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July 22, 2021

Hiking Ben Nevis: 9 Things I learned by Not Reaching the Summit.

The Japanese proverb “Nana korobi, ya oki” translates to “Fall down seven times, stand up eight.”

It means choosing to never give up hope and to always strive for more.

It’s pivotal in everything I do and how I want to show up in life.

My first attempt to summit Ben Nevis happened in April 2019; it marked the first time I had ever hiked solo.

Having hiked all over the world—from the Himalayas in Nepal to Mt. Kosciuszko in Australia. I wouldn’t say I am a newbie at this adventure-seeking activity, but I am also definitely not a hiking expert.

To date, all my hiking has been in groups or with someone else. It’s never been just me, where I am the one to make all decisions. I own some basic hiking gear, but no equipment—let’s just say this girl doesn’t own a compass.

Ben Nevis is that bucket list item: a proper mountain, but not any old mountain—it’s the highest peak in Scotland. Standing at 1,345 meters, it is classified as a Munro (with the other 277 mountains in Scotland) because they are at least 3,000 feet high.

I set off from Fort William wearing five layers of hiking gear that included standard hiking trousers, my favorite bright blue waterproof Kathmandu jacket (that I bought in New Zealand), and my woolly hat—snuggly and in position.

My backpack was filled with snacks and my playlist was carefully chosen to pump my mind with all the tunes—my perfect company for the adventure.

Things started as expected. I looked at the sign that shouted “Ben Nevis,” which pointed up toward a cloudy, blue sky. How could I not summit? I thought.

Stepping into the unknown and the spectacular nature-infused spring day, the hike felt good. Even having a rough idea of the route, terrain, and expected duration—with appreciation—each hike is different.

When moving forward on a new adventure—one step at a time—the unknown slowly becomes known.

Your inner compass is being updated in real-time. All your senses switch on.

The air on your face, the ground underneath you, the constantly changing landscape, and the noises around you.

I took my time; there was never a rush as I hiked. I followed the well-trodden path in front, where I never felt alone. I was alone with my thoughts and music, but never lonely.

The hikers in front and behind gave me a sense of comfort knowing that like-minded people were surrounding me.

After meandering up and up, and as the route crossed the mountain, I looked back over the stunning landscape where lochs appear like puddle drops. I stopped to grab a snack and some water while taking in my surroundings and then carried on.

After more hiking, I reached the point where it felt as if I was nearing the summit of the highest point in Scotland. At this point, I felt like I was on an actual expedition because I could see so much deep and pretty snow ahead.

I expected the snow but when I actually saw it, I felt like I was experiencing a serious expedition where I should be part of a group with a leader who has the proper equipment.

I followed those ahead of me toward the summit. I had no idea where the summit was but sensed it was getting closer as the snow got deeper—there was a chill in the air.

There was no longer a path to follow but only the footsteps of those in front leaving marks in the snow as a guide.

I switched my music off. I felt alert. All my senses switched on.

Everything had a different feel to it now. I love hiking and the great outdoors.

There is something incredible about being 100 percent surrounded by nature in all its glory—you feel free, but also a little out of control. Nature and her mountains are in control of the outcome. No matter how prepared we are or how many layers we must throw on when the weather changes (on the mountain), it can become dangerous.

We’ve all seen those Hollywood movies based on real, terrifying events.

As I walked in the summit’s direction, I glanced up and felt an uneasiness slowly bubble up. As I looked back to where I came from, I could see blue skies. Ahead, all I could see were low-lying clouds.

Suddenly things changed dramatically and drastically—the clouds quickly became a blanket of white. The few hikers ahead of me were now enveloped in white. That nervous feeling was now boiling inside me.

Where were those blue skies I spotted a minute ago? I thought. It was really windy now. I froze a little, as I considered my surroundings and situation. The whiteness surrounding me was no longer clouds but created from the snow drifting off the surrounding mountains.

