So when we last left our heroes, I was banged up with a bum leg, nursing pints in the Glen Nevis Inn, counting curios; Tim had hiked off alone to Ft. William, just by way of something to do; and we were both locked in a death struggle with boredom and unaccustomed idleness and wondering if the jewel in the crown of our hundred-mile Highland hike, Ben Nevis, was going to be forever out of reach.
That ill day only proved its finitude when the next one finally dawned. Diagnosis of my bum leg was inconclusive it had still hurt during the night, but less than the night before. The weather was, if anything, and as threatened by the mountain weather forecast, a bit worse than yesterday.
Lacking any strong shove in one direction or the other, we got up and simply hung out in the lounge, moping in front of the heater, waiting for matters to resolve. Tim was soon visibly bored. 9:30 came and went and that was the death knell for the CMD route.
Regular readers with good memory will recall that there are two routes up this mountain the (misleadingly-named) tourist route, and the long, sheer, dicey traverse across the Cairn Mor Dearg Areté. After much soul-searching, and asking everyone we met for advice, we'd concluded that tackling the CMD route would only be sensible in decent weather. Don't get me wrong, we were dying to do it we just didn't want to die doing it.
Now, with extremely dodgy weather, and a one-legged climber, and moreover with too much daylight having been burnt to risk the much longer ascent, this possibility foreclosed on us. Between you and me, at this point, and for most of the 36 hours prior, I'd figured it would be a miracle if we got to the summit on a helicopter.
But miracles happen. We suited up and headed out. I figured if my leg flaked, it flaked, and I'd turn back. It was a damned long climb, and plenty of places to bail on it. The trick would be doing the bailing while I still had enough leg to get down the mountain under my own power (and not have to call out mountain rescue).
We got climbing. And I endeavoured to climb very gingerly indeed.
I figured pulling this off was going to be all about finding flat spots upon which to place my left foot. (Ankle at angles: bad.) But I also pretty quickly concluded that flat spots were probably going to get thin on the ground fast and then go away for good.
On the other hand, I did feel a lot better out and moving. And my leg was holding for the time being.
Cloud Line Can We Go Back Now?
Climbing Out Of The Weather
Today's internal climbing soundtrack: "That's Life", by the inimitable Chairman of the Board. I've realised the tempo isn't so important for this kind of work. It's all about the attitude.
Frank does it a bit better than I do. You should listen to his version as you read on: Get the Flash Player to see this player.
It would have been easy to be awfully sad about missing out on the dramatic, inspiring, ass-kicking, enormously braggable CMD route. But somewhere along here I realised that doing a really visually inspiring climb, while nice, isn't the whole thing, or even most of the thing, for me. I just like to climb. I like to climb out of the Angel Underground station when the escalators, the Tube network's longest, are stopped. You can't get less inspiring than that.
I was pleased to find I'd been wrong in predicting that there wouldn't be a flat spot to stand on before long in fact, there were tons of dead-level stones all along the path. Of course, climbing on flat, hard stones is murder on the knees, but my knees were no problem at this moment. And I predicted my right leg was soon going to be ass-tired from doing all the lifting I was doing that gimpy one-legged stair-climbing routine but that was cool, too.
The temperature was definitely dropping now or, more accurately, we were rising.
More chillingly, we passed the turn-off for the CMD route. Either way we chose, this would be the point of no return. We were briefly tempted to go for it my ankle was doing surprisingly well, both of us had tons of energy. But the cold decided it. If this weather was turning for the better, it wasn't doing it then. And of course this mountain has a fearsome reputation for dramatic changes of weather usually for the worse. It was just too dangerous to take on both the clock and the weather.
We'd been chasing it off, but now the weather had caught us up again. Back into the soup. We met two guys, on their way down, who had just been up. They indicated that the cloud on the summit was going on and coming off, in rapid sequence. Hope.
We met two lovely Scots gentlemen descending. They informed us that the weather up top was much the same as it was where we stood. But the forecast for tomorrow was superb if we wanted to come back!
Them: Of course!
They couldn't have been any less surprised if I'd told them Scotland had sheep.
But, stunning views to the sea or four feet of visibility in soup, knife-edge CMD route or tourist slog, at the end we were still going to be standing at exactly 4,406 feet. On the summit. This we resolved to do.
All we needed was a little more of this miracle whereby the lame and halt had been healed and walked again. Then again, if my leg gave out now, the only way I was getting off this rock was via the mountain rescue helicopter . . . Tune in next time to find out which.
When we last left our heroes, they were thick in a boiling-over Ben Nevis soup, nearly within striking distance of the summit and with Michael's gimpy leg holding up suspiciously well.
In all honesty, now that I'm not labouring mightily (and fruitlessly, I expect) to generate some suspense about the outcome, I'll admit that the leg was giving me almost no trouble at all. It was uncanny and deeply weird. Twenty-four hours earlier I could barely get up a flight of stairs and here I was gamboling insouciantly up the tallest peak in the British isles. Singing Sinatra tunes. (*)
Probably totally needless to point out, we came upon a section of sheer rocky desolation with cairns. This would prove to be pretty much the last section before the final hump up to the summit.
The wind was blasting in a distinctly summit-y style now, and not what you'd call warm. I walked off the "path" into the last bit of lee, a big rocky wall-type thing, to layer up my last layers, for the summit.
Speaking of the bozos who needed rescuing, and the crevasses: We did hear one story about a girl who "sprained her ankle" up on the summit. The mountain rescue helicopter was called out, which costs some absurd amount of money to fly, and ferried her back to the ground. When they landed, she hopped out, as spry as can be, and walked off. When questioned, she admitted she just hadn't felt like walking back down. (Here, incidentally is an article that says there's not really much marginal cost to taking out the rescue helicopter and, much more compellingly, underscores why it's needed: Highlands claim 15th life: Another climber dies on Ben Nevis as winds whip up ferocious white-outs.)
Follow the Yellow-Brick Cairns
Dude, We Are So There
Goodnight! From the Tim & Michael Show!
Inevitably, from the summit, I called Anna. ("I'm on the summit!") Then, serendipitously, Liz called Tim. [Should one keep one's phone on silent on a summit?! Probably.] She asked what he was doing and Tim, being funny like he is, said, "I'm on the train can I call you back?" And she hung up on him! Ha!
And then there was nothing left to do but to go back down.
Most of the way down, I found myself thinking mainly of David Foster Wallace. I'd gotten the news by text that morning and confirmed it by, somewhat tellingly, hitting Wikipedia on my phone.