A summary of my recent trip up to Fort William to hit the summit of Ben Nevis and get down again asap.
Hi folks, just wanted to get pen to paper with some thoughts I had after my recent ‘expedition’ up Ben Nevis. As I think I’ve said before, I’ve summitted Ben Nevis (highest peak in the UK at 4411ft) 4 times before – 12 hrs with family and friends in 2013 (campsite to campsite), 8 hrs with work colleagues in 2014, 10 hrs with family in 2015 and 6 hrs with Gemma earlier this year. I always felt I could do it a little bit quicker on my own and fancied giving it a crack! I knew there was the Ben Nevis Race but always thought that a little out of my league – still do! :-P
I knew I was running out of time, as far as weather went, so made plans to go for it on Monday 16th October. Checking Mountain Weather Information Service (http://www.mwis.org.uk/home ) days before it seemed like the Monday would be the best option out of the weekend and the following week. I had invited anybody who fancied it to come along but the combination of a tricky route and more-so a Monday run meant I went alone. I had planned to sleep in my Chevrolet Estate car (if alone) and test out a z-bed mattress I’ve been eye-balling for some time but… necessary repairs to my Chevy meant I would have to stay at the very affordable and pleasant Ben Nevis Inn (http://www.ben-nevis-inn.co.uk/ ).
My thoughts then came to apparel and footwear. Waist-down would be fairly easy – I went for Hilly ‘Marathon Fresh’ Anklet socks. I toyed with the idea of just shorts - maybe thicker trail-type shorts but after considering the probable conditions I opted for Karrimor running leggings (only ones I have) and lighter Newline Split Shorts. I had been thinking about what footwear to use for days, even weeks before. I kept describing the activity as a “speed-hike” where there would be minimal running, especially on the ascent but also on the descent, where there are many tricky steep rocky sections to negotiate. I kept thinking “you don’t wanna go over your ankle half-way up Ben Nevis”. Looking at my footwear possibilities there appeared to be one standout – the Mammut MTR 201-II Low (https://www.mammut.com/p/3030-02901-0597/mtr-201-ii-low-men/ ). This is a very stable, robust mountain running shoe. The grips are there but not too aggressive that I would lose grip on what would be a mainly rock surface. The D30 rubber compound of the outsole is meant to react in proportion to the level of impact upon it. I have to say I think I got it spot on – they were pretty much perfect. I only slipped twice in 9.5 miles and the first was after me gaining a bit too much confidence half-way back down.
Up-top I was always a bit more hesitant. We all have a range of outerwear for different conditions but from previous experience I knew the conditions would change on The Ben, a lot! The common mistake is to bulk up from the offset and after an enthusiastic start the sweat is rolling off you after half an hour… then you’re damp right away. The harder you push, the more you sweat and the wetter you get. If you stop at all on a hike, either for food or drink or to wait on someone, this is when you start to get cold. So, what do you do? Put more clothes on and off you go again… before long the sweat is pumping again. For the speed-hike I was conscious that I would be moving much quicker and therefore generating much more body heat and could therefore afford to have a much lighter top on. Then comes the spanner in the works – the rain. I did not fancy getting wet within the first half hour from the rain so decided to take a waterproof.
In the end I opted for my Salewa ‘Sennes Dry’ long sleeve base layer top, my Eddie Bauer ‘MicroTherm’ StormDown Jacket and my Trespass ‘Qikpac’ Waterproof Packaway Jacket (waterproof to 5000mm and breathability rating of 5000mvp). I started with the base layer and waterproof and set off. All was well up the first section - not too cold and not too hot. I would’ve preferred not to have the hood up but didn’t want to get too wet. I reached the next section (1.5miles, 1200ft) which is a steep rocky part, this is mainly man-made larger boulders forming a type of staircase. Heavy going but the Mammuts were great. I passed the lochan (2m, 2000ft) and felt pretty good. This part is fairly flat and I ran along to the start of the next climb. A change in direction resulted in a change in conditions and the wind was starting to bite now. The rain was penetrating the waterproof and seeping into the base layer. Adding the ‘StormDown’ jacket to the mix would give me extra warmth as I reached the top and give me more time before the rain penetrated through that as well!
