aefenglommung (aefenglommung) wrote,

Travelogue and Reflections: The Road to Ben Nevis

On Wednesday morning, May 28, I packed up early and left Dilston, heading for the North Sea coast. My pilgrimage following St. Cuthbert had another step or two. I hit the coast at Bamburgh, once an important stronghold but now a mere backwater. Charming village though. Bamburgh is dominated by its castle, a grand pile sitting on a massive rock, hulking over the coast.

Following St. Cuthbert

Turning south, I came to Seahouses, a small port where you can catch boat tours to the Farne Islands. Cuthbert originally lived on Inner Farne, and a shrine to him remains on the island. The Farnes' only other claim to fame is as a bird sanctuary. I was early to the docks, but a sign in one of the boat sheds informed me there would be no sailing today. The sea was roughed up a bit, and it was threatening rain. I can't say I was too disappointed.

So it was back up the coast to Holy Island. I had consulted a tides table earlier in the morning, so I would know when I could cross the causeway, and I was one of the first to do so, driving across a two-mile stretch of road that is under water for several hours at a time twice a day.

I walked into the village, poked my head into the museum, bought a ticket for the priory. The ruins of the priory are magnificent. What a place this was at its peak! Cuthbert was the prior of Lindisfarne, though I'm sure it wasn't this magnificent back in the days of the Heptarchy. Just off the coast of Holy Island is a spit of land upon which Cuthbert built a retreat for himself, so that even as prior he could have his solitude. The tide had been ebbing for some time by now, but Cuthbert's retreat hadn't yet re-joined the main island. As a pastor, I could sympathize with Cuthbert's desire to hold the needs of others at bay now and then.

I didn't explore Lindisfarne Castle, though I did eat a very fine lunch in the village. I ordered a BLT. English bacon with leaf lettuce and diced tomatoes on a ciabatta roll was a revelation. The John Smith's Extra Smooth I had with that was quite passable, too.

Over the Border

Turning toward Edinburgh, I realized that I had a lot of extra time. So instead of trying to tour the Royal Mile on Thursday, I just drove into the city centre this day. The city of Edinburgh is very old, and the streets are narrow and winding. Like a spider web, you can find your way in, but finding your way out can be difficult, as I was to discover.

But I spent an agreeable hour poking around the Royal Mile. I didn't go to Holyrood, though I walked up to Edinburgh Castle to view the gates. Edinburgh was full of little shops whose main business is selling Scottishness to tourists in need of a heritage transfusion. Not being Scottish myself, I wasn't moved by all the kilt shops and gift stores with names like Wha's Like Us? In St. Giles Cathedral, I noticed that in the Thistle Chapel – home to the Order of the Thistle, Scotland's counterpart to the Order of the Garter – the Roll of Honour included James VII (II) and his daughter, Anne, but NOT William III or Mary II. Hmm . . .

It took me a long and difficult hour to extract myself from the crazy streets of downtown Edinburgh and find my way to Bonaly Scout Camp, but I finally got there about suppertime. The warden was very friendly and helpful, as he was last time we were there. Bonaly has laundry facilities, so I spent an evening doing laundry, which was a very good and needful thing.

The next day was a day of rain. I drove up through Perth and Pitlochry into the Highlands, finally arriving at Glen Nevis, where I set up camp. There is much more to Scotland than most people suppose, at least area-wise. In fact, Haltwhistle, hard by Hadrian's Wall in the far north of England, is the geographic center of the island of Great Britain.

I went into Fort William, intending to take the tour at the Glen Nevis distillery, but the last tour of the day had just gone. Still, the café was open, so I enjoyed a wee dram of 10-year-old Glen Nevis single malt, drinking to success on the morrow. Then I went and bought some fresh pork sausages and a bottle of Hobgoblin, and repaired to my campsite to prepare supper and enjoy the evening.

It was cold and damp, but hey – that's Scotland, you know? As I sat in my car, eating my pork sausages, some Lancashire cheese, and a couple of hard-boiled eggs, I kept "remembering" Zach and Nikki on our previous UK trip – except neither of them were on that trip. How strange. I guess I had just really wanted them to be; or maybe they were just such a part of our Venturing Crew that I saw them as part of us even when they weren't.

As I was preparing to go to bed, the notorious midges of Scotland came out. O, be joyful. Still, they weren't too bad, even as midges go. For someone who's camped alongside the Missouri River, in Yellowstone, and on Isle Royale – who's been driven into his tent at 8:30 because the mosquitoes made it impossible to stay out longer – the midges were just a minor annoyance. My thoughts were more on the challenge of the next day.

