Mountain climbing in the raw; when biggest is best
THE biggest is not necessarily the best, yet in the case of Ben Nevis it is the best - at least where British mountaineering is concerned. Not only does the mountaineer face the full force of the winter extension of the Arctic winds and precipitation that hammer the Ben's north-east face, but here are the longest and most demanding climbs in the British Isles. In summer the compact volcanic rocks give superb climbs on Carn Dearg Buttress, but it is in winter that the mountain really comes into its own, producing routes of Alpine proportions and stature. The 1,500ft climb up the Orion Face, for instance, is equal in difficulty to many great Alpine north face routes.
In fact, the Ben is on most committed continental climbers' tick-lists, and when they come, they are amazed the routes are as they always were, not fixed with protection devices. It's like climbing the route for the first time, they say - so different to France and climbing on the Continent, where even ice climbs are bolt and chain protected, and fitted for descent. Dumbed-down, made safe, sanitised, predictable - not on the Ben, nor in the rest of high-mountain Britain. Here on the Ben, huge debates ensue at even building cairns, or way-marking with poles, reducing the mountain to man's frailties rather than encouraging a visitor to rise up to the full challenge.
The Ben is respected, as befits the highest mountain in the British Isles at 4,406ft - and this is how it should be measured; 1,344 metres does not impress nor remind that there are only three other main peaks in Britain over 4,000ft, all in Scotland and visible from the summit of Ben Nevis.
It is worth the effort to walk up any route to achieve the summit of Ben Nevis in the hope of being there on a clear evening, looking east to the massive rolling domes of the Cairngorms, home to the other 4,000ft peaks, or west as the sun goes down over the distant black outline of the Cuillins - and everywhere, range after range, evoking expansive feelings of never-endingness.
The list of climbers making first ascents of routes up the Ben reads like a who's who of British climbing. So many with Scottish winter climbing experience, inured to cold, spindrift, climbing steep ice, have gone on to greater ranges - Raeburn, MacInnes, Patey, Smith, Haston, to name but a few of thousands of British Alpinists who went to the limit of their endurance on the Ben, indirectly gaining the confidence to climb longer, more remote routes elsewhere. Not that climbers would be thinking, at the time, "This is a good apprenticeship for Everest" - not when totally focused on making that next move on vertical ice collapsing around them, blinded by spindrift, looking anxiously for some way to protect life and limb from a ground fall or from a build-up of snow about to slough down and pluck them from their gully. At such times, they transcend themselves, lost in great nature, like that other great Scottish export John Muir, climbing to the top of pines in the High Sierra, clinging to the tree tops like a bobolink, especially during storms, as he said, to taste all that nature has to offer by being part of it.
Many non-climbers dip into climbing literature and attend climbing lectures because all this has a familiar taste - it's in our blood to face up to all the uncertainties of the physical world, to be exploratory, resourceful and imaginative, as our ancestors were for millions of years, pushing out over the planet. We climbers drive home from a weekend on the Ben aching all over, but glowing happily enough to see us through that next week at work, returning inwardly calm, renewed from having reconnected with great nature.
The Ben at first may seem to be a risky place that threatens life (and does; many have perished there) but ultimately it is a place necessary for the survival of all of us. Only through reconnecting with our natural environment can we know ourselves, coming to greater awareness of all and everything.
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Weather for Edinburgh
Thursday 23 May 2013
Temperature: 5 C to 10 C
Wind Speed: 24 mph
Wind direction: North
Temperature: 5 C to 13 C
Wind Speed: 16 mph
Wind direction: North east