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  The Chatter Box : Travel
Ben Nevis - a travel recollection. by Ken Dunn on 17 February 2013 7:43am
This story is now finished. I have enjoyed writing it and once again would like to dedicate it to Mr Michael Palin whose website has been used for the contents. I have split the recollections into 5 parts for ease of reading as it covers a period of 6 or 7 years. Enjoy.

* Chapter 1 *

I have attempted to get to the top of Ben Nevis 5 times. Each of the attempts is written about here. I have managed more successes than failures and the details will develop in the story. I do not look on not being able to get to the top as a failure. As Alan Hinkes says, 'Getting to the top is optional, getting back down is mandatory.' I have always used this tenet.

While I was gathering information about the mountain I discovered the Ben Nevis race and as I was reasonably fit I decided to have a go at it, entering through the CSSC (Civil Service Sports Club). Another friend (Lew) and I trained together a couple of times for this race. During training I could see that he was fitter than me. We both entered for the race.

I'd be best starting when I arrived in Scotland in 1976. It was the year of the drought, the day I arrived in Helensburgh, and it rained, the first rain I had seen for months. It was August. I had been successful in a interview to work at the Clyde Submarine Base at Faslane but can't give any more details of that here - this is a Ben Nevis story anyway. At the interview I had had a look round the area and liked it a lot. Plenty of mountain scenery and the company would help with accommodation costs while I was in the job.

I didn't get into the hills straight away but did start to get fitter than I was by running the streets and playing badminton in the sportsdrome at the Base. 2 or 3 years after arriving I was fit enough to run up Ben Bowie a 300m hill near Helensburgh. I remember walking this hill on a lovely cold day with about 10cm snow lying. I got my first experience of frostbite on this day although it wasn't serious.

In my spare time I took to climbing a few Munro's and there was a new friend from North Wales (Martin) who was into rock climbing. We never climbed together but I remember accompanying him once or twice at rock climbs. One of these climbs was at Dumbarton Rock and I was the photographer!
Re: Ben Nevis - a travel recollection. by Ken Dunn on 17 February 2013 7:30pm
* Chapter 2 *

Some of my running took me out at lunchtime to do a couple of miles around the Base. A friend called Lew who was also a runner was interested in the race so we decided to enter through the Civil Service Sports Club(CSSC). We sometimes ran together at lunch time and on every occasion he was better than me as he could run off towards the end and be in the shower before I got back.

The day of the Race was fine and I think we travelled up separately but met at the start where there were good facilities for all the runners. There were about 300 and we each had a running bib issued before the start which was in a stadium near Fort William. The gun went and Lew and I ran together for a mile or so and because he was fitter than me he eventually went ahead and I didn't see him again that day.

I'm fairly sure I had climbed the Ben before the race because it is not something I would do without knowing the route. Anyway, the start mile or two was fairly level then as the ground began to rise it got steeper and steeper until at about 1500 feet we were scrambling through and over rocks that were on the path up. Not long after this I was feeling the pace, even though I was slow, so eased up for a breather and during my second breather I looked up and saw the leaders coming down! The path I was on was doing a zig to ease the gradient but the leaders were coming down over the most direct route from the summit and it was so steep I thought that if any of them took a tumble they could break a leg and roll all the way to the bottom! I plodded on, it was impossible for me to run, and made reasonable progress up to about 2,500 feet. Then it started to get to me, a bit like 'the wall' you can get in a marathon. The higher I went the more I felt it and thinking back it was probably the slightly thinner air combined with my imperfect fitness that was telling on me. At just over 3000 feet there was a point where you had to break right for the summit and to the left was a flatter area which I went on to for a decent break. I sat down an after having caught my breath looked up the rest of the climb and decided that as it looked still as steep as the section I had come up, if not more so, I should call it a day and abandon this attempt. I can't remember if I had any survival rations with me but I did admire the view before heading down. Going down was as tricky as the ascent as, to begin with, I was having to cope with wobbly legs and other competitors still on the way up. Encountering the other ascending competitors didn't last too long and I tried to run gently so as not to obstruct too many of the runners coming down. I think I enjoyed the last section of the descent as the view off the side of the hill was very good.

The following year I went through the same training routine, but having been unsuccessful I tried harder to get a bit fitter so I could complete the course. The additional training involved more running up Ben Bowie which had a short steep section near the top which I could never run up but could gradually take it more easily the fitter I got. Also I was climbing Munros and although I can't remember exactly when I did them the following are some that I have summited: Ben Ime, Ben Cruachan, Ben Vorlich, Ben Lomond, An Caisteal, The Cobbler, The Brack, Bidean nam Bain (see 'Stuck on a mountain - ...' elsewhere in the Travel section), Ben More and Ben Dorain and its partner - it was on the saddle between these two that I saw a Ptarmigan bird wandering around among the rocks.

As an aside, outside Scotland, I have sumitted Helvellyn, Skiddaw, Scafell and Scafell Pike all in the Lake District, Snowdon by Crib Corch -Red Ridge- (Welsh folks will have to excuse my spelling there), Slieve Donard, Comedagh, Slieve Bearnagh and every other top in the Mourne Mountains in Northern Ireland. There are a few others that I can't recall so that lets me get back to the Ben Nevis story.