I pushed on through the ‘zig-zags’ (2.7m, 2500ft to 4m, 3900ft) and was beginning to find it tough. The rain was not all that heavy but with the howling wind it was whipping my face and you just had to keep the head down and push on. After an hour and a half of constant hike and climb the last half a mile or so is torture. The stones underfoot seem to get smaller and deeper at this point and it’s reminiscent of walking in sand – hard work! I finally reached the summit in 1hr 48mins (I reckon), took a quick video and then headed back down. I only forgot one thing – my gloves. This is another aspect when it is wet… the water runs down your waterproof jacket and soaks your gloves. I wasn’t too bothered about not having them and to be honest I was okay until the very last section at the summit.
Every time I summit Ben Nevis I think “Right – let’s get down asap!” lol and I thought the same again. My legs were tired but as they had only been pushing upwards they felt okay. I feel that the muscles used on a descent deteriorate much faster and boy, were they about to be tested! :-o If you’ve never been to the summit, it really is an unhospitable place. I know you do get clear calm summits but I’ve never had that… and the last two times have been horrific – very poor visibility, mist, fog, freezing temperatures, howling wind and wild rain. Another thing I noticed again this time – as you reach the summit, the world around you becomes devoid of colour. There is a dull grey misty sky above and this sweeps over the edges of the summit and far below you. You haven’t seen any vegetation or greenery for what seems like hours and you are surrounded by boulders, rocks and stones that are all various shades of grey through to black. It makes me think of what some of the far-flung planets like Pluto must be like.
So, I set off and it was initially much more pleasant running down the hill as oppose to hiking up it. It was tricky at times to negotiate the rocks, boulders and varying steepness. You feel like you’re running with the brakes on in this type of terrain; it’s just too treacherous to let go and this takes its toll on your quads. I was managing okay though and started to pass the climbers I had passed on the way up. Turns out I was the first person to summit Ben Nevis that day! :-D
As I came down from the summit I noticed the slight change in temperature, slightly warmer (or at least, not as cold) and the colour started to seep into my world again. Green tinges here and there and the rocks become lighter with orangey red tones to them. I could see ground level. I kept up the descent and finished the very runnable part past the lochan, turned the corner and stopped for a second to take off my StormDown jacket. It done its job. My torso, if anything was warm and damp instead of cold and damp – much preferable. 7.7m and 1731ft, a descent of over 2500ft in 37 mins. I took this break to open a Clif Bar and made my way past the tricky bouldery steps I mentioned on the way up.
Once past this I could pick up my pace a bit and amble down the remaining mile and a half to the bunkhouse start and finish point. I don’t know too many people who have done this exact route in this manner. One friend was a little over 3 hrs and another nearer 4. Although it certainly wasn’t a race these were the yardsticks I had in my mind. I calculated I should/might be able to nick in under 3 hrs and was really pleased to stop my watch at 2:56:44. I did my checks and everything seemed to be alright. My legs were knackered but certainly not injured… ankles took a beating but again not injured. Feet were wet but not sore. One of the benefits of using the bunkhouse as a base is that within minutes I was in a warm hot shower and a few minutes after that, in warm dry clothes sipping a hot coffee :-)
So that’s it then, mission accomplished! Run (or “speed-hike” I should say) went well. Shoes were ace. Choice of clothing was good. Would like to consider the waterproof side more and perhaps find a jacket with a higher level of protection. Haven’t mentioned my legwear much because to be honest I didn’t think about it much, which means it must’ve been alright too. Anything thicker and I may have been overheating more and you also have waterproof issues.
So, that’s my score on the board and I invite you all to consider the activity, get prepared and give it a go if you fancy it! :-D