I'd heard all the warnings and read all the disappointed blogs by walkers who had been up Ben Nevis by the "tourist route". I'm not usually too fussed about doing the peaks that everyone else does, precisely because they are often so busy, but the lure to stand at the top of Great Britain was too strong, and I was powerless to resist.
To try and miss the worst of the crowds I'd planned to be setting off by 7:30am. The best of plans etc...I forgot to set my alarm, and didn't even wake until 7:15am. So with much swearing and too much haste, I gobbled down some breakfast, threw my gear in the car, which I'd more or less prepared the night before and leapt into the car to speed down to Fort William.
The traffic was non existent, and I found myself parking up next to the Ben Nevis Inn at about 8:30am. There was one group of walkers who were taking some time getting ready, so I pulled on my boots, checked I had the map - and then remembered seeing it on the sofa this morning, where it was still languishing. I considered going back, but decided the visibility was good, there was a path, and if the weather looked like turning, I'd just head down rather earlier than normal. So I set off, feeling slightly naughty, and I swear I could hear my dad's wrath - "...you went up a mountain without a map, didn't I teach you better than that, you idiot, if you fall off a cliff don't expect anyone to rescue you, it'll be your own fault..." (he can go on like this for some time, it's really quite impressive!).
The first part of the walk is actually quite pleasant, the path is easy going, and there is the beautiful valley to look at, or if you're feeling brave you can look upwards at the behemoth mountains on all sides.
The easy going part doesn't last for long, though, before the dreaded stone steps start. Actually in themselves it's not too bad, it's just there's so many of them! I found myself wondering about the huge effort and manhours that must have gone into laying them all. To everyone who was involved - incredible achievement. That has taken some real dedication and commitment to provide and maintain it to such a high standard. Heroes, everyone of you.
My meandering thoughts had taken me up the next section, and when I next stopped to look I was surprised by how much height had been gained and suddenly there were whole new vistas to look at. The light was good, and there were pockets of sunlight punching through the clouds, begging for some photos to be taken, so I duly obliged (plus I wanted a breather!).
I have to say a Monday morning in late October turned out to be a great time to go up. Admittedly not ideal if you're meant to be at work, but for anyone who can wangle a sick day, this is the time to come. I passed a couple and a father and son on the way up but otherwise the mountain was empty, and we managed to spread ourselves out so that we were out of ear and eyeshot for most of the time.
By now, I had come to the infamous zigzags. The loose stone footing was not much fun to walk on, but my lumbering body found a way to cross it reasonably efficiently. It's more if a mental challenge than a physical one - the path does seem monotonous at times, and you can't see the summit to give you any inspiration until you're practically on top of it. At a low moment, with the temperature dropping rapidly and the wind picking up, I delved into my emergency Haribo, and then joy of joys spotted a man in a red coat stepping onto the horizon, obviously on his way down.
Feeling re-energised, I set out for a final effort to reach him and ask how much further, but suddenly I could see the distinctive shape of the summit cairn and trig point up above, I was almost there!
The top was bleak, windy and very chilly. It was glorious, and I had it all to myself. I bundled myself into a down jacket and hat, really glad I'd added my ski gloves at the last minute, as my fingers went down to frostbite temperature in about 30 seconds. Once I was warm and cosy, I stumbled round the rocky site, and admired the incredible 360 views, and took a couple of obligatory "look at me at the summit" photos. It was too cold to want to linger long though, and I was soon heading down.
Going down was fairly simple. There were about 50-60 people that I passed. Some weren't far behind me, but I was slightly surprised by some who seemed to be struggling on the first low section, and quite a few in t shirts who were going to have a shock by the temperature drop at the summit. I'm not sure how much fun it would be going down on a very crowded day. Anyway, I passed the time by eating an apple and admiring the truly incredible scenery. It is spectacular.
Finally, I glimpsed the Ben Nevis Inn nestled into the hillside, and knew I was almost back. The first few little spots of rain were putting in an appearance; and I just had time to get to the car, change into snuggy warm things before it came down with any purpose. As I sat eating my lunch before setting off, I thought back over the walk. I had made it to the top of Great Britain, seen some stunning views and had one if the most popular routes virtually to myself. Am not sure morning's get much more perfect than that...certainly not one's where you forget to set the alarm and take a map!
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