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Scotland trek to ben nevis climb

A movable feast while walking through wild, ancient Scotland.

Join us on our Scot­land trek com­ing up this Sep­tem­ber. Check out a sto­ry from the late Steve Guthrie on the way to Ben Nevis from a few years back.

I went for some hill walk­ing in the high­lands of Scot­land. What I got was so much more than that.

Scot­land, home of kilts, bag­pipes, hag­gis and sin­gle malt whiskey is also home to a vast wilder­ness of extra­or­di­nary moun­tains and lochs. The High­lands are sparse­ly pop­u­lat­ed and most­ly bar­ren save for scat­tered vil­lages and farms. There are many more sheep than peo­ple. Nar­row roads wind through the coun­try­side like trails. Soli­tude is all but guaranteed.

Scot­land is a place rife with his­to­ry. Part of my rea­son for going to Scot­land was the sig­nif­i­cant amount of climb­ing his­to­ry that took place in the High­lands. Equip­ment and tech­nique devel­op­ment, mod­ern moun­tain res­cue and more was all hap­pen­ing in Scot­land in the 1960’s and 70’s. In addi­tion to the skills and gear being devel­oped, a cul­ture of char­ac­ters was forged, and those char­ac­ters were at the fore­front of climb­ing for decades. This era was doc­u­ment­ed by numer­ous authors and as a boy I poured over their sto­ries and books, hang­ing on every word. Hav­ing read, and re-read, about these places for decades I want­ed to see them in per­son and see if what I imag­ined was any­thing like real­i­ty. I was not disappointed. 

I arrived a day ear­ly to spend a bit of time wan­der­ing around Edin­burgh by myself. Using my time-hon­ored tech­nique of walk­ing until I was com­plete­ly lost I went into small shops and cafes and stopped ran­dom peo­ple on the street to ask direc­tions. This always seems to get me bet­ter acquaint­ed with a place than just look­ing at a map or guide­book. Plus, I learn what the locals find interesting!

Trav­el­ing to new places makes me pay atten­tion to details that nor­mal­ly I might ignore. Local his­to­ry, food, archi­tec­ture, weath­er pat­terns, street names, buskers on the cor­ners, all seem some­how more inter­est­ing and charming. 

Every nook and cran­ny in Edin­burgh seems to have sig­nif­i­cance, whether it’s a medieval cas­tle or the café where the first Har­ry Pot­ter book was writ­ten. Arched door­ways lead to wind­ing stair­cas­es, alleys and court­yards. Cob­ble­stone streets lined by goth­ic build­ings with tow­ers and tur­rets evoke images of ancient Scot­tish intrigue and feuds as well as the Renais­sance era. Stat­ues of famous dead peo­ple (some are my ances­tors) are every­where. Stand­ing over the city is a rather large cas­tle, which makes it easy to get one’s bear­ings when lost. Despite its cul­tur­al her­itage Edin­burgh is a mod­ern and busy city. Trams and busses make it easy to tra­verse the city but real­ly Edin­burgh is the per­fect walk­ing town. Lots of hills and stairs but most things seem to be in walk­ing distance. 

Next morn­ing, we jumped on a train for Fort William. The train winds through val­leys and along lochs as it pass­es out of the low­lands and enters the high­lands, a moun­tain­ous region with numer­ous peaks jut­ting up from remote and bar­ren val­leys. Small vil­lages with white­washed hous­es and nar­row lanes are sit­u­at­ed at the foot of the val­leys or along the lochs. 

Arriv­ing at Fort William we were met by our local guide. Lunch was a short dri­ve to the his­toric Ben Nevis Inn. Sit­u­at­ed at the trail­head to Ben Nevis, high­est peak in the UK, the Inn is ground zero for a ton of climb­ing his­to­ry. After lunch we took a hike to shake off the trav­el cob­webs then drove to our hotel for the next few nights, The Clachaig Inn. A charm­ing place with about 25 rooms it sports 2 restau­rants and 3 bars! One of the bars has won awards as Best Pub in Scot­land and Best Pub in UK. Their ded­i­ca­tion to food and drink was a prop­er intro­duc­tion to High­land hos­pi­tal­i­ty. The whole place is a vir­tu­al muse­um of Scot­tish climb­ing with pic­tures of climbs and climbers as well as old climb­ing gear lib­er­al­ly scat­tered about. Imme­di­ate­ly it felt like home. The Clachaig Inn is in Glen­coe. In 1692 38 mem­bers of Clan Mac­Don­ald were mas­sa­cred by troops loy­al to Eng­land and led by Robert Camp­bell. Even today the Camp­bells are not wel­come at the Clachaig Inn as exhib­it­ed by a sign at the reg­is­tra­tion desk. The Scots have long mem­o­ries… Glen­coe is also the loca­tion of sev­er­al movie loca­tions, includ­ing Har­ry Pot­ter, Brave­heart and James Bond — Skyfall.