Now, where was I? Ah yes, training for another shot at the Ben Nevis Race. The training went well and I felt fitter the following year so entered for the Race only to have a cold on the day so I couldn't run. I went to Fort William to watch the race anyway and at the check in I told the organizers I wasn't running. The organizers told me the race was cancelled anyway because of bad weather near the top. At the base of the mountain it was a grey day and visibility was good. I went to a car park in Glen Nevis to have a picnic lunch and could see that the cloud ceiling was less than 1000 feet and for the 3000 feet above this the runners would be running 'blind'. I agreed that the organizers had made the correct decision. Before I left the car park I noticed some of the hardier fell runners had decided to go up anyway and I was able to watch some of them disappear into the clouds. I didn't hang around to see any of them come back as I had heard there were marshals on the course assessing the weather and they could keep an eye on the brave ones.
Re: Ben Nevis - a travel recollection. by Ken Dunn on 17 February 2013 9:45pm
* Chapter 3 *

The next year I cracked it. I used the same training regime and on the way to Fort William from Helensburgh in my fairly new Cavalier Coupe I ate a couple of Mars bars to stoke up on carbohydrates before the run. It was a fine dry September day. The start was in the same stadium as before and I was carrying an orange in a waistband pouch for survival rations. I didn't carry any water on the race as I would have had a good breakfast before leaving Helensburgh. I did all the check in procedures and ran in a t-shirt. I never liked the bare shoulder singlet as you could lose a lot of heat from the shoulders and they had to work hard on such difficult terrain.

The gun went and I set off with the other 300 or so runners. The same route as before meant running the level bit from the start, jogging the gentle rise on to the steeper bit and walking at a hard push on the very steep bits. I felt good all the way up, even though it was a struggle and the section above 3000 feet was very steep. It was so steep that the 'tourist track' zig zagged 4 or 5 times to ease the gradient. I was only able to short cut one of the zig zags through the rocks and heather and eventually crested onto the top plateau. My body was relieved to be on the flat but I couldn't see the summit as it was a bit misty. Other runners were coming and going so it was easy to get the right direction to move/run/jog. The summit cairn appeared through the mist less than 100 yards ahead and there was a marshal there who gave me a piece of string which I put round my neck for the descent.

Turning round I made my way back across the summit plateau to pick up the 'Tourist track' down. I stuck to the zig zags, protecting my gluteal muscles as best I could. The gluteals are the big muscles at the front of the upper leg - hamstrings (quadriceps?) are at the back. I had experienced severe ache in these muscles after descending another mountain too quickly, I stopped meeting ascenders a while after leaving the top and started feeling tired but I still had my orange. Near the bottom when I felt as though I was going to collapse with exhaustion I stopped and strolled to recover a bit. I ate the orange. After a few minutes I felt better and was able to jog back into the stadium for the finishing lap where the crowd were applauding and cheering the returning runners. This gave me a boost an I was able to do a fast finish - as best you can do a fast finish when you are knackered! At the finishing line I handed over the summit string and the marshal said, 'You look fresh," and I said, 'I've just eaten an orange.'

I was exhausted but after a shower and a cool down I felt able to go into Fort William where there was a free? meal available at McTavish's Kitchens for the finishers. While I was window shopping on my way to McTavish's I saw another man who looked like a runner so I spoke to him about the race. He was Jimmy Hayes, a harrier from Northern Ireland, who had come across for the race. He had done a good time and from what I can remember the leaders finished in about 1 hour 45 minutes and it took me 2 hours 45 minutes.

I still have the certificate somewhere so may update this part of the story later.
Re: Ben Nevis - a travel recollection. by Ken Dunn on 18 February 2013 10:54am
* Chapter 4 *

Two other successful attempts at Ben Nevis were solo and with a girlfriend at the time, Margaret D.

The solo climb was by the 'Tourist route'. I use the Tourist route lightly but there is no easy way up any mountain. You have to plan and assess them all. This route was the one I had always gone by and from previous recollections you will see descriptions of the various parts. This particular day was grey and damp but with no rain. I parked nearer to the mountain than the stadium. The park had some trees near it at that time. Anyway, I topped it and at the top conditions were similar to those I had during the race but not racing I had more time to explore the summit plateau. It was covered in scree and had a cairn and the remnants of an old building. Off the north side of the plateau there was a very steep drop and I have heard of climbers getting into difficulties on this side of the mountain at times. I went to have a look at that side from lower down for myself once and it didn't take me long to decide I would never attempt that side of the mountain solo.
Re: Ben Nevis - a travel recollection. by Ken Dunn on 18 February 2013 6:56pm
* Chapter 5 *

The best ascent I can recall was because it was a beautiful day and although Margaret wasn't a mountaineer she was able to accompany me to the top. We took it easy because it was so warm, and had a good rest at the break point near 3000 feet. I think Margaret was a bit overawed by the size of the mountain as at this point she asked where the summit was and when I pointed to the zig zag path she said something like Hmmph. We got there anyway and from the map I was able to identify many of the surrounding and distant peaks. The time we spent on Ben Nevis that day was about 9 hours.

**** The END ****
Re: Ben Nevis - a travel recollection. by Ken Dunn on 28 April 2017 7:21am
Brought forward.
Re: Ben Nevis - a travel recollection. by johnnyBgood! on 6 September 2017 12:28am
I climbed Ben Nevis twice in one day. I would've done the hat-trick but I had to go do a nightshift at work.

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