I realised we were potentially approaching our chosen route backwards when about 2 and-a-half hours in we began to see a flurry of people towards the other end of the east side of the mountain which we were hiking around. You see we (or Boc) presumed that the zigzag on the map was the ridge (CMD Arête) that we were supposed to cross to ascend Ben Nevis. No. This zigzag was in fact the Pony track up to the top. The most popular route as it’s the easiest, although easy is a slight understatement, but it’s fool proof as in you just follow the track up. We were definitely fools at this stage so it’s probably a good job we couldn’t go wrong from here on (to the summit at least).
We joined the flock of civilians about 1 hour 30 minutes from the top. A very bizarre experience happened which I have only ever encountered when doing a popular mountain that a lot of people just do for the clout, Snowden mainly (I’m not a great fan). Everybody we passed happened to be a word which starts with a C, ends with a T, and rhymes with PUNT. We had come into contact with very minimal people beforehand, which was in line with how it should have been as we selected the route in which only experienced hikers do. Anybody we had passed were very cheerful, gave a “Hello” or an “Alright mate” in my case and continued with their own purpose. These people here though were just discourteous! Only concerned with themselves, a lot of them belonging to groups who had walkie-talkies (well cool) and they took up the entire path when passing you. I literally couldn’t of been any more on the edge of the path, I would of fell off if I moved anymore to the right and I was still being brushed passed by muppets in massive bobble hats (again, well cool) who insisted on walking next to each other (3 at a time) while coming down a narrow path in which people were also coming up.
Then you had the “double-stickers”, who looked the works, they really did! Gracefully bounding down the path, sweeping one stick to the left and then the other to the right, head held high like they’re the rightful occupants of the Highland terrain. PUNTS! Problem is, it doesn’t leave much room for anybody else when they’re double-swinging sticks around like Darth Maul in Episode 1. I don’t like people at the best of times, but this was another level of annoyance.
Anyway we kept on ploughing. Boc struggled a bit more than me on the way up. His calf cramped up and I needed to maintain some form of momentum so I frequently left him behind for a bit and then waited after a while for him to catch up. A decision which, in turn, I would learn the full extent of karma later that day. About an hour from the top my quads began to cramp. Not too badly at first but it was literally one slight over-extension of the knee and that was it, quad cramp galore that remained with me for the entirety of the day. I’m used to this on the way down usually. I don’t drink enough water when hiking which I think causes it. I’ve since read that very fit people get this worse as they don’t believe they’re putting their body through as much physical exertion as they actually are, don’t drink or eat enough and end up with muscle cramps in the over-worked muscles; the quads in my case. I’m not sure that applies to me completely but I’m having it!
About 40 minutes from the top we passed a lad having a sit down, smoking a roll-up and drinking an ice-cold Moretti. Now I don’t drink alcohol, and I have zero desire to, however I looked at this guy perched with his Italian bottled beer and Golden Virginia tobacco stick and instantly thought, my man, has smashed it! There is a man who came prepared to celebrate his achievements. So much so, I told him. We had a quick chat and realised we weren’t from too far away from each other, me being from Sale, him from Ramsbottom. Good old Mancs ay (we’ll class him as a Manc in this instance), no other species like them!
We then persisted to the top. It was hard. About 15 minutes or so from the top my quads became inflamed to the point that they felt as though they were going to burst out of my skin. I had to pull over, quickly get some water down me and ravage through my bag for some high-sugared snack in the hope it would work instantaneously and give me some relief from these awful cramps. I guzzled a couple of handfuls of mixed nuts, a banana and some beef jerky. I couldn’t find my fizzy dummies at this point and my hands were too cold to keep scrimmaging through my bag. Vexed! Boc caught me up here which was good and we persevered onto the summit. I crossed a guy with a group of lads at this point giving what seemed like a very emotional speech.
“Right, you’ve got Ben Nevis haven’t ya? And you’ve got the top and the bottom. Well where are we? We’re at the top aren’t we! Who’s to say where the top really is?”
Nah mate! Just shut up and go a bit further!
After a few more minutes of very slowly putting one foot in front of the other we got there. I walked over to the actual summit to join a bit of queue. Boc sat down, not his thing all that. I kind of wanted to touch it and maybe get a picture but the queue was moving very slowly so I came out. Got a picture in front of the little shelter at the top in case of extreme weather and then we headed to the south facing edge over looking Glen Nevis. The most picturesque, beautiful, mind blowing view a human retina could ever wish to cast vision upon. Honestly, a picture never does do these places justice, but just look at this…
Fairly central to that shot you can see Steall Falls. To the left and just over the last hill you can make out is where we camped on that first wild camping trip we ever went on. Yes, what you’re thinking is correct… Who the f*#k camps there? I told you it was eventful.
