Ben Nevis & I; A Non Hikers Tale

The Old Boat of Caol is also known as the Corpach Shipwreck in Scotland

As I stood at the very top of Ben Nevis, I let the breeze hit my skin in anticipation.

Nothing. It wasn’t cold. Why wasn’t it cold?

Every review that I’d read had promised cold temperatures at the top. I felt half panicked that I was cooking alive and half annoyed I had been cheated and lied to. I mean, I suppose the reviews were not as relevant to the  ‘rare’ heatwave we were experiencing when we decided to climb the largest mountain in the UK. But even so… was a slight temperature drop too much to ask for?

We had started the ascent almost five hours ago, and we had only just made it to the top, and honestly, I have to admit the last hour was the hardest thing I have ever had to accomplish.

My legs had seized up totally, and every six steps, they were screaming out for rest. My whole body was burning up, and I felt like I was experiencing early onset heatstroke. My mind kept flickering between warning me I was going to vomit in front of all of these other far more experienced and less red looking hikers and panicking I was going to collapse and have to ring for the air ambulance.

I could see the headline of the local newspaper in my mind …

“Another overweight and unfit Brit collapses hiking Ben Nevis; when will they learn?”

It’s not far from the truth. In hindsight, it probably wasn’t the smartest thing to attempt. We were in the middle of a heatwave, and temperatures were soaring to 28 degrees daily. I was no hiker, and I could pride myself on achieving distance, but height was an entirely different matter. I blamed it on my roots. I was bought up and raised in probably the flattest place on earth. The Midlands…..which should have been more suitably named “The Flatlands”.

I legitimately had no calf muscles to speak of. We did a few hikes during lockdown 1.0, and whilst it got easier, it was so incredibly HARD. My calf muscles burnt walking up anything more than a speed bump for any longer than a minute.

Steffan, who had been born at a steep angle, was fine, of course, and despite him wanting to trot on ahead, was always a true gent, patient and understanding. But the truth was, how could a man who used to go on ‘Sunday afternoon strolls’ up to the peak of Pen Y Fan understand what I was going through?

So it’s no surprise that hiking Ben Nevis was his idea. And I know I can’t blame anyone; I have a free choice after all. But I do like a challenge and can usually achieve something once I put my mind to it. Or, in this case, have no other way out except for an air ambulance, and that was NOT going to happen.

We started our ascent up Ben Nevis early morning to avoid the heat.

We felt super prepared and slightly smug—summer walking socks, hiking poles, water filter bottles, rehydration sachets, snacks galore, and we had even bought factor 50 and smothered it all over our pale skin before commencing the hike. We were ready.

We started the hike full of excitement and positive vibes only, chattering away and appreciating the views and the stillness of the mountain. It did not last long.

If you know Scotland, you know about the “midge situation”.

Ben Nevis sign in Scotland

It is not something you can take lightly…. we knew this. We had battled the little blighters for three weeks straight. We had worn head nets; we had run for our lives, we had swatted and flailed our arms more times than we could count, as well as permanently smelling of midge repellant. We had endured. Thus far.

As we slowly meandered up the track, the midges started to swarm. And I mean thousands!! At this point, we both realised that amid all of our preparation, packing and suncream applying, we had forgotten to apply repellant.

“How the hell did we forget to put midge spray-on?”

I wailed whilst flailing my arms around frantically

“I don’t know” responded Steffan in a somewhat irritated voice – “let’s just keep moving.”

The path up to Ben Nevis in Scotland

I mean, yes, keeping moving seemed the sensible option. But the fact that I was nowhere near fit enough to keep moving up a mountain without rest was playing its part.

When I agreed to climb this monster, I was promised I could take it at my own pace and sit down and rest when I needed to. And right now, I bloody needed to. I couldn’t breathe, and my legs felt like they were on fire. But if I stopped, I was attacked by the most deadly swarm of anything I had seen in my life. Honest.

