Friday, April 30, 2010

August 29, 2010: On Top Of Scotland

(This is the second of two posts today. Make sure you read the post from August 28th first.)

My first full day in Fort William was yet another memorable event (actually, a series of memorable events) in what is shaping up to be a fantastic, albeit shortened adventure in Scotland.

My whole reason for coming to Fort William, in fact my main purpose in coming to Scotland, was to enjoy the plethora of outdoor activities for which the Fort William/Lochaber area is famous. However, because of my late arrival the previous night I did not get an opportunity to plan my activities for today, until today.

At 7:30 AM I rose from bed to eat breakfast. Upon the completion of breakfast I phoned every outdoor adventure company in the region I could find, to see what activities they could offer me on short notice. My first choice was to try white water rafting, but unfortunately none of the operators had any larger groups I could join this week. My second choice was to learn how to ice climb at the world's largest indoor ice climbing centre, Ice Factor. Fortunately Ice Factor had a spot available for me the next day, and so I signed myself up.

While I had scheduled the ice climbing lesson for Friday, I still needed something to do today (Thursday), and so I made an appointment to try the new Skyride aerial adventure course in the afternoon.

(Before heading out to try the Skyride aerial adventure course I went into town to find some lunch (I'm actually staying just outside of Fort William). I loved the well preserved traditional buildings on main street, where you can find traditional businesses and shoppes that exemplify the spirit of old Scotland... like Subway.)

The Skyride aerial adventure course starts with a 50 foot climb up a cargo net just to get to the obstacles so one can start the course. After being clipped in, each participant attempts, on his/her own time, to complete a lap of the course. The first obstacle is one long cable, that sways back and forth with each step the participant takes. A parallel rope, directly above the cable, is available for participants to hold in order to steady themselves as they try and shuffle the 12 or so feet along the thing cable to the next platform. From here the competitors have to traverse a second, identical 12' cable. However, rather than one long horizontally oriented rope to use as an aid, the participants are given a series of thin, hanging ropes about three feet apart, on which to hold. The next obstacles include a series of three swinging platforms suspended from wires, followed by a swaying/bouncing bridge, with two feet between each plank. Should the participant make it this far (keep in mind, the obstacles in question are 25 feet above the ground), he/she must traverse a fifteen foot log, then a swinging climbing wall. The seventh (next) obstacle is by far the most awkward to navigate. Competitors must step across a series of 4" by 4" wooden blocks, each suspended from one end by wires, each block being progressively longer then the one before it (read: it swings away from you more when you try to step on it). After this there is running leap across a gap, and another running leap to a trapese that swings to the finish.

Since the booking is for a set period of ime, the faster the participants complete each lap, the more laps each participant can take. I naturally took this to mean that completing the course was a "race," and that I should attempt to break the "record," even though no such record existed.

The instructor did tell me the though that the fastest time anyone had ever completed the course was under a minute, and was held by another staff member. However, we deemed that just swinging around on the safety rope, thereby skipping all of the obstacles, as the staff member in question had done was cheating, and therefore the record should not stand. This, or course, meant that I should attempt to set the record, or why else would they have let me try the course?

After three attempts I had more or less ironed out the major flaws in my strategies for each obstacle and was ready for my record attempt. On my fourth attempt I completed the course in a blistering 1 minute and 19 seconds, which the instructor said was "very fast" and was a time most of the other instructors would now probably be trying to beat. My session was over at this time, so I couldn't try again, but I think if I worked at Ice Factor and could practice the course enough times to perfect my movements, I could "easily" get my time down below 1 minute. As I write this now, I'm tempted to book another run at the course just to see if I can do it...

The Ice Factor climbing centre was not actually located in Fort William where I am staying, but rather in a small town 20 miles away called Kinlochleven. Kinlochleven is notable for a couple of reasons: One, it was the first town in the United Kingdom to have every home supplied with electricity (even before the Royal Estate received electricity), and 2) because of all of the heavy engineering needed to produce all of this electricity, it was also one of Britain's 100 most polluted towns, and was the focus of a massive clean up project some time ago. More importantly to me though, Kinlochleven is located on an amazing stretch of road, the B863, which is even better than the A82! On the way back from my session, I switched on the Astra's "Sport" mode, and really let loose on the narrow, winding, undulating roller coaster of a road, located next to a stunning bit of scenery: Loch Levin.

