Dispatch from the Razor's Edge, the Blog of Michael Stephen Fuchs
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2008.09.16 : West Highland Way
Day 11 : The Big Ben
Pt i : The Miracle of the Healed Shin Splints
"I had made a discovery during the night which interested me. I had discovered in myself a passionate interest in living."
- Graham Greene, Journey Without Maps

So when we last left our heroes, I was banged up with a bum leg, nursing pints in the Glen Nevis Inn, counting curios; Don't make me put this up your ass. 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.

Nice thing about a steady rain – we could go straight out in our Gore-tex armour, looking cool and feeling invulnerable Low-lying cloud added to the, erm, atmosphere In the Highlands, weather forecasting is necessarily a very exact science We weren't in any immediate danger of getting lost on our way to the mountain That's the awesome Glen Nevis Inn there behind Smilin' Tim

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.

Camera lens didn't waste any time in getting wet – also good for atmospheric photos Even just skirting along the foothills toward the base of the mountain proper, we got the town of Glen Nevis well below us Lots of water coming down the mountain – we'd be fording more of these I am teh bad (as long as I can stand unaided) Tim: hardy bastard

Cloud Line – Can We Go Back Now?

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Guerillas in the midst Who will shoot the shooters?

Climbing Out Of The Weather

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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.

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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>Be-bop-bop, shooby-dooby-doo…</i> "Does this <i>look</i> like the place for crooning?" Presence of the boot means I'm trying to communicate that this is pretty sheer right here This stretch through here was exceedingly, and (to me) surprisingly, pretty – like someplace you'd want to visit even if it weren't the highest spot on the island <i>Effing maniacs</i> – that is not really the trail, but more power to 'em, I guess

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 Mighty Buff Returns! Every mountain, really, should have a loch up near the top of it <i>Oww, quit it, oww . . .</i> No glove, no love

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.

Special Programming

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Me about to bite it? <i>Ich glaube nicht, mein freund</i> Putting the boot in Yes, we have no bananas <i>More clothez, plz</i> <i>Thkz</i> I really like this photo

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.

Rock soup I <i>love</i> this photo This one's not half bad <i>Do you like my big pile of rocks?</i> <i>Sometimes I let Tim climb it</i> We were actually getting brief looks at the ground – more 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!

Me: The evening we roll into town – mountain totally clear. The day we get on the train home – superb. The entire time in between – downpour and soup.
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.

Next: The Summit or Bust

2008.09.16 : West Highland Way
Day 11 : The Big Ben
Pt ii : [Goodnight From] The Tim & Michael Show

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. (*)

Trail mix time, babeee…! This was a custom mix I had done myself – cashews, pistachios, sunflower seeds, dried (unsugared) pineapple, mango, and cranberries; it has been the break-glass-in-case-of-emergency backup food for the entire trip, the permanent big bulge at the bottom of my bag Now that the trip was ending, and there would be no more emergencies, it was simply lunch – making me a very happy lunch muncher Tag! Safe!

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.

No place too desolate for moblogging! <i>Whoa-hoah!</i>

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.

This was something we guessed was left up there for the convenience of the mountain rescue team – so they could have some amenities, and tools they wouldnt have to hump up there, when rescuing the ill-clothed, unfit, and woefully under-prepared people who routinely needed rescuing up there This is one of the bottomless crevasses, about two feet off the summit path, which you can evidently fall easily into in white-out conditions

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

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Crevass with foot <i>That's good, but…</i> <i>Just little further along, if you would…</i> <i>No, back, now…</i> <i>Now do that Funky White Boy Dance!</i> <i>Screw Fuchs, I'm out of here</i>

Dude, We Are So There

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That made two things up there that had previously been on Kilimanjaro <i>Well played, old man!</i> We are teh win!

Goodnight! From the Tim & Michael Show!

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Not dangerous – when you can <i>see</i> it! <i>Does this hat make me look gay?</i> [Yes.] Marco Polo <i>I eat whiteouts for breakfast</i>

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.

This maniac fell runner comes running up the mountain in shorts and a t-shirt – and he stops to drink from the flooded stream! Serious bad-ass.

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.

I have no idea why I pulled myself out here; it was a few weeks ago now that I did it I spent awhile trying to shoot a couple of big circling birds; the results were scanty Glen Nevis looked good, though – it was nice to see it again My punk rock sheep girl The Glen Nevis Inn, blurry Us returning to the Inn, blurry

Next: The End of the Tour – 2.5 Miles to Fort William and the WHW Terminus (and 10.5 Hours of Train Rides Home)

Overall my one disappointment with this trip was the lack of quality opportunities for the use of zoom. (*)         (hide)
Most of these pictures don't do the lack of visibility justice. I'm sure Michael has discarded 100s here of the 'us and cloud' variety.         (hide)

  danger     graham greene     hiking     mountains     photography     tim     video     west highland way     wildlife  
close photo of Michael Stephen Fuchs

Fuchs is the author of the novels The Manuscript and Pandora's Sisters, both published worldwide by Macmillan in hardback, paperback and all e-book formats (and in translation); the D-Boys series of high-tech, high-concept, spec-ops military adventure novels – D-Boys, Counter-Assault, and Close Quarters Battle (coming in 2016); and is co-author, with Glynn James, of the bestselling Arisen series of special-operations military ZA novels. The second nicest thing anyone has ever said about his work was: "Fuchs seems to operate on the narrative principle of 'when in doubt put in a firefight'." (Kirkus Reviews, more here.)

Fuchs was born in New York; schooled in Virginia (UVa); and later emigrated to the San Francisco Bay Area, where he lived through the dot-com boom. Subsequently he decamped for an extended period of tramping before finally rocking up in London, where he now makes his home. He does a lot of travel blogging, most recently of some very  long  walks around the British Isles. He's been writing and developing for the web since 1994 and shows no particularly hopeful signs of stopping.

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ARISEN : Operators, Volume I - The Fall of the Third Temple by Michael Stephen Fuchs
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