The howling tempest blew my fifteen stones completely over twice, and fellow climbers with slighter frames were forced to either crawl or turn back.
The storm began to rage at about three thousand feet, a horizontal arctic blizzard painfully sandblasting any exposed skin. I didn't have my sunglasses with me, so I was forced to march leaning forty-five degrees forward with my head bowed in the classic mountaineering pose, digging for purchase with my one good hiking pole (the other had seized up in the telescopically retracted position) and feeling very Captain Oates. Temperatures plummeted into the negative teens. So this is why people are always dying on Ben Nevis, I mused, stepping around more sensible souls setting up emergency bivouacs. With visibility down to less than twenty feet and snow violently ripping across the rocks to drift waist-deep in blasted leeward pockets, wandering from the obscured path and over a cliff became a real possibility. And I'd waited a week in Fort William for good weather.
I'd arrived at the town, nestled in a valley at the foot of the mountain, wet and knackered after two days of determined cycling over exhausting highland roads. I'd made this mad dash through Glencoe from Callender because an old rugby mate I hadn't seen for twenty years was passing through on his way to a family holiday on Knoydart, a remote peninsula to the north, and we'd arranged to meet for a pint. I rode ninety miles in two days, hauling half my weight again, over mountains, in the rain. For a pint. I want to make sure everyone understands that bit.
Of course, it was to see James Brickell too, and meet his lovely family. Of course it was. I'm not an animal.
Even so, I hold that the first pint of ice cold beer after a hefty day of physical work to be one of the true wonders of humanity's agricultural endeavour. You can keep your cups of tea, coffee, Mexican cokes, Pinot Noirs or flutes of champagne. It doesn't even have to be good beer, just lager at the point of freezing. To me, it will always signify the end note to a hellish day, a scything sluice of civilisation cutting through the choking dust and murderous heat of Texan summers, and the first bell of sitting back with good company, suspending the dread of tomorrow's forever Dantean descent. That first draught evokes all the firsts I've quaffed before, compounding the refreshment with thoughts of tougher days. It's the realisation of an American beer advert. And I figured, after two days of sweaty and aching unpleasantness, that first pint might just be twice as good.
I'd modified my route while camping on the edge of Loch Venachar, southwest of Callender, a more dreamlike location I couldn't easily imagine. I had the entire lake to myself, and spent the broad evening hours reclining against an ancient oak, gazing over rippling quicksilver, tracing the alpine crags beyond the far shore as they blushed with fiery streaks of pink and crimson, pondering humanity and our place in the Universe. Well, I would've, if I hadn't inexplicably developed the liquid shits again and spent the entirety of this potential poetry pageant crouching behind a bush, dismayed by my rapidly dwindling toilet paper supply, and personifying a far less elegant but likely more accurate summation of the human condition.
I really should switch to leaves, but I fear the experimentation with unknown species. What if I inadvertently wipe with something toxic or abrasive? These grim details are the vital hints survival manuals and TV programmes curiously neglect. Ray Mears never seems to ask his wizened native shamans about this particular topic, you'll note. One can cope with an heroic dose of hardship while one's unmentionables remain dry, unchafed and lesion-free, but introduce something as innocuous as a paper cut to a strategic location and the romance drains from a wilderness journey like dignity after a vindaloo.
The next day I waited for the rain to stop, which it did around noon, decamped and hit the road. I stopped to do a quick smalls laundry in a highland brook and quickly realized I was washing my underpants in water enterprising Scots bottle and ship to the world's wealthy and gullible, and felt quite devilishly ennobled.
I managed fifteen miles that afternoon through the most incredible scenery I'd seen yet, passing a grand total of five people after Callander, and rode past Loch Lubnaig. I took a peek at the very lovely Loch Voil the next morning where the bike route hairpinned around its valley, then switchbacked up the mountain by Lochearnhead. On the way I stopped at Strathyre's The Inn Bistro for refreshment and a recharge after my wallet took another arse pounding at the village general store. You know it's in for a raping when you see multipack soda cans shamelessly displaying their NOT TO BE SOLD SEPARATELY labels from the shelves. They could at least have the decency to Anne Frank them in the fridge, for crying out loud, that way the larceny comes as a nasty surprise at the end rather than a gathering dread. More ardent stereotypers might blame the Scottish predilection for frugality, but the owner was a cockney who'd moved north of the border, no doubt, to join in the merciless fleecing of wide-eyed tourists.
