To Thee Hights ov Old Britain, Climbing Ben Nevis Solo


Last Freyja’s day of this bitter chilled Scottish winter, I stepped outside and decided to climb Ben Nevis, the tallest summit in all of Britain. Cresting the Cairngorms, the Snowdonian hills of Wales, and the mountains of the lake District or the western shores of Ire’land. This impulsive desire to rise to it’s heights instilled itself virtually overnight. A farm and cattle show was happening in the village of Oban, over an hour from the Cairngorm highlands, and I would be able to hitch a ride with the farmer who owns this land. Thus, it is precisely what became to be.

I saddled the ride in the truck to Fort William, the town bordering the mountain and set off hoofing it on foot down a back country way. Walking the rivers edge until I could find a bridge after a mile on the road, I crossed the meandering aquas, and ended up in a sheep farm, with a golemn of a mountain staring me down, bronze and brown were its wrinkles, sprouting stunted dwarves on it’s spine, though this wasn’t Ben Nevis, it only concealed the view. I found the hoof trail made by sheep until it lead to a boulderous walkway, with stones quite precisely placed in the earth forming almost a cobbled pilgrimage route. Ascending slowly along the outer ridges of this giant, skirting its bones carefully, and bending sinew as do the goats and ungulates of the hills. I at last made a vantage point looking over the Glen Nevis Valley, and the rocky promenade of sorts made a turn away to reach the higher plateaus. For some passing of the hour, I trod up the path at a pace that made my breath sound like wind vowels streaming through the air. Meandering in a serpentine fashion like this until finding a loch on the aerial landscape, frozen and encrusted with ice. I wonder what unique floral forms could dwell in and around that pond.

Peering out over my footsteps just traveled, an ominous poison cloud threatened to drip its black wet ichor all over me as I would then be helplessly condemned to the downpour. It looked at heavy as iron, but seemed to be far away by mountain standards, and I kept rising. Now kicking in my spikes to violently find my footing in the coarse snow and ice, the path shot up the peaks like double Sowilo runes, zigzagging to the Sun. The gradient which supposed its steepness would like to something  inspiring was already apparent. It was a path through the fog and the mist of Europe. I dug in and felt my heart pulse like a flickering candle. Making headway for the conical tip of the mountain I was now walking on near solid ice, blue encrusted lichens on the black bones of the mountains were my only footholds. How long have these growths been here in these barrens? A thousand years? A million? Ancient slow cooker, what medicine they could yield. I thought about gathering something from here but they were so beautiful I could not disturb their forms, and beside this was only the cascade of rocks. I sat on one which felt solid in the ice and looked behind me from whence I climbed. I could see only 10 feet in front of me, if that at times. The only definition of ground were the submerged boulders in the haze, for everything was the purest white. The sky blended imperceptibly with the snow, so if I sat and stared, the feeling was of drifting around in the high altitudes of Scottish Airspace, sailing on this ship of a rock amid other rocks, floating, not above or below, but within.

To say this was humbling would be mild. The thoughts were not of fear but of utter curiosity, so I think this speaks of how I have been managing my more primal thought patterns as of late. How long would I be here waiting for it to clear? I was lingering near a peak that was farthest from the sea, where most people dwelled. Perhaps I would see a white ptarmigan or a hare, and they would show me how to descend or just reveal their presence. The sun would not set for another four hours, I could sit here and meditate and try to build up my inner heat, or think on it. I had carried a barn owl which I found on the farm, it had been crushed by a bale of hay, and was slightly deformed. For 4 nights I had it wrapped up in a shroud with sage leaves. I took it out and gave it a proper sky burial. A new haunt. Here, higher than I have ever been in Europe, it was a fit home. I heard clattering of bells far on another flank of the mountain and sometime caught a wisp of color of another person. Then I heard these bells and clattering from behind and slightly above me. Two Scotsmen on their way ‘doon, as they say. So I brushed a layer of snow and ice crystals off my vest and thought it wise to follow them down, one of them threw me an ice axe and said use it to stop yourself, and then we went feet first sliding down half of the ice capped slope in supine, accelerating past sharp crags and hidden stones. I used my spikes on my boots and the axe to slow, just before a drop off with a waterfall, and waited for them to meet me. They turned off down the western flank, while I stammered back through the zigzag serpent course and cut across swathes of bronze heather flora. I had a limp though, the extreme force on the achilles rendered it now useless to serve my stride, and I felt a grinding in my heel. On the rocky pathway, the spikes didn’t do anything to comfort me…

On the descent, I passed a sheep, well not just one, but a flock of them, but one in particular that had one horn. I don’t know why I called him Hercules, it just came to mind. I met him on the ascent and said ‘see you on the way down’, and I did. He stared inquisitively, perhaps because my boots made the same sound on the hard surface that they did. I took a tighter path down to the b road which passed some undisturbed sentinel arborea clinging to sideways root holds. Crossing the river once more, and heading for the highway. Before long, I was picked up and taken to a junction, another pleasant and quiet ride with a mother in the twilight, and finally a hitch through the Spey Valley back to my dwelling. Though my heel was in shambles, it is now healing, and I reflect on the window of time I spent at the peaks, completely under natures will. I knew it in my heart, that nature was indifferent, but I trusted also in her, and I came down. But not all do. I stood on the peak of this country and descended to meet the levels of the sea in the same day, what more could humble a man.

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