The whiteout prevented me from seeing even a meter in front of me. The recommended advice in a whiteout situation was not to move. Otherwise, I could quickly become disoriented with no line of sight or reference point.

Mountains, including Ben Nevis, have sheer drops. This is not what I wanted to think about while standing there.

I stood frozen, making uncomfortable noises in my head while looking around at the whiteness. I could see a couple to one side of me. They had all the equipment—pickaxe and compass on show.

I could sense they were preparing to continue into the snowdrift and into the direction of the summit.

From the offline map on my phone, I could tell we were only minutes away from the peak. But, at that moment, minutes felt like a lifetime as it was impossible to make out anything in front.

I glanced at the couple again and felt that inner unease—a signal to stop and listen.

My intuition guided me. I heard it mutter the popular phrase, All the gear, no idea.

I had never spoken to this couple and know, from being a runner, that there are novices who splash out on expensive equipment but lack the knowledge to use it properly. I stayed rooted as they walked ahead into the abyss. The unease was still bubbling away.

Next, a new couple walked into my snow globe of fear where I was the main character on display. Still rooted firmly in the same position, making the same uncomfortable noises, I’d spotted them on the hike up. They still looked as unprepared (wearing few layers) from when I first spotted them.

I chatted with them, explaining my uneasiness, and that I hadn’t made it through life successfully traveling the world for something to happen on my own doorstep, metaphorically speaking.

As they prepared to walk forward with relative ease, I considered how I would actually exit the mountain, since I couldn’t even see back now. A complete blanket of white enveloped us—365 degrees of whiteness and unease.

I took a deep breath, considering how a simple hike could suddenly become chaotic and out of control.

Thoughts swirled around my head:

Is it less risky to latch onto a couple?

The summit isn’t far and will there be more people there to form a group to exit the mountain?

Can I press a button to exit from this nightmare?

From out of nowhere, a group hiking back from the summit (who looked like the type of group you cling to when in need), glided into my circle of fear.

The sign I needed was right in front of me. I smiled, as I knew this was my mountain rescue, and seized the opportunity to exit stage right. They were wearing high-visibility jackets, so I took it upon myself to sheepishly follow them out.

I waved off the English couple as I took my position behind my “rescue” group. I strolled out of the whiteout and down the mountain into blue skies.

As I peeled my layers slowly, it had already felt like a lifetime ago when I stood contemplating my death on that mountain—ankle-deep in snow. I took a screenshot of my “get me out of here” moment as a reminder of how far I’d come and how far I have still to go.

I value my life too much to attempt to tick off a summit when the level of unease was shouting at me.

I got a photo where I stood frozen with the backdrop of the stunning landscape. This memory would motivate a return. I will come back one day to summit. And did I? Well, that is for another time.

Here are a few things the Ben Nevis hike taught me:

You can prepare, practice, research, and overthink—or you can just go for it and learn along the way.

So many people don’t start because they are waiting for the perfect moment or to feel fully prepared. There is no perfect moment and you will never, ever feel fully prepared—start and learn from trying.

Failure is defined by you alone. I quit less than five minutes from the summit, but I didn’t fail. I chose to stop for my safety. I still hiked Ben Nevis.

Take your time and consider your options and choice points. Have a plan, but also be open to going with the flow.

Look around you and take it all in. It may be your first and last time doing the thing you are doing, so savior it—all of it.

Be open to asking for help. Remember you are never alone in life so ask those around you in the same situation for guidance. Follow your gut and press the “get me out of here” button when it doesn’t feel quite right. Only you know when that moment is.

Make a mental note or take a photo for motivation when you attempt something new or difficult and start doubting yourself. Use it to fuel that fire inside you that will propel you forward.

Be patient. Keep the flag flying in front of you—that flag is your goal. Share your journey so others can also learn and become inspired. We are all the same and sometimes all it takes is a nudge from someone else to push you into taking action.

Celebrate the achievement—big or small. Every small win is part of a bigger outcome.

I hiked Ben Nevis!


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Jacquelyn Armour  |  Contribution: 7,135

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