Ben Nevis – 4,409 ft*
Eric and Matthew Gilbertson
Date: May 11, 2013 (Eric), August 23, 2015 (Matthew)
“So, Nadine, has someone ever come to meet you at the airport lifting up a sign with your name on it?”, John asked me while we were sitting in the train shuttle that connects Glasgow’s airports. We had just landed in a tiny town named Prestwick and made it to Glasgow main airport, west of the city. “Jep, Chicago last year”, I responded. It was a convenient 40-ish min ride and we were about to meet up with Eric + wanted to get the rental car. “How about yourself?” – “Noooo, not yet …”, John said and he sounded pretty eager for that (apparently) worthwhile experience. Yeah, we should make it a fun welcome for Eric in Scotland, we both agreed. So, in a sudden burst of creative eagerness we crafted the boarding pass into an “Eric Gilbertson + smiley” name tag (more or less beautiful …, but at least unique) just to make 100% sure Eric would recognize us straightaway. Better be redundant, right? – It’s still vacation with a German ! Just because of that badge, of course, our trip kept going smoothly. After we had found the correct counter (Europcar), we routinely dealt with the paperwork + registered a second driver as if we hadn’t done anything else in our lives so far. Yay, we were well trained by then and more importantly: ready for off and away into the clouds of Scotland!
What’s the plan, you may ask? First: Good news – we’ll have more than 19 hrs in the country!!! So, we wanted to drive north towards Fort William for 2hrs, start hiking Ben Nevis through Glen Nevis valley right upon arriving at the trailhead and searching for a hammock-suitable spot to sleep after that.
We passed some National park along narrowly shaped “Lochs” (that’s the collective & historic-scottish term for stagnant bodies of water, both limnic and maritime (such as fjords). It’s confusing to a German since that exact same word means “hole” in german language – mh, kind of fits, though). It was Eric who first re-adjusted to left-driving again and I was happy to take a nap for some time on the back seat. Once we were in the car, I had recognized how I lacked to sleep and thankfully + instantly hit the “backpack pillow”.
Before long, we stopped at a restaurant. I don’t remember what its name was, but John and Eric had found it pretty entertaining. For some reason, they talked & made fun of sth. called “haggis” all the time. I started wondering what type of food that must be. Have you ever heard of it? They explained to me, it was some traditional Scottish national dish made from visceral. In Wikipedia language it is “a savoury pudding containing sheep’s pluck (heart, liver and lungs);minced with onion, oatmeal, suet, spices, and salt, mixed with stock, and traditionally encased in the animal’s stomach and simmered for approximately three hours.” Urrrrgh – if I imagine a roasted cockroach dipped in thai fish sauce and spiced with grounded poisonous, life-threatening plants – that still sounds way more appealing in comparison. Yet, we cannot judge, since we didn’t taste it and many people I talked to said it’s worth the try (probably, it’s a much better strategy the other way round: taste haggis before you know about its ingredients!). Culinaric borderlands – even within Europe! But one thing was becoming more and more evident: haggis was about to settle the race for the running (food) gag of the weekend!
After our pit stop, we kept going into the Highlands and in the meanwhile took a look into Eric’s bible, …. errrrr, the country highpoint book, I mean . We learned that on the summit of Ben Nevis it is either rainy, misty or/and covered in clouds for minimum 300 days in a year! Whew, … that doesn’t even mean it’s sunny the remaining 65, we resumed disappointedly! Also the book warned about sudden changes in weather and whiteouts to occur. A European brother of Mt. Washington, perhaps? Mh, as you probably can imagine: we didn’t have high expectations on an awesome summit experience by then!
Guess, it was around 4 PM or 4:30 PM when we started from the parking lot. We didn’t see the top from the bottom since it was …. what a surprise: hidden in the clouds! In Ireland that previous day we’d met just one other person who wasn’t hiking, but seemed to live at the trailhead. Ben Nevis, however seemed to be a tourist(y) attraction. There were crowds of people going up and down and some even starting later than we did. Thus, the trail was well maintained. We greeted some sheep along the way and I wondered while walking what they might think about all the hikers making their way up supposedly every day. Must be sth. like: “Those two-legged humans are weird. They are just walking by, not even noticing or tasting those super delicious meadows, but getting into the fog instead”. John however tried to connect and apply all his knowledge of sheep language – but it must have been a different accent up there – at least they didn’t join in the conversation for some reason – or it might be he’d told them details of haggis preparation?! Who knows?! We passed the meadows that soon turned into bleak landscapes (although there’s so much rain???) and went by another loch.
