If you are a hill runner do not read this, as you will die laughing. Hill runners run up and down Ben Nevis in just over an hour and a half. They are insane. It took me nearly 11 hours to summit and return from the Ben.
Once I saw a man of about 70 years bicycling up Conner Pass in Ireland. I thought that was the single greatest athletic feat I had ever seen. Then I saw a hill runner on Ben Nevis. She was an Amazon. She had to be doing 25 miles per hour, straight downhill over rocks and cliffs. It looked like she was flying. A minute later a guy came running down behind her. I shouted, “Dude, get a new girlfriend.” I played golf at Carnoustie this summer and my caddie was a hill runner. He looked to be about 50 years old. When I finally asked, he told me he was 68 and volunteered that he had “run the Ben” in 2:10. Last year. Up and Down. Holy Smokes.
Ben Nevis is the tallest mountain in the United Kingdom. 4406 feet. That number is burned in my mind. My cousin Rob asked me why I wanted to climb the Ben and I said that from the very first time I came to Scotland 15 years ago I used to drive through the Highlands looking at the hills and mountains thinking, “Those are soft. How hard could it be to climb up and down one of those?” So, like an idiot, I went on the Internet and googled Ben Nevis.
Ben Nevis is basically the economic foundation of Fort William in the Western Highlands of Scotland. People from all over the world come here to climb “The Ben.” I floated the idea by Rob last year. He’s a hill climber (not a hill runner), and has been up the Ben three times. Oh, and he’s 30 years old and an IT genius in London. I’m 61 and my wife Jean is, as Monty Python used to say, a “Go’er.” She’ll have a go at anything. “If you’re in, I’m in,” she will always say to me.
Well, I emailed Rob and said we were coming to Scotland this summer. We were going to spend many weeks in St. Andrews golfing, then we wanted to do a tour around the coast and at some point Fort William would appear on that trip, and did he have any tips on climbing the Ben. He replied that not only did he have some tips, but if we were going up the Ben, he was driving up from London and he was going up with us. Thank God, as it turned out.
We arrived in Fort William on September 3rd. It was raining. Hard. And windy. The annual Ben Run was scheduled for that Saturday, September 5. It was lousy weather that day too and we said there is no way they will do it. Turns out the hill run has never been cancelled because of weather and they did it. 464 of them. The winning time was 1:34. Up and Down. We were scheduled to climb the Ben the next day, Sunday, September 6.
I felt good Sunday morning. We woke up early and had a good breakfast, American pancakes. I put on my sweat wicking shirt and water proofs and the walking shoes I bought a year ago. We packed food and water. Rob had the same, plus a detailed topographical map of the Ben, a compass, and most importantly, a SatNav. It was raining and windy, but we jumped in the car and drove to the starting point.
At this point I have to say that the day we arrived in Fort William I looked up at the Ben and said to myself, “No Way. No way in Hell. This is too big a mountain for me.” I still felt that way on Sunday morning. I blessed the bad weather. I thought maybe we’d get half way up, the rain would continue, and we would agree that “because of the weather conditions” we would have to suspend our ascent of the Ben.
But the weather changed. It suddenly got sunny. The higher we climbed, the better the weather got. The cloud cover was rising with us. At 2,000 feet there is a small lake, created by the mountain rain runoff. We stopped there for lunch. I somehow caught a second breath and after our sandwiches we were off. The second slog is the hardest. Straight up and bad footing. A combination of rocks and gravel, but always straight up.
I kept asking Rob for the elevation off his SatNav. “Coach, how tall are we?” He would read off our elevation number. I knew we were getting close to the summit. “Coach, how tall are we?” He said, “4,287 feet.” I said, “You mean we only have 137 feet to go?” He said, “Yes.” I said, “Well Rob, I’m done. I have to turn back.” He gave me a funny look, and I said “I’m kidding. Let’s go.” We made the summit.
The summit was fogged in with a light, misty rain. It was all rock, no vegetation. It felt like we were on the moon. Rob is a serious climber and he was in heaven. Jean and I were just glad to be there. Rob produced a small bottle of vintage whiskey. We drank it. Took some pictures. Kind of reveled in our being there. It was really cold. After the pictures and whiskey we agreed it was time for part two.
As an old man I can only say that climbing down is much harder than climbing up. The average descent is three and a half hours. It took us five, because I struggled. I think the climb up is exhausting, but the climb down is painful. Going up your muscles ache. Coming down your bones hurt. I learned about climbing toe. The right big toe swelled up. The toenail may come off. It gets jammed up inside your shoe because the descent keeps pushing your feet forward into your shoes.
Three days later I could climb stairs again. I could get in and out of our car without looking like an invalid. There is a bit of a price to pay, physically. But Jean and I are proud that we did it. We would never have made it; certainly I would have never made it, without Rob. He knew I was struggling on the descent and he was there with his big shoulders to lean on over tough rock formations. I don’t think I would have made it down without him.
I might go back to Carnoustie and find my caddie and tell him that I did Ben Nevis too. He is seven years older than me, and he did it in 2:10. I did it in 10:00 something. We won’t compare scores.