Part II. We begin the Ascent.
3rd February 2016
Here’s some advice: If you’re going to climb a 4,200ft high mountain which is listed as “Sub Arctic” in the depths of winter, don’t do your cold weather training in Middlesex during the mildest December in living memory – that first sharp wintry tang of ozone at 7am is unforgiving.
Another tip would be not to drink a whole bottle of 90 proof grappa the night before. The last time such an occurrence occurred, I spent the day on a sun bed in Southern Italy having involuntary movements and experiencing out of body like sensations – not something you would be so keen on when climbing a whopping great mountain. I felt like someone was clog dancing on my skull.
Breakfast was so far the morning’s high point. 1 cup of scots oats, barely cover with water, add a lot of salt…Yuck right? WRONG. Bring to the boil, twist black pepper, stir ferociously, add two dried chilies, mix some more and attempt to spoon said porridge onto plate (without cracking or smashing it). Finish with hot sauce or if you are posh and can afford it, a fried egg. Highland expeditions deserve a dose of highland snap Jimmy!
At some point in the night Uncle Ol had obviously gone off and robbed Millets or Nevis Sport. The room was heaped with equipment, from ice axes, walking poles, gaiters, and cagoules to duvet jackets, B2 Alpine boots, and bergens. Like a new recruit getting his kit, Uncle Ol heaped handfuls of garishly coloured outdoors equipment into my sleepy outstretched arms.
Uncle Ol: “ Head torch…it’s pretty rubbish but should work. Crampons…pretty crap but we hopefully wont need them…Thermal hat…they are old, few holes but probably ok.” (He says this as packing his space age like equipment into his own sack.)
Brilliant. If we should get into any kind of trouble I am probably not going to be OK. I have images of snow rushing into my hat and freezing my head, of my crampons giving way and plunging into an icy chasm, of the head torch betraying my footing and causing some form of spinal trauma. At least one of us would survive.
I could picture the headlines:
“Has-been children’s TV presenter found dead at the bottom of Ben Nevis due to rubbish old head torch.”
What an epitaph…
Uncle Ol pulled out a map and a compass. He began explaining what route we would be taking by tracing the Perspex antiquated navigational device across the crisp multicolored paper representation of the earth. I didn’t have a clue how he was doing this. Where was the GPS? The satellite phone?
I’m not Columbus. I, like the rest of my generation, rely on electronic tickets to get from A to B. If Uncle Ol got injured and I was forced to take control of this increasingly risky expedition, I would probably and quite confidently, walk us straight off the side of the mountain.
“Former kids TV presenter plummets to death following poor map reading skills”
I was starting to feel somewhat manic. Thanks grappa, thanks restless night, thanks mount doom and rubbish old head torch. Thanks a million.
When we got to the foot of the mountain, the sky was purple and the car park was bleak. Two other fellas were sat with their legs out the door of their Dodge Duster, pulling on wellies with their significantly smaller packs resting by their respective doors. Noting their casual attire, and me dressed like a goalkeeper from the mid nineties in a fetching neon yellow windcheater, accompanied with yellow boots and sporting an Ice axe, walking pole, and huge rucksack…I felt a bit of a fool. Maybe this mountain was child’s play after all.
Mountains at first glances can sometimes look easy. This morning the cloud hung around the middle of the mountain, and the fact that the whole landscape was covered in a thick quilt of snow meant that gaging height, incline or anything was impossible.
My mood rapidly improved, although the heavy boots made anything but a slow plod impossible. The theme from Lord of the rings (you know the part, when the hobbits have some form of uplifting moment…) was playing in my poorly covered head. It was nearly Christmas, the walking was warming me up, and from what I could see it looked like a steady walk up to the summit.
Mountains lull the unsuspecting non-mountaineer into a false sense of security. The scenery is stunning. The incline, not too bad. That 55mph wind Uncle Ol predicted is miles away. I feel elated. In the distance we can see the two welly boot wearing fellas treading a steady course; they are probably having the time of their lives. Uncle Ol and myself make occasional small talk as we stick to what is nothing more than a slightly steep footpath, with occasional thick patches of snow. All in all it’s pretty pleasant. We pass a team of workmen cheerfully working on the path. This isn’t so bad; no place where people work so casually can be a tough place, surely?
The path ahead looks broad and is slowly rising, and the sun has come out to raise temperatures up enough for me to slip out of my David Seaman training jacket, circa 1990. There is also talk of a tea break ahead.
Now, Uncle Ol is a plain speaking man. He will tell you some grim foreboding news in a manner where you expect him to finish it off with a smile, a laugh and a pat on the back. However, these little nuggets of reassurance don’t materialise, as if to kick me out of my phony content state.
“When we turn the next corner, the wind will be wild, so don’t let anything go and stay close…”
Ah the wind, the ghost at the feast, I’d forgot about that briefly.
I want to ask Uncle Ol, “Could it cause some form of death or injury to my person?”, but I don’t, as that would sound moronic, exactly the type of thing a city dwelling oaf would say before they get blown off.
I stick close to Uncle Ol, remembering all the folklore and myth my own city harbors about the wind. Do I want to start whistling, maybe whip it up even more? No Joe you maniac, stay cool and don’t antagonise Poseidon or whatever God is in charge of the weather these days.
We round the corner of a rocky edge, and all of a sudden the broad, green, gently rising foothills of Ben Nevis change. Gone are the wide paths and gentle views, replaced by a sheer and pretty terrifying mountain face, speckled white from the snow and black from the rock. It looks like a wall of Vienetta, just much less inviting and much more terrifying. Surely we aren’t going up there…