As darkness fell I found a likely campsite in a deserted parking area high in Glencoe. I was startled to discover a huge highland stag standing on its edge, about the size of a pony but powerfully built and with a full set of antlers. It seemed less surprised than I was. Like a typical townie twat, I cooed at my luck in happening upon such an elusive creature, and gingerly pulled out my camera for a shot in the fading light, wary about startling him. Strangely, though, as I slowly approached, the animal didn't move, and stared at me. I found this a bit unnerving, as I considered myself much more of a threat that it obviously seemed to, and his headgear began to look a little more ominous than a hat rack.
After a minute or two I made a sudden movement to test his moxie, careful to keep my rig between us. He huffed once and nonchalantly sauntered off rather than fled in a panic. What kind of 'shy and elusive' behaviour is this shit, Attenborough?
I found a flat area of grass off the hard standing and put my tent up, somewhat troubled by the encounter. As soon as I was situated I found I actually had a good data signal despite my remote location, and got on the Google. Turns out red deer rut in October and November. It was late October. Great. It was either going to kill me or shag me. Should make for a lively night.
I got some dinner down me and hit the hay, allowing the mating calls of the other stags scattered about their territories across the plateau to lull me to sleep.
The beast returned during the night, however, and began patrolling his own domain, bellowing his location to the hinds. He seemed to be staying away from the tent, which is a good thing. I found the situation faintly ludicrous, and therefore perfectly worthy of comment on Facebook, as I wasn't going back to sleep anytime soon. My transatlantic friends, still awake with the time difference, of course, found the deadly situation highly entertaining, and sympathy was thin on the ground. Even James Brickell, or 'Bricks' as we call him, the university rugby friend I was to meet in Fort William, and now a noted natural history documentarian, dismissed the peril as naivety on my part and marvelled at my luck at having an interactive opportunity with a five hundred pound feral hormone fuck monster twenty miles from the nearest hospital.
I pictured antlers suddenly plunging through the tent walls above my head, and decided to prepare.
When Animals Attack videos are the limit of my experience with fang and claw combat. I figured Romeo had a headful of handles, so one option would be to get my mitts on those to prevent it stabbing or slashing me, getting behind them and twisting its head round like a rodeo cowpoke wrestling a steer. Then I remembered they'll also kick with their front legs, so instead I might need to keep it at bay with something to allow a good strike with the hatchet. Hiking pole! I got one out and telescoped it to its maximum length. If it charged with its antlers I could fend it off before dropping the weapons to grab and twist it to the ground.
This presented an entirely new set of problems, though. Can you armbar a deer? Triangle choke? Hardly. Sod that, then, stay on the feet, keep it at bay and hit it in the head or neck with the hatchet, that would be the best option. Thus formulated my plan. I'd need my headlamp on to see what the hell was going on, too. And wear my shoes rather than my slip on camp sandals: secure footing is important in any fight.
Turns out the beast was disinterested to say the least, as he stayed away and I eventually drifted off. At 3 am, however, he let out an almighty moo literally inches from my sleeping head. He was right beside the tent! I spasmed three feet into the air with a falsetto shriek, while swaddled perfectly horizontal in my mummy sleeping bag. I hung for a second at the elevation's zenith, like Michael Jordan mid-flight, before crumpling back to earth as if the strings snapped. My embarrassment at the sound I'd made coupled with the short-sighted fug of the rudely awakened stirred me to violence. I struggled out of my sleeping bag and started digging for my hatchet and shoes, roaring with fake bravado, 'IF I HAVE TO GET OUT OF THIS FUCKING TENT....!!'
I heard him move away, sniggering like Muttley. He didn't return, and I, of course, couldn't return to sleep. I spent the rest of the night fully clothed and headlamped, senses scrambling to every imagined sound, improvised weaponry at the ready. I've never been so grateful to see the sun come up.
The ten miles of mostly downhill to Glencoe had to be one of the treats of the tour, despite the rain, which, to be honest, never really got going until I turned northeast towards Fort William.
