Beaten Up on Ben Nevis

The next thing I know I’m sprawled on my back in the heather.    A few moments ago, or so it seems, I was twenty or thirty feet away,  hiding in a small depression, clinging to the heather, listening to an unearthly wind build up with uncanny ferocity above me.  I’ve no memory of how I got to be where I am now. I sit up, looking down I find, still clenched in my fists, are the two clumps of heather I was holding on to when I took shelter from whatever it was has hurled me here.  I know something strange has happened, although I can’t quite workout what.

Let’s re-wind a bit.

It’s December and I’m walking up the path to the CIC hut on the north face of Ben Nevis. Winter is late this year and the cliffs of the mountain are depressingly black.  The place is kind of waiting for the main event to arrive.  Climbs like Point Five and Zero as just figments of my imagination as I stare forlornly at the face and try and will it to freeze.

Lean conditions on the North Face of Ben Nevis

I’m alone as I plod up the track with Carn Dearg buttress towering over me to my right reducing me to an ant like scale.  To my left Carn Dearg arête closes in the glen making this great bowl where so many great climbing battles were won and lost.  It’s warm, mercifully dry and not too windy, just the odd gust gently nudges me as I make my way up towards the hut.

It was when I paused, to munch on a chocolate peanut, that I began to notice to something.  High above me, where the truncated rock ridges of the north face meet the sky, the wind was building.  Every now and again I hear a great angry roar as the armies of the wind are lay siege to the fortress of rock, hurling themselves again and again at the sheer walls.  It’s a sound I’ve heard before, in the Northern corries of the Cairngorms where the wind sweeps across the great open spaces of Speyside and collides with the granite pinnacles on the edge of the summit plateau.

But there’s something else going on here, something beyond my experience,  I can sense a kind of pressure building.  There’s nothing tangible, I can’t see anything, yet I can feel the air being crushed against the cliffs a thousand feet above me.  Suddenly the wind starts to build and I begin to be buffeted about on the path.  I have a premonition that something is about to happen. I’m being blown about now, jostled by the wind’s invisible hands, and decide it’s time to seek shelter and climb into a small depression in the heather.  Far above me the wind slams into the rock face, crashing from one rock wall to the next, in a desperate attempt to escape.

Near the hut

The air is full of twigs and small stones and I notice, with an academic indifference, that the straps on my rucksack are vibrating with the force of the wind.  Instinctively I grab the heather in front of me and hold on with both hands. Now the straps are emitting a high pitch squeal and it feels as though someone is trying to rip the rucksack from my back.  That’s the last thing I remember.

The next instant I’m on my back, perhaps twenty feet from where I was clinging to the heather.  I’m covered in twigs and bits of grass, the wind has dropped to a gentle breeze and only the clouds, racing high in the sky above me give any indication of the speed of the high altitude wind.  Brushing the vegetation from my clothes I try and work out what happened.  I must have been blown from where I was a moment ago to where I am now yet I’ve no memory of that happening and you would remember being picked up by the wind and hurled twenty feet through the air, that’s not the kind of thing that would slip your memory is it?

Despite being confused and unsure what just happened I am absolutely certain about one thing, that is what’s going to happen next.  Like when I was sitting eating my sandwiches on Kinder Scout and a blot of lighting struck a wall fifty feet away, or when the snow pack cracked and slipped a few inches beneath my boots in the Cairngorms one winter, or when I was sitting beside a campfire in Chamonix and a drunk hurled a large gas canister into the fire.  On occasions like these I don’t hang around to find out what the outcome is going to be, I take the only available option and get the hell out of there.  Five minutes later I’m several hundred feet down the path heading for the safety of the glen as fast as I can.  I don’t need to be told twice.

Lewis hits the canvas, at least he knows who hit him

Lewis hits the canvas, at least he knows who hit him

I begin to piece together what happened. I must have been blown through the air or at least tumbled across the heather yet I can’t remember that.  I can only think that I was unconscious.  It felt like I had only spent a moment laying in the heather but for all I know it could have been several minutes, when you are that dazed time has little meaning.  When Lennox Lewis was knocked out by Oliver McCall in their world title fight his corner men took him to his stool and told him the fight was over. “Really!” he replied, “Who won?”  That’s exactly how I felt.

