Its funny I have been thinking about Ben Nevis this week and the BBC called me today to ask my views on this iconic Mountain. It is sad that some Mountaineers feel that the normal route up the mountain is spoiled by the huge of people that ascend it every year. Is that being elitist ?
It is a busy hill with charity walks, The Three Peaks and sadly rubbish left and the many feet on that path increasing every year. Yet I look back to when I pestered my Mum and Dad to take me up the mountain it was then called the “Tourist Route”. I was only 10 and done a few hills but this was the one I wanted to do. There were no tee shirts then or Facebook then it was what I had read or heard about.
My Dad had always regaled me with names like the half way lochan, Red Burn and the Zig Zags then the huge plateau with the huge gouges of cliffs and the constant snowfields. It was another world for me that day and the summit was a great climax. It was a great feeling to a young lad.
Yet the day did not end and he showed me Tower Ridge, Gardyloo Gully and other climbs and how the Observatory was there for many years. He told me how the winds can exceed 100 mph and the summit is often hidden by cloud and the snow remains all year in places. He then took me and Mum across the Carn Mor Dearg Arete to get a view of the hidden North Face. From there we got great views of the huge North Face that was to seduce me for over 50 years.
It was then a steep descent down to the hut we met some climbers with ropes and boots heading up to the the famous CIC Hut. It was here that my Dad pulled out he was a minister and we got a cup of tea in that hallowed place.
I wanted to climb here and when I looked at the steep dark cliffs they looked impossible to me then. Then it was the big drag back to the the half way lochan and back to the Youth Hostel I was exhausted but this was where I wanted to be.
Over the years I must have climbed so many routes on Ben Nevis mainly introducing many young Mountain Rescue team member’s to this great mountain. The classic climbs like Tower Ridge were done every year in summer and winter often combining several ridges in one day.
In winter it was special and I did over 30 winter courses on the mountain. As the chief instructor later on it would be hard waiting for parties on the summit or at the top of routes many a long day was spent here.
There were many Rescues I remember being a tiny part of one of my early rescues in the 70’s as Lochaber MRT did a huge lower on a single rope for a fallen climber. My first big call – out was climbing Tower Ridge as a 20 year old just after 3 climbers had fallen to their deaths with John Hinde to try to work out what happend. That was a sobering day and a day I learnt so much.
There were many call -outs as we were climbing over the years that had great outcomes but often after climbing all day we had to head back up to help the Lochaber Team. One of my best call -outs was finding a young 16 year old lad alive on Ben Nevis after a huge search for 4 days.
It was a great effort by Lochaber, Glencoe, RAF Kinloss, RAF Leuchars and SARDA plus the SAR Helicopters. The cheers on the radio when he was located alive were a thing that I will never forget. There were the huge avalanches in winter and the incredible searches and picking up knowledge from the Lochaber Team on this vast mountain.
I got to know the Ben over the years as we looked for fallen climbers or missing walkers often in terrible conditions when it tested your skills just to stay as safe as possible. When I was helping run the searches as a Team Leader I always worried about the teams as always the weather was very poor. The North Face is huge as are the wild Corries where you search in heavy snow or at night it can be dangerous ground. This is a huge complex mountain surrounded by cliffs and steep ground. As a walker if you stray from the path on the summit which in winter and in bad conditions is hard to find you can get into trouble.
After a climb no matter how well you think you know the hill to me navigation is the only way to get off this hill on a bad day. The weather changes so quickly and as it starts from sea level it can be a long hard day. This is Lochaber Mountain Rescue Team patch and they do an incredible job its a serious mountain and we are all in debt to them. It attracts climbers from all over the World and is a Mecca for winter ice climbers its history is incredible and those pioneers from a bygone age put up some routes. Today there is still incredible climbing on the mixed routes that are world class so many climb here and when its in condition there are few better places to be.
I have so many stories of trying to get ready for the Team Leaders Course and pushing my rock-climbing. We did that as a break from the team. Meeting some great climbers at the time. A young Dave “Cubby” Cuthbertson came with me when we had two pals overdue on the Bat and Titans Wall. We made friends with many of them staying in the Achintee Bunkhouse. We were to get involved in a few rescues with these wild guys over the years. It was amazing who you met-on the Ben. Yet despite the differences we maintained respect from many. Our land rover would be full of climbers heading of a full day in the Ben. It was an incredible time to learn.
I am so lucky to have been on the Ben as that young lad of 10. I have taken so many up the normal route including several Blind Groups they were one of the most rewarding and hard days out. On one day took it 13 hours. So is a first time up Tower Ridge or any of the climbs on the North Face in summer or winter giving a young team member an introduction to the Ben. To stay overnight in the CIC Hut just below the North Face is a privileged and its wonderful to watch the sunrise and sunset on the North Face or fight your way up to it in a blizzard. To come to a dram and meet some of the great climbers is a wonderful experience and I must get back. To hear the stories of past adventures is a great and to meet the new young ones who continue the tradition of making this mountain unique.
Coming off the summit as the sun is setting and the views after a good day is spell binding. As is sitting outside the hut with a dram after climbing the Four Ridges in a sunny day. Walking round the North Face and finding the odd artifact of another era in the gullies and wondering how it got there on a long summer night was a thing I used to do. Getting a helicopter lift from a route and being back in Fort William in 10 minutes were unique days.
I remember the helicopter flights in big winds as we sneaked up the hill and how glad I was to get out at times and walk. The great skill of the crews that tested their mettle to the fullest. The long walk down after a call -out or climb when the path used to be a sea of mud. Now the path to the North Face climbs is a great improvement.
It was also a hill that I completed at the end of some great days hill walking like Tranters Round or nowadays Ramsay’s Round that finishes on the Ben. I will never forget on Tranters Round and coming round from the Carn Mor Dearg arete and onto the summit looking at the cliffs despite being exhausted is amazing.
I go back to that day with Mum and Dad and think how lucky I am. I have struggled down the path carrying many stretchers with lots of pals helping bring of a fallen climber or walker. You build a bond that will never be broken.
So when you think about the hordes walking up to the summit by the normal route remember this is their big day and I was one of them once. I hope that Ben Nevis will cast its spell on them and like me will come back and back and you leave little trace of you being there apart from memories of this iconic mountain.
How many times have I walked that path?
Through forestry and muddy track.
Bag bulging, sweat is pouring,
Then the great cliffs mourning.
Watching In the mist clouds,
Emerge, along with memories.
Many happy, many sad.
Long carries in the dead of night,
With unknown people.
Each glad to be alive,
All helped by fellow climbers.
In the gloom, avalanches crash,
We struggle over frozen burn and icy rock.
Yet there is a special joy
Getting someone off alive
Off that hill that does at times kill.
Not just the tourist, but many, with great skill.
Why do we climb?
If you ask you do not know?
This “Ben”, this mountain,
Its names full of history and mystery.
Clears in the mist.
This mountain means so much,
Too me and many friends.
It will never change.
Then , as now
Its ever-changing snow and ice.
Are friends? As are the familiar names,
Of cliff, buttress and where we play our games?
Tales of great climbs,
Great days and nights on this hill.
These are special to those who
Know the secret of this magic place.
Below the great cliffs
The hut nestles
Long nights wth heroes and ego
History and mystery
This is why we go and always will.
On this great hill
Thank you Ben Nevis for a lifetime of Memories!