I stood there, with my duck, honey and marmalade pie courtesy of Tebay services on the way up, Boc sat there with a banana (he had left most of his food at the hotel like a whalley and being vegan couldn’t get involved with mine) and we just had quite a surreal experience. At that moment, stood 1345 metres above sea level, the highest land in any direction for 459 miles, looking over one of the most stunning landscapes known to man, a place where 3 years ago we had once battled with torrential rain, only to find a slither of unsaturated, flat land along a river bank (not ideal at all), that we had to cross a now un-crossable river (due to the rising water) and climbed up a very steep, soggy hill to get to, blessed with a 20 minute window of dry weather to set up camp before the heavens opened again, it really felt like life had gone full circle, and a chapter in our biopic journey’s had perfectly come to a conclusive and successful close. I’m not sure what that means for us, individually or together, regarding future adventures, but it felt fitting and just.
We took in the view for quite a while, then began to make our move towards the descent. Having ascended backwards to the plan, we were set on following through with our challenge and coming down the way we should have gone up; anything to avoid walking down steps with the masses. The problem here was that my quads were now extremely cramped, every single step felt like I was tearing muscles limb from limb in my upper legs, no amount of water and fizzy dummies were counteracting the impulse for my muscles to predict a contraction and therefore stay in a flexed state regardless of leg position. I was in pain! A lot of it!
Boc’s calves weren’t too much better either and the CMD Arête was no normal ridge. Imagine Striding Edge at Hellvyllen but double the size and height, or if you don’t know either, just look at this…
We saw an opening in the ridge, a potential way off and down quite a steep slope jam-packed with small, unstable rocks and decided that right now we had to pick to lesser of two evils. I can’t even say that this decision was the best one now, but inevitably we got down, fairly safely, although sketchy throughout, and I’m now home to tell the tale. The descent down this slope involved some sliding, I slipped once and fortunately didn’t go over on the arm that prevented me from smacking my face on a collective compound of rocks. We had to take our time and judge every step with precision and caution. It seemed like it would be over fairly soon as most things do when you look at it but half way in, where it was more dangerous to go back than it was to continue, the feeling was very different. It felt like we were crossing an ocean of stone, each one with the potential to cripple you and leave you well and truly up the proverbial.
We eventually got down to flatter ground, not necessarily safer in terms of stability but at least we were no longer on a cliff edge drop which would of resulted in nose-diving into a sea of rock. The rest of the journey back to where we started is a bit less glamorous. Actually, you can make your own mind up about that as this is what we could see.
We just had to work out how to cross a river, which was fairly easy and then follow the North Face trail back to the car park. Another beautiful view, with the sun being in the opposite place to the morning, gave the scenery a really friendly feel. The North Face of Nevis looking even quite appealing, very different to how it was perceived earlier that day when the dark mist was eerily hovering around it as if to deliver a message of warning. We had one last choice to make when coming to the final part of the trail before the car park. The path forked and we had taken the route to the right when coming up, it was quite a steep climb and right now we wanted to make the final leg of our hike as easy as possible. So we opted for the other one, which ended up being just as steep and longer, typical!
We got back to the car, shattered but filled with a sense of relief that it was over, gave each other a fist bump and kicked our boots off faster than a free kick from a peak Roberto Carlos. We had done it, achieved a goal of ours that had been on the list for a number of years, no ego involved, at times we struggled, we agreed it was the hardest and most painful thing we had accomplished to date, but nevertheless we had succeeded and felt extremely elated and ready for food, a hot shower and lie down!
We went the local M&S Food Hall to treat ourselves as the idea of getting ready and going somewhere for a meal was the least attractive thought possible at the time. I spent £30, very excessive but necessary (at least I told myself that), got back to the hotel, showered (separately) and based up for the evening, moving as little as possible. The next morning was a myth! My legs have never felt like that no matter how much I’ve squatted or deadlifted in the gym a couple of days before. But we woke up fresh, ready for a sensational drive home through Glen Coe, a place which can only be described as Bond-esque, as you feel like 007 in an Aston Martin Vanquish, cruising through some of the most rugged, breath taking mountains you will honestly ever set eyes upon. I still need to explore that place. I was also in an Astra GTC. But yeah, another pit-stop at Tebay on the way back, standard, and we were home by 4ish. I had venison sausages with the left over curry from Friday for my tea. Don’t chat to me!