The tra­di­tion­al Scot­tish del­i­ca­cy of haggis

A big storm (Ali) was pre­dict­ed to make the next few days wet and windy. It did not dis­ap­point. It also did not keep us from hik­ing up a storm. Lit­er­al­ly and figuratively. 

Over the next days we hiked Bidean nam Bian (The Three Sis­ters), Ben Nevis (high­est peak in UK), and the Dev­ils Stair­case. To do these hikes in what the Scots call full con­di­tions” gave them an air of authen­tic­i­ty, also of seri­ous­ness. Near the sum­mit of Ben Nevis our group found a woman curled into a fetal posi­tion and vir­tu­al­ly unre­spon­sive. Her hus­band was try­ing to help her, to no avail. Our group shield­ed her from the 60 — mph wind and rain, and after it was deter­mined that she was suf­fer­ing from an unde­ter­mined and sig­nif­i­cant con­di­tion, our local guide called for a res­cue heli­copter. Some­how the copter was able to hov­er in the wind, low­er a medic, and winch the woman to the copter before fly­ing off. 

View from the sum­mit of Ben Nevis, with a res­cue heli­copter fly­ing in

It became appar­ent that wild weath­er was a big part of out­door recre­ation in Scot­land. In the worse weath­er peo­ple were in the hills hav­ing fun. The hotels all had dry­ing rooms for your gear and a stop at the near­est pub, some right at the trail­heads, to dry out and rehy­drate, was the norm. The epic weath­er caused us to mod­i­fy some plans, but it did not keep us from hit­ting the trail. We now feel as though we are prop­er Scot­tish out­doors people!

Our very own Moun­tain Mad­ness adven­tur­er — Nicki!

Fol­low­ing 3 nights in Glen­coe we went to Fort William for one night. Next morn­ing, we toured a whisky dis­tillery then head­ed north for lunch on the Isle of Skye. This sched­ule was an alter­nate since the storm was at its peak this day with winds fore­cast to be 90 mph. Even the Scot­tish hik­ers were stay­ing inside today! 

After a windswept lunch (the gusts were shak­ing the café!) on Skye we con­tin­ued to the moun­tain­ous region of Tor­ri­don. This part of Scot­land is remote, bar­ren and incred­i­bly beau­ti­ful. We stayed a cou­ple nights at the Tigh An Eilean Inn locat­ed in the small vil­lage of Shei­daig. Our rooms looked out at the salt water loch just in front of the inn and were com­fort­able and quaint and dec­o­rat­ed in an eclec­tic fash­ion. As might be expect­ed in a remote and tiny Scot­tish vil­lage, the pub next door was the gath­er­ing spot for local char­ac­ters. With the jokes being told and the yarns being spun it felt like a scene from the BBC or a movie. 

Eilean Donan Castle

Vil­lage of Sheidaig

Lodge on 60,000 acre pri­vate estate!

After 2 days of hik­ing near­by we head­ed for Inver­ness and the train back to Edin­burgh. We were clos­ing the cir­cle on a grand cir­cuit around the High­lands. We hit the town for our final group din­ner and enjoyed yet anoth­er evening telling our own jokes and spin­ning yarns about our adven­ture. In the morn­ing every­one was head­ed in dif­fer­ent direc­tions and back to the real­i­ty of real” life. 

Despite being very dif­fer­ent from what I am used to, what with cas­tles and such, Scot­land left me with an air of the famil­iar. The his­to­ry I had read played out in real time. We walked in the foot­steps of the famous and infa­mous, climbed moun­tains in full- Scot­tish” con­di­tions, soaked in the atmos­phere of small vil­lage life, ate great meals, tast­ed real­ly old sin­gle-malt whisky, enjoyed the hos­pi­tal­i­ty of every Scot we met, all while trav­el­ing with an amaz­ing group of peo­ple. I can’t wait to return…

- Steve Guthrie