On the Zig Zags

UK Three Peaks (2005): Ben Nevis

Friday 15 July

10:30  Amazingly, we set off only half an hour late, which we put down to our strategy of telling Rik an earlier time than the rest of us.  We all assembled in Wembley, because there was a tube station, but also because that was where we were picking the minibus, that would be our base camp for the next 3 days, up.  I felt very self-conscious on the way as it was rush hour and you don’t see many overloaded skinhead hikers crossing London at that time.  Skinhead ?  Yes, having received pledges of more than £1,000 I now had to shave my head, and although I could have done this after the challenge, on the spur of the moment I did it last night.  Hey, at least it helped get me in the mood.  Although, having seen the typical temperatures in Scotland, and knowing that it falls one degree for every 150m height gain, I suspect I’m going to be cold.

My severe haircut
My severe haircut

12:30  Lunch stop.  The first of a number of motorway service stations that we’re going to see this weekend, and I’m still getting looks.  Maybe it’s because I look like I’ve been on chemotherapy.  Spirits have been reasonably high in the minibus as we still have the whole adventure ahead of us.

15:15  We had our first navigational dispute.  Nothing much as we’re on the M6, just as we need to be.  But no-one can agree on how far we are from Scotland, as it feels like we should be near.  It later turns out that we’re still south of Lancaster.

16:15  First glimpse of real hills with the northern Pennines on the right and the remnants of the Lake District on the left.  A few team members start kacking themselves as they realise how much bigger the ones we’re going to climb are.  At this stage, someone tells us all to look out for the bagpiper that is permanently stationed on the border.

17:10  Scotland.  There’s no sign of the piper, and we spend ten minutes discussing why not.

18:30  We arrive in Glasgow and check into the Novotel, where we’re spending the night before finishing the rest of the journey up to Fort William in the morning.  using our experience from earlier, we tell Rik to meet us in the bar at 7pm (everyone else 7:15pm).  That way we may actually head out together without too much waiting around.

19:20 We head off to explore central Glasgow.  A mere 5 minutes late.  Soon after we encounter a dangerous looking hen party.

21:45  The same hen party are spied tearing through town in the back of a fire engine.

21:45  I and two others opt for the sensible option of an early night and head back to the hotel.

22:30 Bed.

Saturday 16 July

07:30  My alarm goes off.  Rather pointlessly as I’ve been awake since 5:15.

08:30  At breakfast and it’s a no show from Jeff, Dave and Rik (surprise surprise) due to a 3am drinking session.

09:15  Just before we set off, we have a last minute dash to a gear shop.

10:08  Off at last.

11:45  We’re driving through Glencoe with such stunning scenery on either side that I don’t know which way to look.  Made quite surreal with Rolf Harris’ “Two Little Boys” playing on the radio.  Thin wisps of mist swirl around the minibus, getting thicker the further we go.

13:00  We arrive in Fort William and it’s cold, very cold.  Especially for my head.  We’re all very worried.  We take our minds off it with lunch in a bar and then we have an emergency trip to Nevissport for fleeces, hats and gloves.  To be honest we still feel cold afterwards.

15:05  We check in at the car park in Glen Nevis where the challenge is being run from.  We gawp at the mountains around us, and at the seemingly much better prepared teams, have final toilet trips and head over to the organisers for the mandatory briefings.

Glen Nevis
Glen Nevis

16:35  We’re off!  Because we were the second to last team to sign-up for the event, we start second to last too.  And at this stage we don’t realise what a disadvantage this is.  There was a frantic last minute rush to have start line photos taken by the charity’s staff using unfamiliar cameras, and also without stopping our start countdown, then we’re off, crossing the bridge over the River Nevis and onto the tourist path that cuts up the side of Meall an t-Suidhe.

Crossing the River Nevis
Crossing the River Nevis
Starting strongly
Starting strongly

We start strongly, overtaking the team immediately ahead of us.  Maybe it’s too strong a start in hindsight as we can’t keep it up.  But we’ve seen a number of other teams heading off even faster.

Climbing up from Glen Nevis
Climbing up from Glen Nevis

We slog our way up Meall an t-Suidhe and with a low cloud base at around 600m, when we arrive on the flatter area near Lochan Meall an t-Suidhe, we can barely see it.

Lochan Meall an t-Suidhe
Lochan Meall an t-Suidhe

But we have no trouble finding the path that takes us to the Zig Zags and by now we’ve fallen into a familiar order – me bringing up the rear, with Rik right in front of me, and the others a little further ahead.  In fact, I can’t see them all, the mist is so dense.

On the Zig Zags
On the Zig Zags

20:15  Somehow the upwards slog ended and we made it to the summit plateau and the summit itself.  It’s been a long, tortuous climb up through the clouds and I’m going to have to take it on trust that this is the summit, as I can see very little outside a radius of 20m or so.  Of course, glasses covered in vapour doesn’t help.  We stay at the summit for around 15 minutes for photos and a snack, and to savour being at the top of the UK.

At the summit of Ben Nevis
At the summit of Ben Nevis

20:45  We’re back on the Zig Zags and making slightly better progress in descent, but this is still the worst bit of the walk.  With the poor visibility we had to be careful crossing the summit plateau, and were given some directional advice by a marshall at the summit.

Crossing the summit plateau in poor visibility
Crossing the summit plateau in poor visibility

22:05  It’s taking ages to descend.  Rik is having trouble with his knees and keeps needing to stop and rest. It’s now getting dark and we can see the lights in Glen Nevis below.  We’re slightly anxious about what time and how dark it will be when we get back to the van.

Getting dark
Getting dark

23:07  Finally, we arrive back at the bottom.  Ben Nevis has taken an hour more than the target time, so we’re already seriously behind schedule.  But at least Alan and Dave, our drivers/support team have hot soup and pasta waiting which we then consume in a cloud of midges.

23:40 We set-off for Cumbria, knowing we need to be at the services on the M6 by 4am if we are to be allowed to continue.  We make good progress, largely due to Dave’s fearless driving style, and it helps that an accident that delayed all the other teams is largely cleared by the time we pass.  With the minibus tearing along the single carriageway roads, sleep is difficult and morale is low as it already feels like we’ve failed.

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