On the first day I conquered Ben Nevis.
Now that may not sound like much of an accomplishment, Ben Nevis being a stunted 4,406 feet compared with Everest's 29,028, McKinley's 20,320 and Kilimanjaro's 19,340. But it was no small thing to me, a fellow just a jot this side of his golden years -- not to mention the jet lag and grumpy new hiking boots. No, the conquest of Great Britain's highest mountain was no cakewalk.
"Four hours up, three down," said the fiercely good-natured young woman at the tourist office in Fort William, adding, "If you haven't climbed Ben Nevis, you haven't seen the Highlands."
I liked that. It had a nice ring to it. "If you haven't climbed Ben Nevis, you haven't seen the Highlands." Authoritative. A subtle challenge, too.
This is central Scotland, the western reaches, two hours by car from Glasgow on the Loch Lomond Road, hard astride the tourist trap of Fort William, plunk in the epicenter of the Highlands.
It is early. We are on a path in a meadow about a mile outside of town. Replete with camera, binoculars, sketchbook and paints, canteen, meat pies, mince pastry, a candy bar, a paperback edition of the book "Ben Nevis and Its Observatory" and three cans of that sickening fluid that passes for orange soda in Scotland. All stashed in a spiffy new but modest knapsack.
And there, partially obscured in a shroud of morning fog, humpbacked and high, is Ben Nevis. No, it is not one of nature's great peaks, as majestic as the Matterhorn, as existential as Fuji, "as wide as all the world," as Hemingway described Kilimanjaro. No need to recruit Sherpas, to think of base camps and oxygen on this sweet Gaelic day.
It is cool for July in Scotland, early morning cool, here on the valley floor with the hills and the mountains rising all around. Cool and green with the color of tall grass and fern and many varieties of heather, a rich carpet intermingled with primrose, bluebells, butterballs and -- of course -- thistle, Scotland's national flower.
Although it is a short climb (five miles), the grade is steep because a rise of more than 4,000 feet has to be scaled in this comparatively brief distance. The path, trod each summer by the usands of pairs of Adidas, is clearly marked, a series of lazy loops winding upward into mist. In places, the mist is piled high like drifted snow or shredded in the uplands by the wind. Where it lies in pockets, it is white as sugar.
We are not alone. A coed contingent of French teen-agers shouts and laughs and holds hands several hundred yards ahead of us. Behind, just visible, is a family from Holland and a Scot with his young daughter and little black-and-white dog of indistinct pedigree named Sinclair.
The track slants steeply upward along the west side of Glen Nevis, crossing a spider web of small streams. Turning to the left, it enters a valley hemmed in on three sides by hills, their sides dotted white with Scotland's plentiful and ubiquitous sheep. The valley coolness is behind us. The air is warm and close, and for that reason this is considered the most trying part of the ascent. Sweaters are removed.
We rest. Consulting our "Ben Nevis and Its Observatory," we discover that in October 1883 the Scottish Meteorological Society opened an observatory on the summit, a year-round outpost where temperature and wind readings were taken hourly for 20 years, at which time the station was abandoned. The sum of 15,000 pounds had been subscribed for construction. "Her Most Gracious Majesty Queen Victoria" kicked in 50 pounds, while a Robert Younger, St. Ann's Brewery, Edinburgh, donated three guineas.
We also learn that the "Ben" (the Scottish word for mountain) can be lethal, despite its docile appearance. Lightning, rock slides, precipitous drops in temperature and sudden, blinding fog are among the hazards. It is wise, therefore, to travel early in the day and with a companion.
The grade steepens, the path folds back upon itself with a greater regularity. We are now out in the open, the neighboring hills more clearly defined, gray and green and terra cotta, topped by a sky of boiling clouds. A cool wind blows. Small rivulets, like veins in shattered glass, cascade down the slope. We fill our canteen, the water incredibly cold and good. There is only the sound of the wind and the water and the distant baaing of sheep unseen.
The last of the streams are behind us. Now and then dark clouds scud across the sun, cloaking in shadow the hikers that appear as animated specks on the face of the mountain high above us. We rest more frequently; each time we do, out comes our pocket guide. We learn that several years after 1883 (the book is unclear exactly when), an enterprising capitalist opened a small hotel on the summit, though "in fact the establishment opened by a Mr. White of Fort William was little more than a large wooden shed but, assisted by a team of young ladies from the town, he was able to offer refreshment and simple accommodation to those who had found the climb too taxing."
The mist is long gone. The day sparkles. The path briefly flattens out. Then unexpectedly we pass above a small cobalt-blue loch cupped into the side of the mountain, hidden from the world except to those who climb this high. A surprise, a bonus, inviting but too far afield to explore.
