On the up! Climbing Ben Nevis

On the up! Climbing Ben Nevis

Disabled walking enthusiast Sue Kent had two reasons for climbing Britain’s highest mountain, a celebration with her family and just to see if she could.

Following its recent re-measuring Ben Nevis now stands 1,345 metres above sea level and for much of the year is snow-capped. I had chosen to do this challenge with my family to mark 30 years of marriage. The Ben Nevis website warns of many pitfalls and dangers and almost put me off. I researched on Facebook in my disabled group and I found a few fellow thalidomiders had made it to the top but in their younger days and they could not remember much about it. I looked at all the available pictures and an excellent blog from a man on crutches. With this info, coupled with the confidence in my fitness level, I made the decision to proceed.

After a large breakfast and lots of nerves, the Met office forecast informed me that 4.00pm would be give me the best chance of good visibility. We set off to the Glen Nevis information centre. As I walked towards the lady behind the desk to buy a compass with my cycling trousers and just a thermal top and full make-up (much needed when one is over 50) she assessed my chances of getting up to the top of the mountain incorrectly and treated us with scepticism. She advises that no one had managed to get up the mountain in the last two days. There was three foot of snow at the top starting from 1,200 metres and if the visibility was poor, we would be unable to see our way without use of a compass. None of our party had suitable compass skills.

Setting off on our adventure I had a sense of pending failure. I had checked the forecast, I was well prepared with kit but people who had more expertise than I were telling me I would fail. I wear trainers to walk; all the websites warn against wearing trainers. The first part of the climb was quite hideous: lots and lots of scrambling over rocks. I did not need my hands but I need a very good sense of balance and a feel of rocks with my feet; this is why I don’t wear clumpy hiking boots. There was water running over the rocks but the rocks were not slippery. People coming down the mountain were telling us that they had not made it to the top as visibility and snow under foot were making it impossible.

Sue Kent and team on Ben Nevis
Sue Kent and team on Ben Nevis

The rocky clamber went on for about three quarters of an hour, then the path flattened out. My party reached a third of the way marked by a lake; the landscape was quite bleak and windy. As we sat down for a quick sandwich, people were coming down the mountain telling us they had made it to the top. I knew now there would be no stopping the younger members of my team; I just hoped my husband Stephen and I would be able to manage it.

When we reached the snow line, we would not have been able to continue without additions to our footwear. Trainers are not suitable for walking in snow and after some research online I had purchased a pair of Yaktrax crampon-style overshoes. I desperately hoped they would be as good as their reviews. They took a bit of fixing but soon we were off again walking slowly up an increasingly snow-filled track. I realised that small considered steps were the best approach as falling with no arms to break the fall can be very unpleasant.

People who had commented on the unsuitability of our footwear were looking on in awe as we passed them in our old trainers and they were slipping in their walking boots.

The path gradually started to disappear as the snow deepened so we followed the crowds up the hill. I had been advised to go slightly off piste and take a straight line to the top as this would be less slippery, the snow was deep so I tracked others’ footsteps up. The path got steeper and steeper and if I looked up I became slightly afraid that I would fall so I just focused on taking each step and the two-metre patch in front of my face.

There are markers at Ben Nevis when you near the top, piles of big stones every so often, then when you reach a plateau at the top you can see a large pile of stones which is the shelter. As I headed towards the stones reconnecting with the members of my party who had been faster or slower and we walked together to the trig point. With a communal hip flask, we all toasted our achievement with a tot of Glenfiddich whisky and patted ourselves on the back with pride.

Standing on the top of the mountain was amazing: here we stood at the highest point in Britain overlooking Scotland in all its mountainous glory, the sun shining on our special day. The views were outstanding: apparently a clear view only comes to Ben Nevis 14 days of the year, which I find difficult to believe.

The journey up had started at midday and we reached the summit at 4.00pm. Now I faced the journey down, keen to leave the snow line before the temperatures fell below freezing I prepared for the descent. I put on waterproof trousers. Experience has taught me that going down slopes can be more difficult than climbing up them and it may be necessary to sit on my bottom to avoid falling on my face. With the crampons still on, going down in the snow was not a problem but the rest of walk back was in some ways more difficult than the walk up the mountain: tiredness and muscle ache meant the risk of slipping was more acute and so the concentration levels must be higher. Mr Kipling’s Viennese whirls came in useful as a morale boost every so often on the descent.

Over the last few years I have kept my balance and strength by learning Pilates; without this I would have found it difficult clambering back down the rocky area. The risk of falling had been made obvious as we had passed people doing just that on our way up. I took to my bottom several times rather than take unnecessary steps downwards. Having no arms at this stage makes the risk of serious damage much higher should one fall downhill rather than uphill.

Downhill from Ben Nevis
Downhill from Ben Nevis

It took just under 3 hours to descend and when the pub came in to view and the car was parked in the car park I was very grateful. My toes were throbbing from being forced into the ends of my trainers by the gradient. Having to go nearly 8 hours without a wee, things were getting quite desperate.

I was very pleased with the day; I had achieved my goal of celebrating 30 years of marriage with my family by getting to the highest point in the UK.

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