The rain and a stiff headwind meant I draped on my US Army poncho, which is great for keeping the rain off your top half but does trap the heat when you're working hard, so I ended up drenched in sweat anyway. I got into town about midafternoon and google mapped a bike trail around the estuary, which I followed until I found a remote camping spot. I managed to get the tent up without saturating everything else, ate two tomato sandwiches and the rest of the quite ordinary but prohibitively expensive toffee cake I'd bought from the cockney criminal mastermind in Strathyre.
I got a text from Bricks to say he had arrived at the nearby Premier Inn, and was sitting down to dinner in the attached Brewer's Fayre restaurant. I biked down in the rain and spent an entertaining evening meeting his family and parents, who were polite enough not to mention my unkempt appearance and slightly unwashed fug, while Bricks and I had some fun catching up on twenty years apart, desperately trying to curtail our swearing. It turns out he wasn't the tea boy on the children's natural history show Deadly 60 at all, or even a production assistant, but the actual head honcho. So the BAFTA it had won was, in fact, on his mantelpiece at home.
Suitably impressed that someone I've seen drunk and naked more times than I care to remember had actually amounted to something, I went for a piss and caught sight of myself in the mirror for the first time in a few weeks. I looked like a caveman from a fifties movie. Hair sprouted from each ear like a cliffside alfalfa crop and and a glistening thicket of nose hair tumbled into my mustache. I'd dropped significant weight, too, but as I was somewhat rotund when I set off, this was no bad thing. I shoved the nose hair home with an index finger, wiped myself down as best I could and returned to the table, apologizing for the horrific sight I was inflicting on everyone. They graciously pooh-poohed my apologies and shoved another drink in my hand. Awesome company.
Saturday, Day 34
I woke around eight, and had a hangover lie in with a couple of episodes of Rome. Casually google mapping, I realised I should be able to see Ben Nevis from my campsite, so I rolled out of my pit and lo, there it was.
It had been obscured by the rain yesterday. I decided I had to climb it, but only when the saddle sores had at least begun to fade. I checked the weather and Tuesday looked promising. I tidied myself up with a little grooming, haunted by the image in the mirror from last night.
I rode into town for the library: there was no WiFi and only one thirty minute computer slot per day was allowed, but I was permitted to plug in, which was at least something, I suppose. I left at one and shopped at the extremely busy Morrison's for some cheese, bread, tomatoes, and a couple of tins of ravioli. They had no Jamaica ginger cake, curse the heavens. I decided to try and use my new bank debit card. I'd just opened my first British bank account a couple of months earlier, and was woefully behind on this chip and pin technology lark, but I had to learn sometime. At the self-service checkout, I stared intently at the unit for several silent minutes but couldn't find anything approximating a credit card slot. With nothing obvious and a crowd gathering, I began wiggling the card into every crevice on the machine in a process of elimination, occasionally turning to shrug at my audience, rolling my eyes at the growing gulf between a spiralling society of technophiles and the prosaic wisdom of the common man. Fortunately, the woman came over and saved me. She said I was the best one yet.
Back at the tent I cooked up the last of some hot dogs with fried onions and ketchup, just about one of my favourite food combinations in the world, and when the rain broke I erected a washing line and hung out the wet gear from yesterday, and set up the candle heaters to dry my boots.
The next few days were spent alternating between the tent and the library, occasionally visiting a pub for the WiFi. Despite timing my runs back and forth, I invariably got caught by the rain at least once a day, so my attempts at drying out became futile. The estuary began to flood, too, especially at high tide, and the footbridges in the parkland I was camping in were often under several inches of water.
One particular time in the library, two librarians were organizing books where one of my batteries was plugged into a wall socket. The elder one, obviously in charge, a stooped Miss Jones from Rising Damp lookalike, with rounded shoulders, a pot belly, and hair dyed so black Picard would send in a probe, admonished me, saying we were only supposed to charge the device we're working on. A demonstration of her supreme authority to her underling, no doubt.
Weary, by now, of this jobsworth nonsense, I avoided exploding, and responded; 'Well, put a sign up, then.'
'We shouldn't have to.'