Claiming the Big Ben.

I got up early the next morning. Coming back from the bathroom to pack for my hike, I heard my first live cuckoo. I thought somebody had packed an alarm clock. Silly me.

It was very early when I got to the trailhead. I was worried about the low clouds, but they were just starting to lift as I set out, right after 7:30 a.m. I figured the day would brighten as I climbed, but if it didn't, I was prepared for just about anything: wind, rain, sleet, you name it.

The Mountain Track climbs steadily up across the face of a lesser mountain called Meall an t-Suidhe. There is a beautiful lake in the saddle between this mountain and Ben Nevis proper. After crossing this saddle, the serious and very rocky uphill work begins. The trail goes through a long series of steep zig-zags before reaching the plateau at the top. We had gotten about a third or halfway up those zig-zags three years ago, when the sleet and rain finally drove us off the mountain.

About 1200 meters, the clouds no longer lifted as I climbed, and I walked into a shrouded land of rock. Ben Nevis is a huge pile of granite on top of ancient lava. Past a certain height, there's not even much lichen any more, just stones of various sizes. Nothing's happened up on the top of that mountain but freeze and thaw, wind and rain, for millennia.

And then, at the fifth zig-zag, I got myself in trouble. I lost the path, which after all, is just stones amidst other stones. I don't know how I stepped off it, but I now stood amidst indifferently sized rocks that all looked the same. No path was in evidence, but the cornice of a cliff was. I had stepped dangerously near to what they call Five Finger Gully, a steep indentation in the side of the mountain.

I needed to find the path again, but I couldn't just blunder about, trying to find it. With the fog around me, there was no way I could guarantee heading away from Five Finger Gully. I tried climbing up and to my left a bit, to see if the path would be findable again, but No, I was just out there.

I had bought a good map of the mountain the day before at the Visitors' Centre, and because they emphasized how important compass work could be in conditions of bad visibility, I had bought a cheapie compass, just in case. I got them out now, oriented the map, and found that if I went so far (I estimated about 200 or so paces) due North, I should strike the path. So I followed my compass bearing, and at 170 paces, stepped onto the path again.

I have taught map and compass to Boy Scouts since I was a boy myself. I have set up orienteering courses and solved compass problems in the woods, but it was all just for fun. This was the very first time in my life that my personal safety depended upon my being able to properly orient a map, take and follow a bearing, and know the length of my pace. Thanks be to God and John Honeay (my old Scoutmaster) for equipping me to get myself un-lost.

I fell in with a grandfather and grandson team shortly thereafter, and we lapped each other a couple of times as we made our way up the last legs to the plateau. There, the path skirted several areas of snowpack. When I finally got to the peak, visibility was near zero. It was just after noon. I climbed the trig pillar, but there wasn't anything to see. So I returned to a stone corrie someone had built near the start of the plateau and ate my lunch with the grandfather and grandson.

Grandfather's hobby was bagging Munros. Munro was a Scottish geographer who catalogued all the peaks in Scotland over 3,000 feet. There are 284 of these, and people "collect" them by trying to climb as many as they can. I asked him how many he had left to get. About thirty, he replied.

By the time I was back down to 1200 meters or so (Ben Nevis is 1344 meters high), I was below the clouds again. As I went down, I kept stripping off layers. The day turned fine and hot. By the time I was coming down the flanks of Meall an t-Suidhe toward the trailhead, the peak of Ben Nevis was in total sunshine. I had summitted in four and a half hours, and the whole trip up and down was just under eight and a half hours. And I hadn't had to use my rain pants or extra poncho.

Next: Farewell to Scotland.

Click on a pic to enlarge.

Bamburgh Castle Bamburgh Castle
Ruins of Lindisfarne Priory Ruins of Lindisfarne Priory
Holy Island
St. Cuthbert's Retreat St. Cuthbert's Retreat
Tide ebbing
St. Giles Cathedral St. Giles Cathedral
Royal Mile, Edinburgh
Glen Nevis Glen Nevis
Looking back down the Mountain Track to my campsite
Mountain stream Mountain stream
Ben Nevis
Lochan Meall an t-Suidhe Lochan Meall an t-Suidhe
Sizable lake between Meall an t-Suidhe (prominence in distance) and shoulder of Ben Nevis
Trig Pillar Trig Pillar
Summit of Ben Nevis
Ben Nevis in sunshine Ben Nevis in sunshine


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