Miles Butcher on climbing Ben Nevis with guide dog Bilbo

Miles Butcher reached the top of Ben Nevis, Britain's highest summit, with his guide dog. Picture: Malcolm Thomson
Miles Butcher reached the top of Ben Nevis, Britain's highest summit, with his guide dog. Picture: Malcolm Thomson
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MILES BUTCHER’S perspective from the top of Ben Nevis is quite different from just about any other climber to have scaled Britain’s tallest mountain.

Like everyone else he breathed the clean air, and felt the bracing wind and a sense of achievement at having conquered the 1,344m (4,409ft) summit – but could not see the glorious, enchanting view from its peak. But for Butcher, who has been blind since he was 15, it was still a high in a million – a man-and-his-dog adventure that paid off after endless determination. Holding on to the rucksacks of fellow climbers, including son-in-law Malcolm, and with the aid of his faithful guide dog Bilbo the labrador, he successfully reached the summit two weeks ago.

He is one of just a handful of people to have completed the challenge with their guide dog, following in the footsteps of Scott Cunningham MBE from Larkhall, whose guide dog Travis was the first to climb Ben Nevis in August 2011.

“Wind, snow and ice, boulders I couldn’t see, every damn rock, it didn’t matter, I would have crawled to the top if I’d had to,” says Butcher, a 65-year-old music teacher who lives in Kirkcaldy.

Miles had earlier attempted the ascent with his wife, daughter and son-in-law in March last year, but turned back after they suffered sunstroke in unseasonably hot weather. He became all the more determined to complete the challenge he had set himself after the earlier failure.

Originally from New Zealand, Miles, known as “Hoge” to his friends, after the jazz musician Hoagy Carmichael, only became interested in climbing when he moved from Orkney to Fife eight years ago. He has been blind since developing chronic glaucoma at the age of 15.

Befriending a group of neighbours with a passion for scaling Scotland’s most challenging peaks, he soon found his weekends devoted to bagging Munros.

“We actually got too confident after a while and myself, my wife Mo, daughter Freya, and son-in-law had tried to scale our way up Nevis. Needless to say we were ill-prepared and ended up with sunstroke”, he says. “We only managed half way before turning back and since then I had been itching to return.

“My friends have been climbing since they were teenagers and some have completed all of the Munros. They invited me to join them and I’ve been hooked since then. Every Thursday we meet and plan our next climb. We decided if we were going to attempt it again we would raise money for Guide Dogs for the Blind Association. I had never had a guide dog until two years ago, when I was given Bilbo, and since then he has made a huge difference.”

Miles uses several measures to ensure he keeps his footing on the steep ascent. This includes carrying two poles: one to search for obstacles, and he and a partner hold either end of the other to guide him through the flatter sections.

For steeper areas, with jagged rocks and boulders in his path, Miles holds on to the rucksack of a partner and tries to take the same steps. It is not a flawless system. “We drove to the car park, got kitted up in boots, gaiters and waterproofs and I fell over after four feet,” he laughs.

“That was on a flat surface and I suspect my colleagues were slightly nervous at that point, but soon we were on our way.

“During the climb I hold on to the man in front, but he can’t show you every rock and my foot did get hooked a few times. The aim is to follow in his steps.”

Despite being unable to see the actual route, Miles is able to visualise each section of Nevis which his party and Bilbo took.

Among the greatest challenges, was encountering boulders on the first half of the climb.

“We progressed for an hour and a half over boulders and rocks and it was hard work. Sighted people can step on the top of two boulders but I kept sliding down the crack in between. However, I had done a lot of exercise to make my ankles very strong and it paid off.

“There were other challenges as well, leaping over runnels, gouges in the paths, which can be difficult to judge when you can’t see where you’re going. We hit snow at 40 minutes from the top – one metre deep. It was two feet forward and one foot back through this section of the climb and it was a test.”

Miles says that there were sections of the route on which he had an advantage against his sighted – and, in some cases, vertigo-suffering – colleagues. “Once you are on the summit there are – I’m told – several edges with a sheer 1,000-1,500ft drop. It’s times like this there might be an advantage to not being able to see that drop”, he laughs.

Miles said that the sense of achievement, and his positioning 4,400ft up, was as satisfying as the sought-after view across Lochaber and the Highlands.

“It was beautiful sunshine on top, and I had this sensation of being in a huge open space. The wind is coming right over you and Bilbo was wagging his tail and running around. I also had the good sense to bring a flask of single malt along.”

Malcolm Thomson, 37, a commercial diver, and Miles’ son-in-law, who guided him through much of the climb, said the group managed the ascent in an ambitious time.

“He has a good routine and after an hour and a half the boulders came to an end. We also got up in just under four hours, which is ahead of the four and a half hour guide.”

He added that his father-in-law sensed many of the obstacles in his path.

“He needed remarkably little instruction or detail. And if you try describe every step in detail it would be impossible, and he naturally found his way on much of the route.”

The descent, Miles says, required less technique and expertise, but was in many ways more difficult: “If you think that it’s quite difficult to fall up something, but much easier to fall down, so the return journey was tricky in parts. For a blind person it’s challenging to find your footing.

“Despite that though we were down in a good time. The descent was actually interrupted with all of my friends ringing me on my mobile. My fellow climbers had to hurry me along in case we missed the promise of a nice beer at the base.”

Miles and his friends are aiming raise at least £1,000 for Guide Dogs for the Blind Association and say they intend to return to Munro-bagging as soon as they can.

“Bilbo got an easy ride on this trip, but he’s changed my life and that’s why we want to give something back. Besides, now we have conquered Nevis, we should be able to handle anything.”