There is no sport like mountaineering. It is the overcoming of difficulties, the mental climbing, as well as the physical, that give it such a zest. The troubles of life seem to fade away in the presence of the everlasting hills. We may go out tired and worn in mind and body; we return renewed and restored: health re-established and friendships strengthenedJane Inglis Clark Pictures and Memories, published in 1938,
The high point of 2020… quite literally!
Even a bad year can have its high points. In my case, it was the chance to climb Ben Nevis during a visit to the Highlands of Scotland in September 2020. My experience was rather nicely summed up in the Jane Inglis Clark quote seen above. There were a number of occasions that I came very close to turning around and heading back down the mountain. I’m so glad that I didn’t. As the quote mentions, climbing a mountain is as much about the mind as it is the body.
The weather was the trigger. For most of my stay, the visibility had been poor for climbing Ben Nevis. For at least a couple of days, the summit was not visible from the holiday cottage. I’d have to wait and see if the right conditions appeared. On the penultimate day of the holiday, the right weather arrived. Clear skies and warm too. My old 1990s era Army Bergen, found at an outdoor shop in Norfolk back in 2016, was packed with water (not enough as I found out), dry clothing and food.
It was time to go.
Ben Nevis gets around 150,000 visitors every year with around two-thirds making it to the summit. It is not the easiest mountain the climb up with even the 1883 Pony Track (also known as the Ben Path, the Mountain Path or the Tourist Route) being pretty rough to traverse on foot. The steady stream of climbers was also something of a surprise. The mountain climb is popular. Maybe too popular as the track can become crowded. Oddly on my descent, the track was far emptier. The crowds had gone.
As can see from a number of the gallery photos, walking up the path is sometimes akin to travelling up a steep river bed full of rocks. A walking stick (two would be better!) is highly recommended. Fortunately, I’d packed mine which helped me avoid a serious stumble or even twisted ankle most than once. That doesn’t stop people from running up the mountain with the current record set at 1 hour 25 mins – that’s up to the top and back to Fort William!
Clearing the Mind
Clearing the mind of all distractions is never easy. We’ve all had a lot to think about in 2020 with the COVID pandemic restricting our movements. At times it has felt overwhelming. One of the fondest recollections from that day climbing Ben Nevis is how it focuses you on one single task – to get to the summit. Everything else drops away so you are left with a very simple mission. After the constant stream of bad news throughout 2020 that was a very welcome distraction.
Weighing it all up
The singlemindedness of climbing to the top did have some drawbacks though. The physical effort involved meant that photography was reduced to a secondary priority. At the summit, photo opportunities were missed and I failed to shoot a single bit of video due to a limited timeframe at the summit and recovering from the climb. I suppose that gives me a reason to do it all again just because it was compact and lightweight. Once I reached the summit the DSLR was out the Bergen and shooting pictures.
I would have liked to take more lenses with me but the other factor that came into play is the weight. You have to carry it all the way up and back down again. One camera body was packed along with two lenses – a 35mm wide-angle and my compact and lightweight 80-200mm f5.6. My favourite Nikon 80-200mm f2.8 was just too heavy. As it turned out I photographed most of the climb using my phone just because it was easy and quick. Photo shot… start climbing again.
Reaching the summit was surprisingly emotional. The effort of making my way up to the top had not been easy but I’d probably rate it as one of my proudest things achievements. Considering that a couple of years earlier I’d hurt my back so badly that I could barely walk up the stairs, I consider myself fortunate that I’d recovered enough to do the climb.
The summit of Ben Nevis is flat. It almost resembles a rocky moonscape and does not have that classic mountaintop look of Snowden. It is beautiful nevertheless. A single pathway allows you to make your way to the top but otherwise moving around on the summit is a challenge. Sadly my time was limited. I needed to rest and prepare for descending down the mountain so I had around 40 minutes to collect my thoughts, explore and take some photographs.
A mountain isn’t climbed unless you return to where you started. The descent was much faster and seemed easier at the start. Within a couple of hours though, I realised it was going to be rough. The impact on the knees as you go down is immense and gradually you feel your knees becoming weaker and weaker. By the end of the descent, my legs felt very much like jelly and I was pleased I had my walking stick with me for that extra support. I just I’d had another! After what seemed an eternity (the final 2 km seemed to last forever!) I finally reached the car park and it was the end of the day.
So would I climb Ben Nevis again? Directly after the climb, I was exhausted and any question of climbing Ben Nevis again would have received a rude answer. A day or so later I felt different. Yes, I would do it all again. I have a better idea of what to expect and could plan better. For a first climb though, I didn’t do too bad. I would have liked to shoot more photographs and no video recording was not great but that was due to the physical nature of climbing the mountain. Photography is usually a primary concern with a photographer but in some cases, the photography is overridden by much more pressing issues. It was the toughest physical challenge I’ve ever had!
I like the photos that I shot during my visit to the UK’s highest mountain. With no gift shop at the summit selling mugs or fridge magnets, the only memento to be had is a photograph!
The photographs in this gallery form part of the Scotland: Lowlands, Highlands and Islands project.
My 2015 Edinburgh iPhone photography project called ‘The Two Towns’ can be found HERE
If you would like to purchase a print then the Richard Flint Photography RedBubble store has a wide range of images available.
Framed prints, canvas prints, art boards, metal prints, acrylic block plus lots more can be found on the RedBubble store HERE.