The Unfit Lassie’s Guide to Climbing Ben Nevis
“The summit of Ben Nevis is only visible for an average of 30 days per year. It’s the cloak of mist that makes it so dangerous – people quite literally walk off the edge”.
Ben Nevis was indeed usually hiding when I bust out my melodramatic tour-guide chat circa. 2010, as we drove through Fort William past the Nevis range.
‘Ye wouldnae catch me up there’, I regularly thought to myself.
I’ve never been naturally inclined towards exercise, and my love of hillwalking and long distance trails was yet to blossom. How things change.
Half a dozen years later, I was registered to climb the bad-boy Ben Nevis for Marie Curie. Yup, I’d be ascending the tallest mountain in the UK, all 4,406ft of it. This would be interesting.
Please believe me when I say that I was one of the least likely people to embark on such a challenge. I love food and travel, and when I travel I eat a LOT. Home or away, I’m always planning my next adventure, and my next meal.
I’m often thinking about my next meal while I’m still eating. You could say it’s a borderline addiction, a favourite hobby.
I can’t relate to people with ‘small appetites’, and I refuse to deprive myself of the culinary pleasures in life. I don’t want to, and I never intend to.
Aside from long walks I don’t have a regular exercise routine, unless talking counts as mild exertion? I do lots of that.
I’m not exactly what you’d call slim – I’d go with ‘cuddly’ – and I’m definitely not fit.
Despite all of the above, I did it. I climbed Ben Nevis, and I really, really enjoyed it.
Oh, and we raised over £8,400 for Marie Curie! WOW.
It wasn’t easy by any means, and I had regular bursts of doubt in the months prior to the climb but if I can climb Ben Nevis, there truly is hope for everyone.
I’m no expert on the outdoors, no mountaineering enthusiast. I don’t have a thigh gap, or any hint of muscle definition. Here’s how I did it.
1. I signed up.
Okay, I know this sounds like a pretty obvious one. Honestly though, having a specific goal and a group of people as mad as me to do it with, was what made me focused and determined from the start.
Climbing Ben Nevis wasn’t just something I would just like the idea of, then procrastinate about indefinitely – it was for charity and it was with my workmates. No way would I jeopardise the success of the fundraising or let the team down.
I may have also roped in four of my closest friends to join the party as an extra incentive to reach the tippy top, and as something we could achieve together.
Once I had officially signed up and included my name on the JustGiving page, there was no going back.
2. I purchased my first pair of walking boots.
I remember throwing a tantrum during my summer season in Canada in 2012 when I finally caved in and bought a pair of Salomon trainers for hiking which set me back over $100. I was yet to appreciate the value in buying good quality clothing for outdoor adventures.
That changed however; they saw me comfortably through all my hikes that summer and are still my best buddies for long walks on easy terrain. Since then, I haven’t embarked on anything hard core enough to merit an investment in walking boots, so was chuffed when Ben Nevis gave me the excuse.
It wasn’t going to be cheap though, was it?
With a spot of online shopping, and a visit to Go Outdoors, I bagged a steal – the last pair of Mammut ‘Women’s T Advanced GORE-TEX Walking Boots’ in the sale for just £80. Happy days!
My luck was short lived though, as I left them on a train back from a trip to the Highlands, never to be seen again. Back to the drawing board.
I had to suffer the expense of a new and more expensive pair, however they’re lighter, comfier and more supportive than their predecessors, so I can’t complain. They’re not the most stylish things known to man, but I absolutely love them.
Check them out. Shop around. Salomon Quest 4D 2 GTX for women.
3. I started walking. A LOT.
The way I see it is that if you want to get to the top of Ben Nevis (weather and health permitting) then you will do it. Your level of fitness and efforts to train beforehand however, will significantly influence how challenging or enjoyable it is.
My training started with some simple steps. Literally.
I went for brisk one mile walks on my lunch break, and walked home from town after work instead of getting the bus. I progressed to taking detours home via the Meadows and Arthur Seat, and going on long (albeit flat) walks at weekends.
My first uphill effort was two hills in the Pentlands, and I nearly keeled over on the first super-steep incline. I returned later in spring to tackle the five hills which was ideal training for Ben Nevis.
UP AND DOWN, UP AND DOWN.
I became an Arthur’s Seat regular, I did a ten mile walk from Pitlochry to Aberfeldy, went hill-walking on the Isle of Eigg, walked from South Queensferry to Cramond, went up Ben A’an (read about it here) and climbed my first Munro – Ben Lomond.
What can I say about Ben Lomond? It was absolutely horrendous!
The weather was 26 degrees that day with no breeze, no cheeky waterfalls to cool-off under, and the midges were like scenes from a biblical plague.
Admittedly it scunnered me, and my enthusiasm towards training rapidly wavered. The countdown to the climb seemed to accelerate during those lazy weeks before the Ben Nevis climb. Time was running out, and so was my motivation.
5. I thought positively.
I gave myself the guilt trip when my training took a nose dive, but this negativity wasn’t helping, and was actually demotivating me even more. I accepted that I’d done well initially, and hadn’t invested enough time and effort in the final run-up.
I knew my friends were feeling the same – we were all wishing we’d done more. I encouraged them with reassurances and positive thoughts;
“We’ll get to the top – there’s no question of that. Even if we’re miles behind the others and it takes us forever, we will get there”.
I was trying to convince myself as much as I was the others.