We have reached the halfway point, if one is to believe the words etched into a large flat stone by the side of the path: "Ye have as far again to go." Some of our fellow travelers have turned back, the Scot and his young daughter and Sinclair among them. We begin to encounter a trickle of pilgrims passing us on their way down from the summit. Each claims it is just another hour to the top. The path turns to rough stone. Ground cover is scarce at this altitude. Patches of lush green moss predominate with, here and there, a clump of stunted fern. The scene takes on a desolate aspect -- windswept, romantic, unrelentingly Wagnerian, all blood and thunder and heavy on the mist. The temperature has dropped still further.
We are ascending the western shoulder of the mountain in a series of long zigzags, each of which allows a wider and grander view as we gradually rise. Mountains and lochs reach out for miles, silver and green. The path recedes behind us, a winding ribbon lost in the distance. The entire mountain above us consists almost wholly of bare rock, fragmented, splintered, slippery, with scarcely a hint of vegetation. We cross an irregular plateau for about a half mile. In sheltered hollows we find the first patches of snow, a foot or more deep in places, large ice flakes welded together. The French teen-agers sleigh ride on the seats of their pants, play at the kiss-and-giggle game of youth.
The path grows steeper, angling off sharply. Many hikers have turned back. The Dutch family continues on.
We rest, tempted to call it a mountain and return. Then, around a boulder-strewn curve, bearing down on us with a great rapidity, walking stick flailing, an apparition appears from the pages of a Saki short story, resplendent in tweeds, from hat to cape to skirt. A vest-pocket version of Margaret Rutherford, coming on full tilt, her no-nonsense brogans bouncing aggressively over the rocky path.
Never slowing her pace, she considers me sitting there panting and says with withering acidity: "You shant get to the top that way, young man. Press on, press on. It's well worth it." And then she is gone around the next bend, leaving the air redolent of lavender and wool.
Another short, steep stretch. We have overtopped all the neighboring mountains.A level broad-topped ridge remains.
And then the summit.
She's right. It is worth it. Stretched out before us, 360 degrees around, are the Highlands of Scotland, some of the most spectacular scenery on the planet.
But first there is the sky. That is the point of departure, the quintessence of the Highlands. Not just its sheer size but its depth and variation of color, pristine white and charcoal gray and ebony and robin's-egg blue and lavender coexisting, churning, rolling over and over upon itself. A light show. A penny arcade. There should be an old Scottish saying that there is no sky outside of the Highlands. There isn't, but there should be.
Few things in life are as good as we are led to believe. First love, perhaps, preferably requited. And Russian vodka and Simonize car paste and some Fellini films. But not much else. And certain places deliver as advertised; what you read in the brochure or what you hear, that is what you get. No hanky-panky packaging, no deceptive claims. Certain cities, certain places come to mind. Venice is like that. So is Copenhagen. And Las Vegas. The jungles of Central America, too, the Ring of Kerry, the Costa del Sol circa 1965 and the Baltic in the grip of winter. And, without doubt, the Highlands of Scotland.
Take hundreds of roller-coaster hills and mountains. String them together with glens and lochs and moors. Whitewash with a kaleidoscopic light that creates all the greens and blues that ever were. That is the Highlands, the world from Ben Nevis, extensive, spectacular.
To the northeast, looking over Fort William, the town of Inverness is visible, and beyond it the Black Isle.To the northwest are the islands of Rhum and Eigg and Skye. And if the weather is exceptional, the Outer Hebrides will appear as a smudge some 90 miles away.
From this northern ridge one has perhaps the most breathtaking view, for here it is that the mountain falls away, creating a vertiginous drop of 2,000 feet to the floor of the valley below.
This ridge is to be approached with caution, for there are no guardrails on Ben Nevis, no warning signs, lookouts, telescopes, forest rangers or souvenir shops. Only the incomparable view and the ruins of the observatory and a plaque in commemoration of the men and women who served on the mountain in that time so long ago. And a little discreet graffiti etched into the rock walls: "Tom T. 1907," "Kenneth '28," "J. Bruce./'32." It is chilly and, except for the wind, quite still.
To the south is an array of crumbled mountains; slightly to the right, Loch Linnhe snakes its way down to the open sea, where it meets the Isle of Mull. And on days when the horizon is free of haze, the mountains of northeast Ireland may be seen as a vague promise.
It is seldom, notes my pocket guide, that all these features can be discerned on a single day. "Clouds may obscure the view in one direction while in another it may be quite clear, and not infrequently a cloudcap on Ben Nevis itself circumscribes the whole view to a few yards. Sometimes the cloud layer of the atmosphere is all below, the sun shines down from a cloudless sky, while the lower world is concealed under a level-topped sheet of fleecy cloud, through which the higher hill-tops project like islands in a sea."
Yes, the Highlands deliver. They are as handsome as advertised. They work on all levels: intellectual, emotional, spiritual, as a paean to nature, as an esthetic entity. A total experience.
It is true. You haven't seen the Highlands until you've climbed Ben Nevis.