all be taken care of for them, a certain amount of physical preparation is essential.  If they have never climbed a mountain in Scotland before, nothing will prepare them for how cold it will feel at the top. For most, the walk is well within their capabilities, very rarely is someone so unprepared that they won't get to the top.  The descent is also exhausting, and it often takes just as long to get down as to go up.  The knees take a battering, the rocky steps are relentless. It is very common for apparently fit and healthy people to exclaim that they never imagined how hard and physically challenging the day would be.  What is remarkable, and wonderful, is that for these same people, they also could not imagine being able to push themselves so hard, and achieving so much- the climb exceeds their expectations in more ways than one.  I always get an immense amount of job satisfaction from helping someone to test what they thought were their physical limits, and discover that they can go so much further.  I imagine (I may be wrong), that when they return back to their real worlds, they continue to explore the boundaries of what is possible. In a way this inspires me to push myself harder too.

Here are my top 5 tips for a summer ascent of Ben Nevis via the Ben Path for the novice hill walker:

1. As well as waterproofs etc, take a hat and gloves, even in July.  Its nobbling on top most days.
2. Apple cores,orange peel and banana skins take years to rot on cold mountainsides and even when they do they damage special soils. Take them home.
3. There may be snow on the top, don't walk on the snow lined cliff edge and across the tops of gullies.  You may be walking on thin air. People have died doing this.
4. If it is not a busy day, you may need a map and compass to navigate off the top.  Do you know how to do this?
5. Trekking poles will help your knees on the way down.

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