Our Canuck version of the National Three Peaks Challenge was to hike the highest peak in each Scotland, England and Wales within a week. (We decided against doing it in 24 hours as we wanted to remain friends afterwards, among other reasons.) A road trip through Great Britain, sleeping in a camper van, and epic hikes…what more could we ask for? In fact, every hike began and ended with a meadow full of sheep, and a pub close by, which was icing on the cake.
BEN NEVIS – DAY 1
(1,344 m or 4,409 ft)
About The Ben: The “loveless loveliness” that is Ben Nevis – what a monolith, a beast, a beauty. The highest mountain in Britain, The Ben’s North Face cliffs drop off suddenly, adding a bit of danger in to any common hike. Climbers, mountaineers, hikers, fell runners and tourists all flock to get a piece of The Ben.
Savvy choice: Watching the weather in early June, Miz J. booked us a guide for Ben Nevis, knowing that if there was still a lot of snow (which there was) we didn’t want to risk offing ourselves accidentally in Scotland by wandering over a cliff.
Weather report: Cloudy, misty, rainy and lots of snow at the top! By 1,200 metres it was a complete whiteout and for direction we depended on Dave and his compass.
Closest pub: Ben Nevis Inn & Bunkhouse: stellar food, A+ for atmosphere. Tuesday nights feature live, local music. Perfect end to the day. Tip: for dinner, RESERVE A TABLE in advance because squatter’s rights aren’t recognized and the staff won’t hesitate to turf you to seat locals.
Our hike: After our first night in the camper van, at the Glen Nevis Campground, we packed up camp in the drizzle, ate our yogurt and berries, and drove over to the Ben Nevis Inn, where the parking lot also served as the trail head for the Pony Track we’d be taking up The Ben.
We met our guide, Dave Anderson from Lochaber Guides, and he set the ground rules, estimating the amount of time we should spend out on the mountain due to our abilities, and discussed our aspirations for the day. He didn’t make any promises with regards to the summit, and just said we’d play it by ear, seeing how we all made out.
The Pony Track – also known as the Tourist Route or the Mountain Path – rises gradually through the meadows (sheep!) with great views looking back into the valley below.
The path continues upwards towards the lake, Lochan meall an t-suidhe, at which point there is a junction where hikers continue upwards on steep, stony switchbacks (or zig-zags, as they call them in the UK) climbing The Ben’s western slopes.
The path was very easy to follow until we encountered snow as we headed into the switchbacks. This is where I donned my middle layer (thermal – fleece – shell) as the temperatures began to drop. Dave stepped up to earn his weight in ale for skills and leadership, navigating precisely along the invisible path.
Heading skyward through the snow, Dave broke the trail and we all followed in his footsteps, taking it one foot in front of the other. The snow’s depth was to our shins most of the way. Whiteout conditions ensued with the clouds and sleet, enabling us to only see about 2-3 steps ahead. The wind, while not terrible, was constant. The minute we stopped for a breather or a consultation as to progress, I could feel my body temperature start to drop. By the time we’d reached 1,200 metres, the discussion became real: do we press on to the summit at 1,344 metres?
There would, of course, be no view at the summit. It would be a matter of doing it for oneself, tapping the marker, touching the ancient observatory. Ahhhh, the struggle to decide!! There’s a pass at home that has defeated me twice due to weather (aka safety) and it made me crazy every time to turn around. This was no exception. Dave made it clear, though, that bagging the summit would mean another steady upwards slog at a good clip for at least 30 minutes. The die was cast: due to conditions, timing and general health/wellness of the whole group, we took our victory photos and headed back down The Ben. Although 24-hour 3-Peaks-ers schedule only a few hours to run this mountain, it took us a good 8 hrs up and down the wee beastie, with plenty of breaks for snacks and rests. More than likely due to the rainy weather, we had the mountain to ourselves most of the way, which was a real treat. We only encountered about a dozen hikers, most of which were on their way up when we were coming down. Dave kindly gave advice to those who asked him, and pointedly made comments about their inappropriate outerwear (jeans, high-heeled boots, tennis shoes, etc).
Ben Nevis, my first real hike of the summer, was essentially very wet. My waterproofs were excellent, but the sweat from the inside and the rain/sleet from the outside, just left me soaked. Warm, but soaked. I’ve never been fond of rain, so I’m happy that I coped! It helped, of course, not to be heading post-hike back to a tent, but to the Ben Nevis Inn where we acquired a prime table by the stove, stripped all of our wet things off, and hung them out to dry.
With a vaulted ceiling, bench seating and a great cathedral window looking out to the mountains, the Inn’s pub was cozy as could be.
Boots off, socks drying, cold Cairngorm.
After a visit with Dave, he headed home to his little family, and we continued to chill out at the Inn for hours sampling ales, ciders and our first haggies, tatties and neeps of the holiday!
As the sun set, the musicians arrived and the evening become livelier with the additional of the toe-tapping 10-person band. We had booked in to stay at the bunk house that night, so we popped downstairs to shower and change, and returned for the music. I wish I could tell you what they played, but I haven’t a clue, all I can tell you is the call of a mournful pipe, a jovial accordion, an ancient drum. All-in-all, an amazing start to our three peaks journey.
Next stop: Scafell Pike!