John somehow had decided to being hardcore by hiking in a T-Shirt. Since we had started quite late in the day, many people already were descending and walking towards us, most of them stared at him with some kind of disbelief-/shocked expression on their faces. One guy even said: “Oh my god, I’m freezing cold by just looking at you!” No wonder, the weather was pretty Scottish: cold with occasional strong winds, foggy humid air and even snow on the ground further up the trail. We got higher and experienced how it’s hard to orientate when the visibility worsened. Still surrounded by dense fog we arrived at the summit, together with other groups. The wind was strong but we wanted to stay for a bit for pictures and to enjoy, we had made it up there.
After a while, John finally decided he needed to layer up! Good idea, I thought. But as it seems, there are different interpretations of what that actually means. So, in John’s definition that is: get out super thin gloves and keep up with happy taking pictures session! On our decent later on, he wasn’t at a loss for an answer, but explained his personal theory to us. It was when he was a kid that he once experienced such cold temperatures that all his thermal receptors must have died as a consequence … he believes . Jep, that’s the John world, … you never really know where reality ends and fiction starts .
Since I still had working thermal receptors (who spoke a clear language to me in that moment), I changed into a fleece jacket behind at a wind-sheltered spot. Suddenly a common: “WOW!!!” – “Sooooo Cool!!!” – “That’s amazing!!!” caught my attention. Oha, … what was going on over there? What was about to happen was just so cool, that I’ll try to explain it – although words aren’t enough to express it ….! It was a window in the clouds that shortly opened and revealed a spectacular view. The deep sun shone down into the valley, hit the meandering river and the water got reflected, almost looked like gold. The colors were super intense this time of the day, just like in fall. And everything seemed a little unreal when sun beams came from that angle. It was pretty overwhelming to me, since by then we had no idea what was below of where we were. Scotland knew how to surprise! That’s for sure.
With such a cool summit experience, we hadn’t expected at all, we started climbing down feeling like it couldn’t get any better. And then, all of a sudden it happened again and again. Without a warning the view into the valley burst out. You really wanted to change into some sort of a rotating style of hiking to not miss out any of these events! Ha, you could say, sometimes those clouds looked as if so. had just lifted up a curtain – like an invitation to lean back and enjoy the show. It’s the wind to sing today and the sun to perform. The opera with no need for subtitles – universal to understand! What it’s all about, you may ask …. Mhhhh … it probably all comes down to your imagination & creativity of interpretation . However, you’ll surely get sth. out of it. That’s because the author made sure to integrate the good-mood-after-effect to the storyline. Ha, seemed to me as if we all were a little hiking-tranced (certainly I was ).
But back down at the parking, we immediately transformed into reality because some guy mentioned a chinese buffet in town. I knew those two words have their own magic for John and Eric and probably range high up on the priority list of happiness (somewhere in the top #3, I’d say)! And within short, it brought a glowing into their eyes and as a consequence we developed an impressive + unexpected speed in getting into Fort William. We found the spot, but unfortunately it was closed already. But we were lucky enough to find one last place where they served warm food.
I think it was around midnight, when we happily arrived at the campground to set up the hammocks. While being in the US last year, I had (thanks to John) quickly made friends with hammocks and absolutely was looking forward to the hammock-style of sleeping outside.
As I was twisting and turning into super comfortable hammock sleeping position, the whole day passed by one more time through my mind’s eye. It was silent around. A chilly breeze soughed through the trees and it sounded as if the leaves where whispering. Ben Nevis appeared silent and peaceful in the dark. I felt that deep feeling of contentment – Calm – And floating. That’s when you know, most certainly: it had been a real good day! Sometimes, when you’re experiencing something as beautiful as we did that day, it gets you thinking. How lucky we are! Suddenly, it seems unreal …, that whole weekend. I imagined how my grandparents had lived in a war when they were my age. No way, they could have even dreamed of travelling the way I do today. Must have been how we think about mars missions nowadays. Probably possible, but is it ever going to happen …. as long as we’re living? I could hear how it started drizzling above my head. Just slightly. But there was enough shelter from the tree. And I thought of my parents: they were born and raised in former eastern Germany with pretty limited chances to leave their country for almost half the time of their lives! Some rain drops trickled through the trees on my cheek. Come on Scotland! I quickly slipped into the bivy bag, hoping it wouldn’t last for too long. I felt comfortably warm and my thoughts drifted back. So now it’s me, somehow being the lucky one so far. We (all of us lucky ones) simply fly into random-country of our choice, for just the weekend sometimes to meet our friends we’ve made all around the globe! It’s a privilege! And we should always be aware of that! Guess, it’s what you do on the one side, but how you value it on the other – what makes the quality of life! Good thought to fall asleep with, I felt. And the drizzling had died down in the meantime.
See Gallery for pictures: http://mitoc.mit.edu/gallery/main.php?g2_itemId=362324
*Ben Nevis is only the highpoint of the mainland of the United Kingdom. The highest point on any land owned by the UK is Mt Paget (9,626ft) on South Georgia Island. However, South Georgia Island is also claimed by Argentina, so this highpoint is somewhat in dispute.