Ben Nevis

Finally I come over a slight rise and there it is ahead of me. A wee aluminium bridge, spanning a small ravine which cuts the path in two. The landmark I’ve been aiming for for the last, I don’t know, about an hour now. It’s been the target in my head, the first rung on a mental ladder which stretches ahead of me to the summit of this infernal hill.

To tell you the truth I’m having difficulty in remembering suitable milestones with which to punctuate this walk. My ladder is woefully short of rungs, the voids in between, stretching ahead into tedium.

ImageIt’s not that I haven’t been this way often enough before. In fact I couldn’t even begin to count how many times I’ve trudged up here, sweating and cursing under a heavy rucksack, bound for another great adventure on the North Face. Or, traveling light, trotted up to the summit on a summer’s evening to catch the last rays of sun before strolling back down in the never ending twilight. Or stumbled down, in the depths of winter, skiteing over icy rocks in the dim light of a fading headtorch.

These are all memories that serve me well in quieter moments. But when it comes to recalling the topography of the route ahead of me, they let me down. I never paid much attention. Never had much of a thought for the boring old tourist path up The Ben.

Now however, my sights have changed. Since my world was so rudely turned on its head, a year past last January, everything in my life has taken on an altered significance: The mundane has become a challenge. The tedious has become new and exciting. Easy has become difficult and difficult has become impossible (almost). And the tourist track up Ben Nevis has become an aspiration.

So here I am an hour into the walk and already I’m feeling it. My thighs are aching, my knees are twinging and my stumps are beginning to feel the strain. God, it used to be so easy for me, this kind of stuff. I would happily trot up and down hills like this all day and think nothing of it. I can’t believe that it’s come to this – picking my way slowly uphill step by step, almost grinding to a halt whenever the ground gets at all rocky or steep, stepping aside to let old ladies and French schoolkids overtake me. And to cap it all I’ve got about a dozen journalists and photographers buzzing round me like flies, not to mention at least three film crews bugging me constantly. And it’s going to rain.

I pause, to catch my breath – and to get my head together: This attitude doesn’t work. I’ve been down that road in those grim first days after the accident, turning the whole horrific situation over and over endlessly in my head until I just wanted to scream, “Stop!” and for it to all be over, or a dream, or anything but this. But I soon realized that this wasn’t going to help, that self pity leads only to despair, and that if I was going to get myself back on my feet (so to speak), I was going to have to adopt a more positive attitude.

Well my positive attitude worked for me then and it’s going to work for me now, so let’s rewind back to the beginning of the day and enjoy this trip with a lighter heart:
I should explain the background behind the walk. Six months previously, I had been approached by a leg amputee called Ali Brown who explained that he was involved in an RAF Mountain Rescue Association charity relay walk from Land’s End to John O’Groats, taking in a whole host of hills on the way. Ali was organizing a subsidiary event to encourage disabled people to get out onto the hills, and asked if I would join him on Ben Nevis in June. At this stage of my re-habilitation I could barely walk up the street, let alone up a mountain, but on a whim I said yes anyway.

I pretty much put the whole thing to the back of my mind but as June approached and I was getting fitter and fitter, it began to look like a feasible challenge.

So I put out an e-mail asking for sponsorship, which got forwarded and forwarded again, until I was receiving floods of replies, from all over the world, offering sponsorship and encouragement. The size and warmth of the response I received was quite overwhelming, and I thought, well I’m committed now.

ImageIt wasn’t long before the press found out. I really had no idea how much fuss they would make of the whole thing. The week before the event my phones at home and at work were red hot with eager journalists looking for a slice of the action. Seeing as the whole event was for charity I agreed to do one or two interviews for both newspaper and television. This only served to fan the flames of media frenzy. Come Friday I was so fed up with endless requests for interviews and photocalls that I just said to all of them, “Look, I’ll be there at 9.00 am on Sunday. You can come if you want.”

The phones went quiet for a while. Then they began to ring again: “What do we need to bring?”, “Where do I get a map?”, “Is there a cable-car up Ben Nevis?” Oh Dear God!

I’d arranged to meet everyone at the Nevis Bank Hotel at 9.00am, although I’d no idea who ‘everyone’ might be.

My Dad, my fiancée Anna, and I had driven up from Glasgow through an unpromising dawn, whilst nervous tension gnawed at my gut like a rat. By the time we drove through a drizzly grey Fort William and pulled into the car park of the Nevis Bank I was simply dreading the whole thing.

And there they all were. Television crews, satellite broadcast vans, photographers, the works. Suddenly I felt how it must feel to be a pop star or famous football player. I was quickly ushered from camera to camera, doing several interviews in the space of a few minutes, one of which I was horrified to learn was being broadcast live. The people from the charity, Across, where there with their Jumbulance, so there were photos with them. Between interviews a bacon roll was shoved into my hand. The RAF were out in full force and I was soon taken under their wing and bustled up the road to the start of the walk at Achintee, where another host was waiting.

It seemed to take ages to get through the press cordon but eventually, after several more interviews, we were off, the lads of the RAF MRA setting the pace. Following on were a crowd of journalists, cameramen, sound people, presenters, photographers, charity workers, boy scouts, friends and family. Experienced hill-walkers and newcomers alike, some on a mission of work, some along to give me support, some along for the crack, some on the call of duty. All of God’s creation labouring up this great pile of rubble. And me hobbling along in the midst of it all, wondering what on earth it all means.

The weather was still looking doubtful and a smur of rain began to fall as the clouds hung heavily over the summit plateau. As we gained altitude, however, things began to improve. The rain stopped, the sun started to make an occasional appearance, and the clouds lifted to about summit level. The photographers and cameramen puffing alongside me flurried into activity, jostling for position. I found myself constantly being asked to wait for the crowds to pass and pause for photos at choice vantage points. My patience began to wear thin.

Fortunately my support team provided entertainment and conversation to divert my mind along the way. Anna, never far from my side; Alan and my Dad, old men of the mountains with many a tale to tell; my sister Louise and Neil on a rare trip into the hills; Lorraine from the McofS office, expounding enthusiastically about disabled access; and Mad Geoff, a breath of sanity, waiting at every other bend in the track with refreshments and philosophical thoughts.

ImageWith support like this and views like I hadn’t seen in a long time, the climb didn’t seem so wearisome after all and five and a half hours after setting out, I arrived on the familiar summit plateau, partially covered by lingering snow. Clouds boiling out of the icy cauldron of the North Face re-vaporised as they blew over the warmer summit air and helicopters, courtesy of the RAF and the BBC flew spectacularly overhead. A huge crowd rose to cheer my arrival, champagne corks popped, and of course, as laptops and mobile phones came out, another deluge of interviews began…

… A few weeks later, accompanied by Anna and a couple of friends, we did the round of Cairn an Tuirc and Carn na Claise from Glenshee. Skylarks sang in the sunny sky and we took our time as we wandered through the heather, gazing northward towards the Cairngorms, eastwards over the Mounth to Lochnagar and westwards into the wild lands beyond An Socach. At one point we spotted some other walkers, in the distance, enjoying their day. Ben Nevis was fun, a once in a lifetime experience, but this is what I’ve missed. This is the freedom which I’ve had taken from me and have had to fight so hard to enjoy once more.

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