(My Astra taking in the views of the splendid Loch Levin. The unbelievable B863 passes along this Loch, providing unbeatable views for 10 miles. The skies were a little grey at this time, but for the one or two minutes each day when the sun comes out it makes the mountain glow and the water sparkle.)

When I got back home around 3:00 PM, I immediately set out to hike up the tallest mountain in the UK: Benn Nevis (1340 metres, or 4406 feet high).

(Ben Nevis, or at least half of it. The rest of the mountain is up in the clouds.)

Fortunately for me, the entrance to the Benn Nevis hiking path is literally located right across the street from the front door to my hostel. Unfortunately though, the summit of Benn Nevis is so high that the temperature at the top of the mountain is below freezing (-21 centigrade with wind-chill) and I did not bring anything warmer than a thin, non-waterproof shell of a coat. I've never let a silly thing like being unprepared stop me in the past though, and so with running shoes, track pants, a thin jacket, a Snickers bar, and a 500 mL bottle of water, I set out to conquer Britain's highest peak.

(A group of hikers I met along the way who were in the process of trying to climb the three tallest mountains in Britain in under 24 hours. They told me that this was their second mountain, and that immediately after descending they would climb in a bus and drive through the night to the next mountain in England.)

(A beautiful picture of the glen of Glen Nevis - where I was staying.)

(Ben Nevis has a number of peaks along its top ridge. The most common way to reach its summit is to take this path up, and then cross over the "bridge" in the middle of the picture to get to the other side where the highest point is located somewhere up in those clouds.)

Along the way, every person I met thought there was no way I would make it to the top with my choice of "kit." I poo-pooed their concerns, since I figured there was no way I could fail, since I had "set my mind to it." I wanted to climb Ben Nevis, that's what I was going to do.

(A beautiful loch between two of Ben Nevis' peaks.)

It wasn't until later that I found out that unlike hikers in Korea, who will buy $1000 worth of hiking gear to have a picnic on the side of a large hill, hiking the Munroes in Scotland is a seriously dangerous endeavour that results in roughly 4 deaths every year due to heart attacks caused by dehydration, or people slipping off of cliffs. But never mind inconvenient details like that right now; on with the story...

Everything was going along just fine and dandy for the first hour (less than half the mountain), until I came to an unexpected waterfall. The waterfall produced so much water that it flooded a 3 metre wide section of the path about 10 -15 centimetres deep with ice cold glacier water. Here's where the water-proof boots would have come in handy... This is also where I should have refilled my water bottle....

(The "waterfall" on Ben Nevis.)

(Two videos of the "water fall", from different angles.)

After that I was told by a climber coming down from the summit, "you can't go up to the top; it's all snow and your feet will get soaked." I replied, "that's alright, my feet are already soaked," and kept on my way. Eventually, after the grass had disappeared, and I was literally up in the clouds (the portion of the mountain obscured in the picture), it started to dawn on me that they were not talking about a couple of inches of snow here or there, but 2 metres of snow that never melts because the temperature is always below freezing.

(What I ran in to at the top of Ben Nevis. I touched up this picture on my computer to make it look better, but the visibility was nowhere near this good; especially since my glasses were all fogged up and/or covered in snow.)

(A video of me trying to find my way to the summit of Ben Nevis. I make a mistake in this video. The name of the mountain is Ben Nevis. Glen Nevis is the valley below the mountain
Ben Nevis, not Glen Nevis. There is no second mountain called Glen Nevis.)

A saner person probably would have turned around at this point, but I noticed a T-shirt back at the hostel advertising the mountain as the tallest in Britain, and I didn't want to buy the T-shirt if I hadn't reached the summit, so I soldiered on, eating snow to keep myself hydrated.

Eventually, after 2 hours and 40 minutes of the world's toughest stair master workout, I was able to stand beside the finish marker, the highest land dweller in the UK. I almost died, but it was worth it, because now I get to wear my Benn Nevis T-shirt honestly. Well, I would have been able to wear the T-shirt honestly, but I later found out that there were no shirts in my size, so alas my effort was in vain.

(Me, on the summit marker of Ben Nevis with my trusty water bottle. "Kimchi!")

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