It was no use. I had to keep stopping for at least a few minutes, much to Steffans annoyance and despair. I genuinely could not breathe. Each time we stopped, we were swarmed so severely that we could barely see.

My only grace was that my face and arms (yes, arms) were sweating so much that the midges were quite literally drowning in perspiration before too many of them could bite me. 

After 20 minutes of this constant cycle of being attacked by midges whenever we stopped, gasping for breath when I hiked any faster than a four-year-old and the snapping between the two of us, Steffan looked at me and said,

“Shall we go back? This is ridiculous? “

 

            “No, we can’t go back!”

I said sharply… annoyed that he had even given me an opt-out of this entire experience which I so desperately wanted to take.

I threw my rucksack down. I must have packed something. After scrabbling around in my bag for what felt like a lifetime, I felt something. In the side pocked – I found it!

The holy flippin’ grail! Midge repellant body wipes! I could have danced on the spot. But I opted for preserving my energy since it may be needed. We both covered ourselves using the entire packet between us and continued up the mountain.

I want to say that they worked…. they didn’t. The midges still swarmed us, but they didn’t hang around with the same perseverance as they had done pre-wipe.

Me boiling hot hiking Ben Nevis

Steffan looked at me and smiled.

“Your face looks like an actual bread and butter pudding my love.”

           “Why?”  

I questioned, unaware I had about a hundred dead midges on my face.

“Why did I even bother wearing mascara this morning” I sighed as we passed girls looking like they were straight out of a high-end hiking and trail walking magazine. Pristine hair, not a drop of sweat in sight, make up? Perfect.

But despite looking like a bread and butter pudding, I can tell you that at that moment, I had never felt more accomplished in my life. I wasn’t quitting. We could go back; we had only made it an hour in. But I knew it just wasn’t an option mentally – I wasn’t going to be beaten by sweat and midges and heat and cramps and the tallest mountain in the UK. Nope. Not me and not today.

Before long, we hit the waterfall, which was essentially the halfway point, and by now, the midges had subsided for the most part. That in itself bought a tremendous amount of relief despite feeling pretty exhausted already. The temperature had started to climb, though, the sun had appeared, and we were not making good time. Very aware that the next half of the climb provided no shade at all, and we were soon going to be into the mid 20’s temperature-wise, we filled up our water bottles at the sparkling cold waterfall and kept moving.

Climbing Ben Nevis, Scotland

We had heard from so many people before climbing Ben Nevis that we should stop to enjoy the views and take it all in and that it was such an experience.

But for me, I was so in the zone, so unable to let one thought of doubt enter my mind that I didn’t take anything in. I didn’t stop to update Instagram on our slow and painful progress despite promising many of our friends I would, and we didn’t take photos, really; we didn’t stop to enjoy anything.

For me, it was a battle of my mind. I was finding it so tough. I was SO hot. I had not stopped sweating for 3 hours since we started the hike, and it was only getting hotter. Steffan was also not enjoying the heat and wanted to get to the top despite not finding it a struggle. He acted with grace and compassion and waited for me each time I needed to stop and complain, offering words of encouragement and kindness, which made me thankful I was getting to keep him after our wedding just a week prior.

Ben Nevis, Scotland

Which then set off a whole trail of thoughts…

“We just got married, which makes this our honeymoon. Who the hell hikes a mountain in a heatwave on their honeymoon??”

 

I mentally promised myself a beach retreat when this was all over.

 

When we hit the final 300 metres, it was nothing but scree. Large and small loose rocks and stones, and for every step forward, you could bet your life you would slide at least one back down. Usually two. My knee, which had been irritated most of the trip, was starting to hurt. My energy was so low. Despite panic eating two bags of sugary Haribo trying to claw some power or strength back, it had little difference on my beaten body.

I was overheating, and I felt like I would throw up every 5 minutes or so, which just sent me into a mental panic in itself. The thought of vomiting in front of all of these other, much fitter and experienced hikers filled me with dread, and so I kept resting and tried to keep my mind strong and my stomach calm. I knew that I maybe had an hour left, but I had to sit down every six steps by this point. And I am not exaggerating.