'You have no WiFi,' I began, evenly, 'you have extreme computer use restriction. Be quiet, I'm talking. You'll have your turn when I'm done. You've used up more actual monetary value in the time it took you to even process that thought than it takes to recharge that device, never mind verbalise it. That's how little it costs.'
She began to respond again, somewhat taken aback at lucidity from a hairy, smelly transient. I didn't let her.
'Would you like me to prove it to you? Okay, let me Google it. Oh wait, that's right, I can't, because there's no bloody WiFi! Luckily, I have my own portable WiFi hotspot set up, which is one of the reasons I have to charge this battery. Now, maybe if you didn't have four librarians working in a small, empty, provincial library, your county council would be able to afford a £12 WiFi router. You've got more staff than Gandalf.' (I'd been waiting to use that last bit for months, but the opportunity had never presented itself.) I softened a little, 'You should never have tugged on this thread, luv.'
'Actually, I'd be quite interested to see how much it costs, but there's no need to take that tone.'
'An iPhone 5 costs about 1/7th of a penny to completely recharge, and I can prove it. Your objection to my tone is noted.'
I went back library the next day. Not because I needed to, as my work was done, just to plug some more shit in.
Luckily, my experience of working outside in the arctic conditions of the Canadian winter stood me in good stead for the blizzard on the top: I've been below -50 Celsius many times, so I knew what to expect. I was layered up enough to be quite comfortable as long as I kept moving. My fleece gloves and decrepit hiking boots were inadequate, but it was so cold the snow was dry and didn't melt through, which is where the trouble would start.
The peak of the 4,409' Ben Nevis is a plateau a few hundred metres across. The trig point marking the actual summit was on the far side, and the path to it was indicated every fifty yards or so by a stone cairn, constructed so climbers wouldn't lose their way in snow or low visibility. A group of seven of the hardier (or foolhardier) souls, all men, I noted, had congregated at the first cairn at the edge of the plateau, as if at a bus stop, debating whether to carry on.
With the addition of me, we had the numbers to form a human chain out into the storm to scan for the next one. This we did, found it, and followed each other there. We repeated the process for the next few, and our GPSs told us we were within 200 metres of the summit when two of our crew, clearly frightened, asked to turn back. There wasn't much resistance.
On the way down I got talking to a trio of our summiting group who'd been on a three peak odyssey: over the space of three days, they'd climbed Mount Snowdon, Scafell Pike, and now Ben Nevis (the highest mountains in Wales, England and Scotland respectively), which is seriously impressive going, especially in late October, but not my idea of a vacation at all.
Descending was actually harder than going up, as I was already knackered. My rugby knees started complaining, closely followed by my roofing hip, well before halfway, and my new friends left me far behind.
I hobbled the rest of the way down leaning heavily on my one hiking pole, to arrive at the pub at the bottom like Peachy Carnehan returning from Kafiristan, six hours, ten miles and a thousand years after setting off, just in time to watch England versus Australia in the rugby. Unfortunately, there's no TV at the Ben Nevis Inn, and I neglected to ask about WiFi, instead unlocking my bike and gingerly pedalling to The Crofter in Fort William, trying to avoid exacerbating my raw bits, my longing for a pint temporarily suspended. It seemed I unconsciously knew if I settled into one at the Ben the rugby could've gone and fucked itself.
I got there in time for the second half (England lost despite a spirited performance), then stopped by Morrison's for curry ingredients. The previous week's rain had resulted in the estuary flooding at high tide, but my astute site selection meant my camp was dry, even if getting to it meant riding through a foot of water on the two footbridges. Always live on a hill: rule #1.
It started raining on the way home, and I suddenly remembered today was Halloween. And it was nice to see, in the perpetual transatlantic cultural exchange, the arrival on our green and pleasant shores of the scantily-clad Halloween slut.
And I met a French hiker on the path, who was obviously looking for a campsite in the flooded landscape. I invited him to share my pitch, but he seemed nervous about talking to a large stranger in the dark and in the middle of nowhere. While I was cooking in my tent foyer I heard him wander back and forth in the dark a few more times. I've been there and it sucks. Poor bastard.
So was that first pint worth all this effort?
Absolutely. It always is.