Ben Nevis Challenge for Ulster Cancer Foundation

Gerard on the descent from Ben Nevis

It’s hard to believe that exactly one week ago I was preparing to climb Ben Nevis. In the spring, a friend approached me to see if I’d be interested in doing a charity hike up the mountain. And, since I was beginning to take my fitness more seriously, I agreed.

So, last Friday (16th September), we arrived at the ferry terminal in Belfast and took a busy morning ferry across to Stranraer. And then a five-hour drive through the most picturesque Scottish countryside. On reflection, I think those epic bus journeys in both directions were more of a test of endurance than climbing the damned mountain!

In an ideal world, we would have had a clear morning for the climb. Sadly not. We woke up to a steady drizzle which kept going most of the morning.

Ah, well…

The group were bussed to the starting point, down by a little cafe at the foot of the mountain. According to general consensus, the hike officially began at 8:15am. The first half an hour was tough going – not because the foot of Ben Nevis is quite steep (although it is) – but because most of the group were proceeding at a slow shuffle. It didn’t take long before the group started to break up into the speed walkers and the more cautious hikers.

A small group of six of us ended up well in front, and with the blessing of the hike leader, we were allowed to fire ahead. And fire ahead we did. Even that little group broke up as we hit the rockier terrain toward the top. I found myself wandering alone, shrouded in mist and soaking wet with a tasty combination of sweat and rain. But those little moments of solitude are precious. You stop for a moment and exchange pleasantries with your fellow mountain warriors and then head on into the mist again.

I hit the top of Ben Nevis at roughly 10:50, just over three hours on the ascent. The second of our group to reach the top was Gillian, a runner who’d been about five minutes behind me. My friend John followed, along with another member of the group called Orla. We were miles ahead of the other walkers, which presented a problem: hang around for the group photo or start the long walk to the bottom of the mountain again?

Here’s a quick shot of the group at the top of Ben Nevis:

Ben Nevis group shot

Well, the weather conditions quickly answered that question. Standing still after such an exhilerating walk, we all quickly felt the chills setting in. We tucked into our packed lunches as fingers started to freeze and numb. In the end, it just wasn’t practical to stay at the top.

Pseudo Fell Running

Discovering that Gillian (in the dark jacket) was a runner, we discussed the practicality of running down the mountain! That’s honestly where the real fun began.

Once we’d progressed beyond the loose rock path at the top of Ben Nevis, we started a light jog down the mountain. The pace picked up as the terrain levelled off, and we bounced down rocky steps and over gulleys, whizzing past incredulous walkers who were too busy struggling with the uphill to comprehend having the energy to run downhill!

The feeling of running on a mountain is indescribable. I can’t even begin to tell you how exhilerating it is. Suffice to say, the run remains the most memorable part of the Ben Nevis climb for me. We hit the waterfall that marks the midway point on the mountain, and hastily decided to throw off our waterproof gear to lighten the load. It was a great move – moving was easier, and the running top I was wearing underneath allowed the sweat and moisture to dry off pretty quickly.

The running stopped at the rocky path toward the bottom of the mountain, approaching the foot. We found the steps there too slippery to run on safely, so that part served as a cool down. The picture at the top of this post is us taking a breather near the bottom.

Epilogue

As a neat little epilogue, Gillian and I hit the bottom first and briefly contemplated jogging back to the hotel. However, we scored some free tea at the little cafe, which was really welcome! We sat sipping hot tea and eating the remainder of our packed lunch until John  caught up with us. The bus arrived shortly afterward and we ended up back at the hotel well before the other walkers had even reached the bottom!

In retrospect, part of me wishes I’d taken it slightly slower and drank in the scenery. On the other hand, running down a mountain counts as one of the most thrilling experiences of my life. Especially the biggest mountain in the UK!

What’s startling is that is doesn’t feel like that big an achievement. I’m serious. I recovered fairly quickly afterward and found myself wanting to do the hike again…only faster. There’s a Four Peaks challenge that looks appealing – it’s a simultaneous hike up the four highest mountains in the UK – England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Wouldn’t that be awesome fun?

In total, we raised over £4,000. The funny thing is, I feel like we raised money and then someone gave me the free gift of a weekend of doing something I love. I suppose it’s a win-win situation! But if I were to do it again, I’d definitely want to raise the stakes…

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