It was slow and painful work. My legs were seizing up, and my head was pounding. I felt sick, and I was boiling, and I was starting to feel a little terrified that we would honestly have me collapse and have to call the air ambulance.

Now I can be dramatic, I admit. But this was HARD, and I knew I couldn’t give up. What was the point? It was a much longer journey down than the rest of the way up, so I had no choice.

I kept moving. I kept pushing myself, and only then I realised the line I had seen on fancy quotes and motivational shows was true.

“Your mind will give up far quicker than your body.”

My body kept moving despite the feeling of frustration every time we went over the hill to find we were not at the top, and we had another hill yet to climb. It was never-ending, and it was soul-destroying.

But I shared my struggle with other hikers that day. We looked at each other knowingly; we were struggling.

We offered those cliche words and phrases to each other to try and keep each other going, such as ‘ You can do this, ” You are almost there” even though you knew you didn’t feel at all confident in yourself, let alone the person opposite you!

The last 300 metres of Ben Nevis in Scotland

 

Around 5 hours into starting the hike, we made it to the top of Ben Nevis.

I was pleased we had done it but couldn’t help feeling frustrated it took me so bloody long. Why could I not just be pleased I had achieved something I scolded.

We both sat down and ate a sandwich and tried to cool down a little before commencing the long hike back down again.

InWanderment at the top of Ben Nevis

So many people I knew who had hiked Ben Nevis said that the hike back down was the worst. It was never-ending, and they had just found it hard work.

I am not denying it’s not hard going—loose rock, large boulders, and 28-degree temperatures with no shade for at all. But I was so delighted that I had managed to even get to the top that I felt able to get back down again easily. The climb up was so hard for me that the way down could never really compete, and I just kept moving.

Steffan, on the other hand, found the way down challenging. He was now feeling boiling and tired, and he just wanted to be back at ground level with his feet up, drinking a cold drink. To be fair to him, I had kept him on that mountain many more hours than we had envisioned.

When we were about an hour from the bottom, I realised that my skin was pretty red and felt quite sore.

“Shit,” I thought.

We had wiped off all of our sun creams this morning with the smidge wipes, and we had been hiking in the hot sun for hours with no protection whatsoever.

Ridiculous.

The following five days were pretty redundant.

I could quite honestly not walk. I had to stretch out my calves when I stood up for around five minutes to gain enough movement in my legs to make it to the toilet!! Can you imagine?

I could barely turn over in bed without wincing in agony. Stairs were a no, and I was covered in midge bites all up my arms, and I looked like a red and white squashie where I was pretty severely sunburnt.

I was on a mix of pain killers, antihistamine and after sun for a week, and so despite saying I would not let Ben Nevis defeat me, it had. I was a physical wreck, and I was a red shadow of my former self just a short week before.

But, at least I could smugly mention to any passers-by as I limped awkwardly that the reason for my lack of mobility was due to hiking Ben Nevis. However, no one seemed too impressed, as they had probably been hiking it since they were five years old.

The view from the top of Ben Nevis in Scotland

But I was proud. And Steffan was proud of me.

I had achieved something that I didn’t think I would ever do. I had no desire to climb mountains just a year prior, and if anything, this experience had probably put me off attempting any others!

But on reflection, I wasn’t ready at all. I had barely been hiking a few months; I wasn’t fit enough. I had little to no leg muscles, and we were ill-prepared and probably a tad silly doing it on one of the hottest days of the year. But if you know us, you know we don’t do anything by halves.

Emma from InWanderment at the top of Ben Nevis

Would I do it again?

A fitter, slightly lighter and better prepared and trained version of myself would do it again. On a much cooler day, packed with midge spray and sun cream, just in case.

Watch this space.

If you would like to better prepare yourself than I did before climbing any mountain at all – you can check out my top obvious, yet very helpful tips on hiking ben Nevis here

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