Ben Nevis: Part 1

Photo taken by myself of the North Face of Ben Nevis, taken from the North Face trail, The Scottish Highlands on the afternoon of 26.09.2020.

In 2017, probably around March/April time I had a chat with a friend of mine over Facebook messenger. This friend was Boc. Boc isn’t his real name, but it’s what I call him, and as he despises social media and unwarranted attention I shall call him that, so those that know, know, and those that don’t, can’t find him. Anyway Boc had been travelling for the last 2 or 3 years. At this particular point, I think he was living and working in New Zealand. In the time he had been away and on his journey I had been on my own journey right here at home, Manchester (South).

My journey was one of breaking myself down to re-build myself again. I had to unlearn a lot, to be teachable. The teaching was slow, but very much worth it. Boc had been on a similar journey but for different reasons. I’m going to be honest here and tell you now that for most of our friendship prior to 2017, Boc and I had what you could call a turbulent relationship. We butted heads, a lot! The same reasons we almost came to blows on a number of occasions back then are the reasons why today he is one of my most valued, if not best, friend. I don’t think I have a particular “best friend” as I have a few who I class as my top level mates. But if I was to have one, Boc fits the criteria and passes with flying colours.

Anyway the reason we clashed a lot was Boc has always been a man who speaks his mind and says it how it is. At a time in life where many metaphorically licked the area from which I poo, Boc would tell me about myself, straight! And the majority of the time I couldn’t take it. It’s what I needed, but not what I wanted. I enjoyed the “gasmen” gassing me up. My ego was through the roof. My personal journey that I went on was mainly about breaking this ego down and getting some humility. By what he’s told me about travelling, the same thing happened to him. In my eyes I needed it a lot more than he did, but everybody has their own things they need to work on, regardless of how they compare to others.

Boc was telling me, over Facebook, about the places he had visited, especially in New Zealand and how some people over there had told him The Highlands of Scotland were just as beautiful as some of the outstanding landscapes over there. He said to me he wanted to hit Scotland when he was back and do some wild-camping out there. I had recently got into hill walking a little bit and said I was 100% involved. He said he’ll be in touch when he was back on home turf and we made a plan from there.

After some research online in the local Costa, Northendon and reading a Guardian article on the top 10 places to wild camp in the Highlands we set out for Glen Nevis in August, 2017. That trip is one that will remain in my memory for as long as my memory works! A lot happened! A lot of lessons were learnt! We essentially made every mistake going, but ultimately paid the price for fighting what Joe Rogan calls our “inner bitch” and were blessed with the most amazing sun rise, in the most rugged of landscapes we’d ever experienced. See image below.

A 5am sunrise somewhere in the Glen, Glen Nevis, The Scottish Highlands, August 2017.

I’m not going to go into too much more detail about this trip as Boc did an amazing job of writing about it in his blog ‘The Wandering Manc’. Unfortunately this blog is no longer live but I’m hoping one day he reignites his passion for travel writing and fires it up again. In the chance that that happens, I will not try to emulate a great piece he wrote about our experience there. But this maiden voyage augmented a burning passion for being outdoors, hiking and wild camping for both of us. We have since camped in many sensational spots like The Isle of Skye and Loch Dee (Galloway Forest Park), hiked the majority of “big” mountains in the UK and get out pretty much every other month together for a good walk and a chin wag. He goes out alone most weeks too. I unfortunately don’t get the chance to do that the way he does but I make sure at least 6 times a year we’re exploring somewhere we haven’t been before.

At the start of the year I always set a series of personal goals. I make sure these goals are achievable as setting an unachievable goal just means you feel as though you have failed. But they also have to be goals that won’t happen unless I put some effort in. I look at the areas in my life I feel need to be goal orientated: Training, music, health, life and financial. I set one goal for each area and then break down what I need to do to achieve that goal. My life goal for the last few years has usually been outdoors orientated; seeing more of the countryside of this beautiful island in which I happen to live on. I may not be able to go abroad every year but I can certainly explore this amazing piece of rock I call home. City living can have you thinking everything is just bricks and mortar. But honestly, just an hour away from most cities, is stunning green landscapes which on the right day, will smash most other country’s countryside out of the park.

My life goal for 2020 was to climb Ben Nevis. I had already done Snowden once and Scafell Pike twice, so it made sense that this was the next one I needed to conquer. I have done Hellvyllen a couple of times too and others like Skiddaw in the Lakes. Beautiful, beautiful places. I suggest anybody reading this, that hasn’t experienced these fantastic areas of pure magic, book a day, get in your car, drive there and have a look at how God intended the World to be.

