Monday, October 27, 2008

Always Trust The Weather Man

Southwesterly 50-70mph, gusts 80 to perhaps 100mph locally. Very difficult conditions even at low level, with any mobility widely difficult on higher areas. Significant wind chill.

Torrential rain. Snow, soon turning to prolonged heavy rain. Will finish late
afternoon as snow above 800m.
Well, that was the forecast heading in to Friday afternoon and it set me in to a bit of a panic. I decided that the raincoat I had wasn't going to cut it so I made my 3rd visit to Cotswalds in 10 days and dropped another £90 on a half-decent jacket. I headed home to do my final packing before heading to Heathrow pumped for the challenge that lay ahead.

A few of the lads had been waiting at the airport a while and I met up with them and headed to the plane. After a bit of a bumpy ride that had a couple of the boys saying thier Hail Marys we arrive in Glasgow. Hadyn, having caught an earlier flight was waiting with the video camera and took what turned out to be the only footage of the entire trip...

As we waited for the van to arrive we did last minute kit-checks and started to change into our base layers. I was pumped and really wanted to get stuck in to the challenge. After about 45 minutes, the van arrived and we all squeezed into the tight confines of the van. A space we would get to know very well over the next 24 hours...

The drive to Fort William, where we were to start our ascent of Ben Nevis, was due to take about 2.5 hours. However after about 90 minutes on the road we were stalled by a nasty accident. We sat for a further 90 minutes while the wreckage was cleared, watching 'Cool Runnings' and generally reflecting on an entirely bizarre Friday night.

We finally got back on the road and were hoping to stop at a servo to fill up on some food and water before we started the climb. Unfortunately, very little is open at 3am in Fort William. We only had a few litres of water between us, but headed for the local Fire Station where we were able to fill whatever bottles we had with us.

We pulled in to the Ben Nevis Visitor Center car park in a howling gale and steady rain. Tooves and Waters, who hadn't changed into their kit did so in the van while the rest of us readied ourselves to make a start.

At a bit after 4am stopwatches were started and The General lead off blazing the way with a headtorch brigther than a thousand suns. The going was immediately quite tough, especially for some of the lads who were in trainers. We eventually found the path up the Ben and started trudging up the stone steps.

There were frequest stops to adjust kit and remove layers as we made our way up the steady slope. The wind was gusting quite strongly now and we were being buffeted around as we tried to stay close to whatever shelter the sides of the hill offered.

After about an hour we left the stone steps and rounded a corner on to a saddle. We were immediatley hit with huge winds directly behind us and started powering along. At this stage, the rain had picked up and the wind was driving this directly into my back. My 'waterproof' trousers were now completely soaked through and water was pouring into my boots. The brutal conditions and darkness meant we missed the ridge that would lead us to the summt and we continued to walk with the wind behind us for some time.

Eventually G-Unit pulled the boys together for a serious chat. The conditions were getting worse. We had been walking for about 90 minutes and were still only halfway up the hill. The ridge that led to the summit was very exposed and the winds up higher were likely to be dangerous, if not deadly. We took a vote and a few of the boys were keen to go on. I didn't want to give up, but my opinion was that it was irresponsible for us to carry on as we would be putting our lives at risk, and potentially the lives of Moutain Rescue who would more than likely have to come and get us. G made a tough, but correct descision in the end and we turned around.

This is when it got hard.

The wind that had been at our backs was now directly in our face. Mike and I estimated it was 12o kph gusting upwards of 150kph and the weather reports confirmed this later in the day. The wind was driving the torrential rain horizontally, right in our faces. It was impossible to look where we were going. Any time i lifted my head to look any further than my feet the rain stabbed at my eyes and face like a thousand pins. After a few minutes battling this wind I was tired and shaken. As we rounded a bend the wind picked up even further and I was blown a metre backwards. To steady myself I grabbed the closest large object which happened to be Joe Williams. Joe and I battled together for a few minutes amrs linked for physical and moral support. I was still unable to see any further than my feet despite Hillsy barking on and on:
Its just wind. I can't hurt you. Look at it! Don't let it beat you. Look at it and tell it to F&ck off !
The only thing that was going through my head at this stage was the drainage ditches that crossed the path every 50m or so. I was petrified of not seing one and slipping in a breaking my leg. We clung together as a group and slowly made our way out of the worst of the weather.

Once out of the wind we were able to take a breather and recompose ourselves for the way down. We weren't out of danger yet and had to concentrate all the way down. People were getting tired and Tooves had a couple of good stacks, one of which left him pretty close to the edge of a sharp drop.

As we made our way down the steps, with the lights of Fort William coming in to view there was a sense of relief that we had all made it down. We hadn't made it to the top, but I don't think that would have been possible given the conditions.

More important to me than the challenge was the bonding of the team. We had faced some perilous conditions up there and had all stuck together, physically and mentally providing support for each other. If I ever get stuck in those sort of conditions again, I know who I would want beside me, grabbing my arm, yelling encouragement and leading the path through the rain.

Go Tenzing.

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