Scotland: Holiday that reached new heights

Andy Mossack braves Britain’s highest mountain in an adventurous break in the Highlands.

By Andy Mossack, August 13, 2009
Take the high road: Andy Mossack’s companions climbing Ben Nevis

Take the high road: Andy Mossack’s companions climbing Ben Nevis

The summit of Ben Nevis was shrouded in cloud and mist, frustratingly out of sight. It was the night before our climb and we were looking up at it from the grounds of the Moorings Hotel. It is a property just outside Fort William that I would highly recommend. From it, Ben Nevis looked mighty high.

My three friends and I just stood there having a silent moment. Or perhaps, a thoughtful prayer. Who, after all, would expect four middle-aged, Jewish men from north London with no climbing experience would seriously contemplate climbing the highest mountain in Britain.

It’s a round trip, from base to summit, of 10 miles for heaven’s sake. Of course when I say “climb”, I suppose I’m doing skilled climbers an injustice; there has been a path up to the summit since Victorian times, but as far as we were concerned this was splitting hairs. For us it was a climb — and a tough one at that.

It is a journey that thousands of people of all ages attempt every year and are rewarded with a breathtaking experience. The Nevis Partnership and the John Muir Trust play a huge role in conservation, keeping the path well maintained and ensuring that there is ample information available on safety guidelines and on what clothing and equipment climbers need.

We were told to pack for every eventuality; weatherproof clothing, sturdy walking boots, fleece-lined jackets, hats, gloves, lots of snacks and water and poles. Poles? These are carbon walking sticks similar to the ones that skier’s use, which can make the journey a little easier. That was all we needed to hear — naturally the poles came along too.

Why all this in the middle of flaming June? Simply because Ben Nevis has snow on top all year round and the weather can change very quickly. It was a warning we heeded well. Every year the rescue teams are out saving people in difficulty, and 30 percent of them disregarded this advice or never though to seek any to start with.

So, the great day dawned disappointingly dull and misty. Nevertheless, full of anticipation, we made our way to the Nevis Inn, a rustic pub right at the base of Nevis and the start and end for many climbers. Oh, what tales have been told there over a pint and dinner. I would have thought the last thing I would care about after Nevis was what the food or drink was like as long as I had some of it, but the Inn serves some great ales and fine hearty food including fish and vegetarian options.

As we set out along the early foothills we met Damien, an experienced climber from the Nevis Partnership. “Walk up often?” I asked him as he trudged alongside.

“Nah,” he replied. “I usually run up.” I think it was at this point that I decided that being carried up on Damien’s back would be a very attractive option and one well worth considering.

So, we set off, safely negotiating some of the well known, early landmarks: heart attack hill; windy corner, the stunning valley leading up to John’s Wall, and — after around two and a half hours steady uphill trudging — the halfway point at Red Burn.

More experienced climbers turn left here toward the North face and go up a more challenging and risky route. It’s also here where many people mistakenly follow them and find themselves in difficulty. Damien, however, kept us on the straight and narrow and even though the thought of being carried by him was becoming more and more agreeable, I pressed on and up.

By now, the grasslands were way behind us, and the zig-zag path that lay ahead was made up of just loose rocks. It was also getting progressively steeper. The temperature was falling fast, and our summer clothes had long been supplemented by more layers.

We had been walking for over three hours and the excitement was building. After a couple more rest stops, we arrived at Five Finger Gully. Close to the summit, the landscape had changed. The snow was more than two feet deep and it was seriously white everywhere. Damien suggested that we keep together here because the side of the North Face was only a little way to our left and a straight drop down.

Because the path was now under snow, a series of cairns or stone mounds were our only markers and we had to keep a sharp eye out for them as it was all too easy to stray over the edge. I can tell you that, right there and then, in snow up to my shins and the wind and mist swirling around, I could have been on Everest.

We reached the summit after four and half hours and boy did it feel good. “Right,” said Damien as soon as we set foot on the summit’s monument, “ready to go down then?”

Actually, no. This was a moment to savour, to contemplate and to shelter from the cold in the ruins of the long abandoned Victorian weather station. tricky to navigate. But we eventually arrived back at the Nevis Inn some eight hours after we set out, tired but very satisfied and really looking forward to that pint.

Going back down was just as hard, with loose rocks and the steep decline tricky to navigate. But we eventually arrived back at the Nevis Inn some eight hours after we set out, tired but very satisfied and really looking forward to that pint.

So what else is there to do on a week-end break after you’ve conquered the highest mountain in Britain?
The area is awash with jaw-dropping scenery and if you have any energy left you could ride a mountain gondola up to the top of Aonach Mor on the Nevis Range and try a gentle walk around.

You could visit the Nevis Distillery where they’ve been making fine whiskies since the 1800s. Or, the best yet, take a fast, exhilarating, two hour ride around Loch Linnie with SeaXplore.

A rigid inflatable 350horsepower boat, it will skate over the Loch at 40 knots. And there is plenty of wildlife to see, including otters, porpoise, eagles and — if you are lucky — even a dolphin or two.

After all this exercise you could eat at the superb Jacobean Restaurant in the Moorings Hotel or at the Crannog restaurant on the pier in Fort William.

Last updated: 5:26pm, August 13 2009