Ben Nevis. Part I. Heartbreak Hostel.
15th January 2016
I am going to go out on a limb here, but I reckon that Hillary, Shackleton or Captain Scott never got the elbow from a girl the night before they set out on their respective expeditions. I will even go as far to say, that if they did it wasn’t in a Scottish Tourist Board gift shop in Fort William, by text, with 6 inches of snow outside and a biting wind stinging their face.
When you get dumped by a girl, by text in a Scottish Tourist Board gift shop in the rock n roll mecca that is Fort William, you can do nothing. Nada, niente…zip.
I was supposed to be climbing Ben-Effing-Nevis tomorrow, this was a game face on moment. I’d been sent over the top without my tin helmet and gun. Luckily the only person I knew in the whole town to talk to was the other member of my mountain expedition team, my uncle Ol.
Ol has been my uncle for 29 years now. He is a cool mix of Indiana Jones, meets Cherokee warrior, meets Melvyn Bragg. A climber all his life, Ol’s mind was firmly fixed on the 4200ft of climbing to come the following day and even if we had just been to see a live production of the sound of music, before being paddled out the cinema by moonlight on a gondola with Andrea Boccelli singing on the prow, I am sure I could never engage with him about a broken heart.
“There’s really not much to do in Fort William” says Ol
This was something I had clocked post jilt. Between shopping in the Mountain Warehouse, Blacks or checking the positively shit your pants inducing “avalanche report” at nevis sport, Fort William is certainly in the running for Britain’s greatest one horse town. Right now I needed a bar, with loads of booze, sport on the TV and maybe some form of ground animal flesh wrapped in pastry.
“Lets go to Morrisons and get a coffee” say Ol.
“Ok” replies I, blankly
We had driven nearly 400 miles, I’d been dumped, drank weak filter coffee in a Morrisons’ and now I was in a youth hostel full of the kind of people you find at a scout jamboree, sober as a judge and having folk music pumped into my brain.
I’d packed my favourite tinned Italian beef, borlotti beans, enough pasta for an Italian Alpine division and my ever present Calabrian chillis, hotter than a Louisiana knocking shop. The hostel was like a student house. An eclectic mix of begged, borrowed and donated furniture sat alongside random, brightly coloured walls. It smelt of old vegetable oil, a cocktail of jarred sauce dinners and outdoor clothing. Uncle Ol was reading in the living room, sat next to some girl who looked like she probably knew every lyric to every Enya song written. I went to the only place I know can distract my mind in such a mood, the kitchen.
Remember that first time you moved into uni halls or a shared house and the hardest task in the world seemed to be cooking the first meal. The anxiety of entering the kitchen, the hub of the home, where everyone had already got to know each other and here you were, with your weird food and odd clothing. That was me.
“Is it all right if I use this hob” in my most deep, sober non friend making Yorkshire voice
“Aye go ahead!!” the bubbly warden shrieked in my maudlin face
Please don’t look at my food, don’t see the can with the cow on the front, or the weird jar of pickled chillis..please don’t ask what it all is, I am fragile, I am detritus. Luckily they didn’t.
Talk of the days hike, climb or walk struggled for space amongst the smoke and spray of fat in the kitchens atmosphere. It felt like a scene from Das Boot, if the U-Boat had been manned by Rick and Vivian from the Young Ones.
All my food was in the pan. Onions first, sweated for 20 minutes, removes the acidity and intensifies the sweetness. Add the simmental, yes it may look like cat food but when the jelly melts and the meat renders into the onion, then you are in flavour country amigo. Add Borlotti beans, add salt and pepper. Boil pasta, 6 minutes, finish it in the pan, feed it with water and flavour. Add lots of chilli, maybe a little butter (it is good for morale after all) and serve.
What was this though?
The music flipped and changed; Willie Nelson. Looking around for the chilli, my hand touched something cold and glass like…I know that feeling…a bottle, and from the flat brim around the neck, it could only be my favourite grappa with a picture of a wee bird on the front! Good old aunty Tina! things were looking up. I poured myself a large, half pint plastic beaker of grappa and downed it quick. I felt great, like popeye does when he pops a tin of spinach. The smells of my pan started to fill the room, my music was on and the grappa was working its temporary charms. I had another half, the bottle had emptied significantly. Before I knew it, I was talking to a scout leader about my admiration of Helly Hansen long johns, whether Ray Mears was a fraud and how highlanders would let blood out of their cows to create black pudding before stitching the weakened beast up and setting it back out in the field, some what slightly light headed.
By some boozy miracle I was enjoying myself. Through a combination of 90 proof Italian spirit, tinned beef and country rock, id jilted the jilting from my mind, the avalanche reports evaporated and all my worries about being mountain rescues 126th victim of the year gave way to an air of over confidence and bon homme with my new outdoors type friends. Maybe everything would be alright after all.
We had an early start. The ascent began at 7, so leaving the gentle mountain type folk in the kitchen discussing the virtues of Mike Oldfield and wools ability to dry faster than cotton, we headed to bed.