One more day, one more mountain, and then I could finally rest. As tempting as it was to lie there and enjoy having a bed for a bit longer, we had agreed to start in good time, so I rolled out, dressed (putting on my Spinal Research shirt to mark the end of my challenge), and made my way stiffly downstairs. I tried to minimise the impact on my tender feet as I shuffled around in my socks. I joined up with Steve and Zoë in the kitchen to make some porridge for breakfast and sandwiches for the day. Zoë had a ticket for the breakfast buffet as well, and snaffled us a few croissants, as is the way.
I gathered the kit that I needed for the day – not much beyond my battered waterproofs and walking poles – and gave them to Zoë to put in her bag. After carrying my pack all the way from Cumbria, today my shoulders would be free as birds. I imagined that I would practically float up the mountain.
In terms of covering the distance to get to Ben Nevis, I really had put all the work in already. From the Glen Nevis hostel, you walk outside, cross a bridge over the River Nevis, and immediately start going up the mountain. Zoë got me to pose for a picture with a big, genuine smile on my face. The floor of the glen is only at about 20m above sea level, and the first section of the path goes steeply up the mountainside for 550m, first zig-zagging, then ascending round a shoulder to reach a broad saddle with a decent-sized lochan. We stopped for a breather there, where the path diverged. Compared to the previous week or two, I was finding this all pretty easy – the fitness I had gained over a month of constant walking was showing itself now. To the right the path continued back and forth up the rounded side of the mountain. To the left it contoured round north and then east to enter into the valley between the ben’s rocky north-east face and a ridgeline of summits on the far side – Càrn Beag Dearg, Càrn Dearg Meadhonach, and Càrn Mòr Dearg.
To me, the shape of Ben Nevis gives the impression of a great, hulking ogre sullenly turning itself away from the world. To the west and south it just presents its bare shoulder and back, and the face where all its character is to be seen is hidden away in its own valley, shielded from view. As we contoured into that valley, that great grey mass of walls, spires, gullies, buttresses and towers rose up to our right. We followed the path to the Charles Inglis Clark Memorial hut – better known as the CIC hut. This was erected by the Inglis Clarks in 1929 in memory of their son, who was killed in Mesopotamia in the last months of the Great War. The whole family were keen amateur mountaineers; Charles’ father, William, was president of the Scottish Mountaineering Club, and his mother and sister, Jane and Mabel, were co-founders of the Ladies Scottish Climbing Club. You can find some absolutely delightful footage of the opening of the CIC hut in 1929 here.
We crossed the excitable mountain stream that runs down the valley just below the hut and left the path behind. The other side of the valley is a huge rocky slope running with a constant gradient all the way up to the ridgeline above. We spotted a point at the start of the CMD arête to aim for, and began picking our way up in a straight diagonal line. We had to tread carefully; the slope was streaked with lines where the loose rock had built up more thickly, and it shifted and wobbled as we crossed.
Halfway up, we stopped for a bite to eat. We sat on the rocks and turned to look at the face of Ben Nevis across from us. We could see it all now. It was imposing, dark, and brutish, and I knew what was going through Zoë’s mind and mine. Somewhere up there was where the student from our club had fallen. Steve began pointing out the famous climbing and scrambling routes. He pointed out Ledge Route, the one where it had happened. Naming it was like speaking the words of a curse. I felt a dark cloud pass over my soul. Zoë later said she had had a wobble at that point – she wasn’t sure if she wanted to be there. I described the face of Ben Nevis before as a climber’s playground, but looking at it then, it scared me. It looked huge, harsh and unforgiving, and the thought that I would probably find myself trying to climb it at some point in the future gave me shivers.
We pressed on up to the start of the arête. When we reached the crest, we were hit by a blast of cold wind roaring up from the east. I retrieved my extra layers from Zoë’s bag and put away my poles to free up my hands for scrambling. Our hoods went up and we clambered along, braced so as not to lose our balance. There had been plenty of people on the path from Glen Nevis, and we had passed a handful near the CIC hut, but now we were on our own. In fact we could see one group trying to go directly up to the far end of the arête, just to the left of the steep rock routes up to the summit. We didn’t know if that was possible; it looked treacherously steep from where we were and we tried to keep an eye on them from afar.
We came to the end of the arête and passed a built-up cairn. I eyed it fondly. The first time I had done this route, the wind had been gusting even harder and there had been ice on the rocks. I had had to crawl over to shelter behind the cairn, then signal for my group to do the same. One by one they came, and we made a tight huddle and discussed our options by shouting into each other’s ears over the howling gale. I knew from there we had 200m of ascent left to go. We had decided against trying to escape down the far side of the mountain, and pushed on, and fortunately the wind had died down somewhat.
The final section looks like a huge pile of rocks. You can’t see any ground beneath, but it is reasonably secure. We had plenty of time and took a couple of breaks on the way up. I was so close now.
At last we came to the summit plateau, and could see the shapes of the ruined observatory and the summit cairn looming through the cloud, with walkers from the other direction silhouetted on top. I felt no need to rush – I tried to savour the last few steps. We reached the bottom of the summit cairn. “Go on, mate,” said Steve. I stepped up and touched the trig point, and the three of us gave a little cheer. Fireworks and sparklers would have been nice, but I didn’t need any more fanfare; I was done. Steve and Zoë hugged me, and we got some photos. Steve presented me with a little bottle of whiskey and we each had a tipple. Steve said: “You know what, I know some tough mountain guys, but you’re up there with them now,” which I think is just about the best thing you can hear from a girlfriend’s father. I didn’t think it was necessarily true, but I really appreciated it nonetheless.
Other people were waiting for their turn, so we moved off to the shelter of a ruined wall to finish our sandwiches. As we sat there, snow began to fall, which satisfied me hugely. From what had felt like the last day of Summer on Snowdon, I had walked across three countries and all the way into Winter. All we had to do now was get down.
We went via the tourist path. Lots of people were still on their way up: some with dogs, some in jeans, one or two, unbelievably, in shorts. We were still high up when the snow turned into driving rain, the hardest I had been caught in for the whole month. I didn’t care at all. I reflected that really I had been quite lucky with the weather. Yes, I had got wet – Adam and I had been pelted on the Southern Upland Way, and Lancashire had basically been flooded when I walked through it – but I had never had day after day of having to put on already sodden gear. We were completely drenched by the time we reached the hostel, but it had a drying room, and warm showers, and beds, and there was no more walking to do.