I’ll confess that sometimes in this blog, in the interests of humour, I exaggerate.  “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story,” goes the old newspaper adage.  However, hand on heart, what I’ve written above is true, every word.  I hesitated for a while in writing this because I didn’t think anyone would believe me and probably most people reading this still won’t.  After all, in my years on the hills I’ve been blown off my feet on many occasions but never KO’d.

My old martial arts instructor once told me, in amongst handy tips on how to break people’s arms and shatter their knee caps, that if you clap your hands over both of someone’s ears simultaneously you can knock them out.  I think that a freak wind must have built up pressure against the cliffs of Ben Nevis and suddenly exploded in a pressure wave that knocked me senseless and bowled me over.  Unfortunate as that may seem I’m extremely grateful I wasn’t on the Carn Mor Dearg arête when that happened.

Ben Nevis North face

I would be very interested to hear if anything similar has happened to anyone else. I’m sure it must although in all the pub yarns, tall tales and downright lies I’ve heard told by my climbing brothers nobody has claimed to have experienced anything quite like this.  I never told anyone, after all who would believe me.

Halfway down the track I meet a large party coming up. In the lead is a young man who is clearly an instructor, he oozes certificates and safety standards.  “How’s it going?” he says casually to me.  I think of all the things I could say.  I could explain that, despite the obviously benign weather, I’ve just been beaten up by the wind. I could warn him that proceeding higher might be dangerous.  The problem is exactly what am I going to warn him of? I can’t explain what I don’t understand.  I imagine trying to tell him what happened and his eyes glazing over as he decides he’s talking to a lunatic.  In the end I just smile, “Oh fine,” and head off towards the glen, “Have a nice day.”


12 responses to “Beaten Up on Ben Nevis

  1. A great read, as always.

    Yes, I have had a similar experience, although not on a hill, but on a bike!

    Trying to avoid the side of a car that had just turned left in front of me, I remember slamming on the brakes, leaving the bike and ( as if in slow motion ) looking down at the top of the car as I saled over it.

    Next thing I was laying on the grass verge 30 feet in the opposite direction, looking up at the sky. With no memory of how I got there.

    No-one was around, not even the nonce who caused the event!


      • I badly bruised my shoulder and I couldn’t ride for a few weeks, the only lasting injury was to my windshirt.

        I should mention that I was travelling down a hill at a fair lick; maybe that’s what enabled my take-off!

  2. I’ve seen the aftermath of “microbursts” of wind that have knocked down all the trees on a hillside, and I wouldn’t have wanted to be there when it happened! I’ll bet it was something like that – kind of a mini-tornado. Quite a tale!

    • I’ve seen trees knocked down on hillsides too. I always thought it was a burst of wind coming from an unusual direction but you are probably right, some of these micro-bursts must have an almost explosive force.

  3. Good read! Something vaguely similar happened to me 9 years ago while camping in the Cairngorms, up by Loch nan Stuirteag. I was tucked away in my tent when I heard an almighty bang from below the corrie line, somewhere down in Glen Geusachan. It felt like an earthquake. Then I heard the wind coming up the corrie towards the loch, it went over the tent, which shook rather badly and then it was all over. Must have been a micro-burst. And you’re right, I heard the roar of the wind you mentioned while going up the Goat Track in the Northern Corries. It’s quite something! Certainly it’s something to bear in mind when one is on a knife edge ridge, eh?

  4. Wow! haven’t actually heard of anything like that before but it sounds horrific. Our lilac tree got split in two with a huge crack one night but it was a very windy night and not just something springing up suddenly and then abating immediately – that is truly weird!

  5. Back in the 1970s, or maybe it was the 1980s, a RAF helicopter seriously strained its engines trying to keep in the air, when it was caught in a down-draft, in and around the north face of the Ben. Limped back to Fort William for repair.

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