High on Ben Nevis, tantalisingly close to the summit in the middle of the night, we had to make a painful decision. But now I’m here to tell the tale and live to climb another day.
We sat silent in the fast disappearing darkness as the dawn spread over the world thousands of feet below us. It had been a logical place for a rest. The start of the Zig zags on the ascent towards the summit ridge of Ben Nevis along the Mountain Path. Despite the sub zero temperatures of the pre dawn high on the mountain we were comfortable enough in our winter clothing. But still, too much was wrong and we had to make the call and start our descent. For sure Ben Nevis would still be there. By descending now we were giving ourselves the best chance of coming back to try again another day. A moment of pain and regret as we glanced up at the summit ridge now tantalizingly close in the morning sky and then we started back down towards the Red Burn and the plateau she cuts through.
Both my brother and I are relatively experienced in the mountains. Looking ahead towards an attempt I would be making on Kilimanjaro later in the year, our aim was to complete an overnight ascent of Ben Nevis in preparation for the summit bid on Kilimanjaro. What we ended up practicing was some endurance techniques and knowing when the best thing to do is turn back. The latter may sound simple but it’s arguably the most vital skill any mountaineer has to perfect.
It was nothing more complex or dangerous than a common cold that caused the problems but we’d taken that common cold into an environment where it could contribute to conditions far more deadly.
“The weather was being typically Scottish”
I knew I was far from my best within the first 600ft of the ascent. We climbed into the darkness from the Ben Nevis Centre to a small bench that sits at a bend in the path as it winds it’s way up the mountain towards a gully. I slumped on the bench already starting to feel exhausted, sweating profusely and dehydrated. The weather was being typically Scottish and contrary. Hot and clammy one minute, jacket off, smir and rain the next, jacket on, and my moral was sinking the more we climbed as we headed towards the steep ascent of the gully.
The Climb To Half Way
“We agreed to head up to the top of the gully and the plateau where the track crosses the Red Burn and turn back there.”
Progress was slow, stop, start as I tried to raise my morale and we climbed higher with a steep drop into the burn cascading far below in the darkness. We could see the campsite of Glen Nevis as an Island of light far below. During one of our rests in the gully came the first conversation about turning back. Despite frequent drinks from my camel pack I was still dehydrated and feeling quite weak. I was still up for the challenge and ate what I could of a Snickers bar to see if some sugar would boost me on. We agreed to head up to the top of the gully and the plateau where the track crosses the Red Burn and turn back there.
As it happened the Mountain Trail had undergone significant repairs since the last time either of us had been on it and the going up the side of the gully was much easier than either of us expected We were soon walking across the plateau towards the Red Burn. Reaching here raised my morale tremendously and I started to think we might make the top. Even despite the slight incline and easy walking on the plateau however I was starting to feel exhausted. Lack of sleep, my cold and the consequent dehydration were taking their toll.
We took another rest just before crossing the Red Burn to prepare for the ascent we knew would soon follow. I was unable to quench my thirst, very much in need of energy but, as a result of the dehydration, felt sick and unable to eat anything. Things were getting worse. “If only I had some dextrose tablets.” I said to my brother. He laughed and produced a pack from his pocket. Small tablets, dextrose are nothing but sugar and energy but they are small enough to eat even when you feel sick. I had 2 of them.
Snowline At The Red Burn
It was late spring but there can be snow high on Ben Nevis all year round. Where the Mountain Trail crosses the Red Burn, we’d started to reach the snow line. Around 3am we were into sub zero temperatures and so we changed into our winter jackets and headed across the Red Burn towards the Zig Zags.
Seeing how regularly I was eating the Dextrose Tablets my brother was worried. He reminded me that we had already done fantastic and to remember not to push too hard. We agreed to head on up but if I didn’t feel any better we could turn round at any time. As we started to climb the Zig Zags I started to feel increasingly dizzy in addition to the nausea. I called for a quick rest to drop my pulse and then headed slowly on to round the first bend in the Zig Zags. Climbing slowly on up the second part, we reached a point where the path became notably eroded and I called for a second stop. Even sitting I could feel the dizziness and my brother looked on concerned as I crunched on yet another Dextrose Tablet.
Turning Round at The Zig Zags
“If I passed out then my brother would be left trying to deal with 18 stone of limp body thousands of feet up on Ben Nevis in the middle of the night.”
Looking at the practical situation there was little chance of anything other than further decline. The coffee in my flask, which could provide essential core heat in the sub zero temperatures, was untouched. I felt way too sick. Sources of energy such as chocolate and a sandwich I had packed were untouched for the same reason. Due to my nausea my intake of water was becoming more like sips and neither it nor the Dextrose Tablets were bringing any improvement.
Then I considered the possibilities. If I was sick then, already dehydrated, my condition would deteriorate rapidly and significantly. If I passed out then my brother would be left trying to deal with 18 stone of limp body thousands of feet up on Ben Nevis in the middle of the night. Worst still, however remote the possibility, was the chance of entering into the deadly cycle of exhaustion and hypothermia. In freezing conditions exhaustion aids the onset of hypothermia which in turn increases the exhaustion. Ultimately exhaustion makes progress impossible and hypothermia kills you.
“Sorry Bro,” I said. “I’m going to have to call it.”
“Head back down?” He asked.
“Yep. Think it’s best.” I said.
Valuable Lessons Learnt
“There was no regret about not making the summit”
He was glad I’d called it a day. He was trying not to make the decision for me but, looking at my condition, he had been getting close. He was full of encouragement reminding me how far we’d got. As we descended he was constantly checking everything was ok. Back down in the gully around 5am we met the first of the morning ascenders and soon we were passing the unbroken queue of trekkers that is the working day on Ben Nevis. We were back at camp around 7am. I climbed into my tent and drifted off to sleep reflecting on a night well spent. There was no regret about not making the summit considering the beauty of the surroundings, the sense of achievement at what we did cover and the valuable lessons learnt.