It’s like walking into a room to sit an exam – there’s no point worrying about what more you could have done. You just do the best you can with what you’ve got.
And that’s exactly what I did.
5. I relaxed the night before.
A wee half day from work was always on the cards the day before the big climb. Myself and two of my besties set off in the afternoon, and casually swanned into Fort William at around tea time.
We dilly-dallied through Morrison’s, pondering over our Ben Nevis snack options and water supply for the next day. Unrushed, we sorted out our things out at the hotel and went into town in search of dinner.
It’s a shame all of our forward planning hadn’t extended to a dinner reservation in Fort William – the outdoor capital of the UK – on a Friday night in August. Everywhere was booked and we ended up in an unassuming and very unimpressive café. Oh well.
I had one alcoholic refreshment and retired to the room to pack.
6. I took only what I needed.
I read so many extensive packing list suggestions for Ben Nevis, and while these were completely sensible and useful items, I’m no mountain babe or seasoned climber. Yes, I could carry a compass, but I wouldn’t know how to use it. (Okay, so I could’ve learned.)
I stuck to the essentials. My Hydro Flask, and a couple of litres of water to replenish it. I didn’t opt for sandwiches – they made me lethargic and bloated on Ben Lomond. I went for pasta from the salad bar in Morrison’s, and lots of little snacks to give me a boost; chicken satay sticks, nut bars, sugary sweets, fruit and Babybell cheeses.
In terms of clothing, I had intended to wear waterproof trousers but opted for H&M exercise leggings instead. Layers are always a good idea, as the temperature can fluctuate considerably, especially when you stop for a wee breather.
I wore a gym top, under a fleece lined jumper. The latter was quickly removed at the start of the climb, and fell off my waist unnoticed. I never saw it again.
The saviour was my Montane Minimus jacket which the kind folks at SportsShoes.com coincidentally sent me at the time I was shopping for a new jacket to replace the one I ruined when I fell of a bike on the Isle of Eigg.
I overheat when I walk, so this jacket was ideal – as light as a feather, completely waterproof, and easily folded into a compact ball no larger than a pair of gloves. I do love the bold green colour too! The jacket now comes all on adventures with me.
So in a nutshell – walking boots, comfortable clothing and layers, a waterproof jacket, food, a flask and water. Simples.
7. I went at my own pace.
Our group of 20 represented all abilities and levels of fitness. The super-crew took off at a consistent brisk stomp, whereas we were somewhere near the back. No biggie.
I didn’t let myself get uncomfortably out of breath or hot, and I paused regularly for wee ‘photo stops’, and to simply appreciate the unbelievable views of lochs, mountains, and glens. The scenic beauty seemed infinite.
I anticipated the moment I’d start to really struggle; the impending tantrum, the argument with myself on whether I could continue on. It didn’t come.
I remembered the words of a personal trainer I’d had years before;
“Your mind will give up before your muscles do”. It was so true.
Thing is, my mind was completely fixed on reaching the summit, and that was that.
8. I kept going.
Not long after the half-way point, we were engulfed in a thick cloak of mist. As a result, the views were now left only to our imagination, and we had no comprehension of the path ahead or now far we were from the summit. Not a bad thing.
Towards the final stretch, which I believe has a sort-of ‘false summit’, the mist was so concentrated, we struggled to localise the next pillar/marker in the sequence which leads to the top.
There wasn’t any grand approach, just a several cries of “you’re just a few minutes away!”.
And then we were there.
The air was cold and wet, and the views were non-existent but WE HAD MADE IT.
AND… my best friend’s teenage sweetheart proposed to her at the trig point!
Aaaaaaaw. Congratulations to Mhairi and Danny. ♥
I had secretly known for months. Just as well we all made it to the top eh?
9. I cursed the whole way down.
Whoever said going down was worse than going up, was absolutely spot on. Once the novelty of reaching the top has worn off, the prospect of a pint, a comfortable seat, and a shower is widely appealing.
I stopped for a wee picnic once the mist instantaneously dissipated, to appreciate the views once more. Then I marched on, verging on a mild jog, completely in the zone, busting out regular obscenities to see me through. More than anything, my knees were aching, I’d had enough.
When we got to the bottom, I was so frazzled I forgot to even have a pint in the Ben Nevis Inn. Instead I necked a coke and a pint of water.
It was over though.
- 4 hours 15 minutes up, 3 hours down.
- £8464 for Marie Curie.
- A future wedding for my best friends.
- A huge achievement for all.
If I can, anyone can.
I wish I could’ve shown my younger self an image of me at the summit of Ben Nevis. The whole experience has made me realise how much I’ve changed in recent years.
Myself and my other half are now keen walkers, and are already planning another charity challenge for next year. My eating habits and overall unfitness have remained unchanged however!
I hope that I can encourage and inspire anyone feeling curious or apprehensive about tackling the climb. If you want to get there, you WILL.
We stayed at the Premier Inn in Fort William for two nights at £90 per night. The hotel was comfortable, next to Morrison’s for supplies and had a convenient bar and restaurant on site.
Massive well done to my friends and workmates who worked so hard to make it happen. The money that we raised will pay for the Marie Curie Hospice in Leith to run on Christmas Day (cost £6100).
Thanks to everyone for your kind donations and support
I was given the Montane Waterproof jacket in exchange for a review. My opinions, as always, are my own – the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.