We made a plan to get Nevis ticked off this summer; the summer of 2020 will go down in history and be talked about for possible centuries providing our planet lasts that long. With everything that happened (cough, cough) it wasn’t feasible to do. So I kind of accepted that I wasn’t going to achieve that goal this year. You see climbing Ben Nevis isn’t going on one of our usual strolls. It’s a whole third higher than the highest mountain we had both previously climbed, it’s a good 6 hours away travel time and it needs well prepping for. I’m the designated driver, always have been, probably always will be. I didn’t want to be driving for 6 hours (minimum), climbing the highest mountain in the UK, then driving another 6 hours home. That’s just really dumb. I also didn’t fancy wild camping when climbing a mountain like that. I wanted a hot shower and a bed afterwards. There is being “hard-core” and a hero and then there is just plain, unnecessary stupidity. If we were going to do it, we would need to drive up one day, stay over, wake up early, get it done, stay over again and come home the next day.

Early September I was back to work full time. In my job I can only take holidays in school holiday times. So things I do usually get done then. I’m not moaning about it. I get at least 8 weeks more holidays a year than most people. But usually during term time I don’t do much out of the ordinary (for me).  My ordinary is probably very different to yours! Boc said he had holidays to take at work and was booking a week off at the end of September, the week after I would have turned 31. I had wanted to climb Ben Nevis before I was 30. That didn’t happen, but with this suggestion coming so close to my birthday (another year gone) it felt like a sign. I checked with the misses that she didn’t have anything planned for me for that weekend (my birthday was actually the weekend before and you may laugh but believe me boys, taking this precaution is best) and I said “Let’s do it”. In the diary it went. Boc got online checking Air BnB’s, a particular talent of his, something I would rather slit my wrists than do and I planned to make a sweet potato and cauliflower curry (he’s vegan) for us to yam before we set off after work on the Friday.

Doing something like this over a weekend when working is hard graft! Driving 6 hours to the Highlands after a full week in work is not anybody’s idea of fun. Having a very active weekend and then driving back Sunday ready for a 6am wake up Monday morning for another week of occupational participation is also not a very appealing notion. But honestly, it’s amazing how much you can actually get done in a weekend if you plan it properly and have a bit of ambition.

So yeah, Friday 25th September, 4:30pm we met at mine, wolfed down the curry (I’m not sure he was too impressed but I thought it was belting) and hit the road with all the Bassett’s fizzy dummies and Sainsbury’s own fizzy fangs a man could ask for. Non-gelatine sweets, banging! Give them a go. We ended up staying at a Premier Inn in Fort William as it was half the price of anywhere else and offered a breakfast which we thought was essential before tackling ‘The Venomous Mountain’. The breakfast was potentially the least desirable plate of food I’ve ever had put in front of me, we didn’t go back the next day, but the room was more than adequate for what we needed. It was cold when we arrived. Cold! We didn’t waste much time unpacking and getting a good night’s sleep for the next day. He very kindly let me have the big double bed because I drove and he took the sofa bed at the side. Be the designated driver kids!

Saturday 26th September 07:00 hours we awoke. Got our walking gear (multiple layers) on as the Brewers Fayre which served the breakfast was probably just as cold as the summit of Nevis, ate the tasteless, over fried hash browns and possibly the palest eggs I’ve ever set eyes on (thank God I didn’t ask for any meat), frequented the hotel room lavatory, essential, and drove the 12 minute journey round the corner to the North Face car park.

We planned to hike through the North Face trail, over what’s known as the CMD Arête, onto the summit of Ben Nevis, then join the peasant Pony path back down the zigzag, finally coming off where the amateurs would carry on to their sheeple, standard starting and finishing point (going the same way up and down, bore) before following the edge of the mountain back round to the North Face again and making our way back to the car park we started at. Look, I’m throwing shade at the people who do it the most popular way, partly because when I’m walking I want to come into contact with as little people as possible, and partly because I hate doing the same thing that everybody else does. But honestly, if you have ever completed this mountain, or ever plan to and want to do it that way, well-bloody-done. There is nothing easy about this hike. Even the Pony/Mountain track requires sheer determination, will-power and grit to get up. So good on you if you have! I joke about it being the boring way to do it, and in some ways it is, but it’s still very much a fantastic achievement!

On these excursions Boc is the man with the plan. He sorts the route, it’s his role. I’d say he likes it, I don’t know if he does or doesn’t, but I don’t! And as I drive, it’s only right the planning and navigating fall on him. He had a map and also had the route on his phone. But we always sort of wing it! We don’t really read about all the relevant points, we just look at a picture and think “Right, got it”. It never works. Ever! We always go wrong and end up well off the beaten track, stumbling our way through obscene wilderness and actually very dangerous terrain. But we always have a good story at the end of it. That could be the death of us one day, a decent tale to tell, but we’ve done alright so far.

This was our first time here. Neither of us knew the area at all. Now I’ve done it once I can Google every route up Ben Nevis and fully understand where it is telling me to go but as our first time we didn’t have a clue! Boc said, “This time, we’re sticking to the route. This is our biggest challenge yet and I’m not doing what we usually do. It’s actually dangerous!”

He also read the route backwards!

I realised about 2 and-a-half hours in but he wasn’t in the best of moods at this point so thought it was best left unsaid at the time. We were going up either way, so it wasn’t the end of the World…

(To be continued).

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