In early January 2012 my friends and I learnt to use winter mountaineering equipment in Scotland to prepare for a trip into the Moroccan Atlas Mountains later in the month. There we climbed two 4000m snowy peaks including the highest mountain in Northern Africa, Mount Toubkal (4187m). Nothing unusual about that except that myself and two others of the group are amputees. I lost my right leg above the knee in a motorbike accident many years ago. At the time of these trips I was three years into my use of an implant attached prosthetic that anchors directly into my remaining femur bone. This system (ITAP) has given me unprecedented physical freedom for an amputee and allowed me to realistically dream of mountains!
We had always intended that our first winter trips would not also be our last. When our group’s main organiser suggested a return to Scotland a year after our initial experience for further skill learning we were all fairly keen. He has always been very supportive about walking with amputees and had confidence in our abilities, so the idea that we should round the latest trip off nicely with an ascent of Ben Nevis didn’t come as too much of a surprise. When I first heard the plan I was slightly nervous. Despite having previously conquered much higher peaks in winter conditions, there is an aura that surrounds Ben Nevis (it is a tough mountain!), but I was eager to once again test my technology and endurance.
A trip was then arranged that would give us three days in the mountains. Unfortunately due to commitment conflicts I would be the only amputee in attendance. We would once again be in the hands of our guide Des who had led us in our previous forays into the snow. Once in Scotland, Des explained the importance of keeping a careful eye on the weather and avalanche risk predictions and tailored our activities appropriately. On our first day we learnt about snow conditions including predicting avalanche risk by digging snow profiles. The importance of this lesson was dramatically brought home to us the following day when four climbers tragically lost their lives after being caught in an avalanche. With high winds predicted for our second full day we stayed in relatively sheltered valleys and fortunately the accurate prediction of reasonable weather for our final day allowed us to have a crack at the Ben!
To allow for our slower than average group pace we got up on the big day at 5am and were on the road to Fort William by 6am. We had been given a turnaround time of 2pm by Des and were anxious not to get close to that point of failure. After having to scrounge sufficient parking money from some kindly locals also planning to scale the mountain (no one brought any change!) we left the Ben Nevis visitors centre guided through the chilly but calm morning by the beams of our head-torches shortly before 7am.
Initially the ‘Tourist path’ is very well engineered set of steps heading upward and we made good time. Unfortunately after reaching a height of about 200m this progress dropped to an agonising crawl when we came to a section where a mountain stream had inconsiderately frozen along the route of the path. After a couple of minor slips I was forced to keep away from the ice by carefully picking my way from rock to raised rock through increasing daylight. My prosthetic ankle has little ‘accommodation’ for either slopes or lateral bending, resulting in me being very susceptible to this frozen menace! As keeping up any kind of useful pace was impossible during this prolonged icy-section I was conscious of time passing without significant progress when the time-stress was relieved by the welcome phrase echoing from Des “It’s time to put your crampons on!” Although there were still plenty of rocks in the path, the proportion of icy patches was sufficiently high that we could justify crampon use and as a result of being able to confidently walk where previously we were unable, our pace picked up dramatically. We soon exited the main stepped section of the path at a height of about 500m and began to experience snow covering the ground. At this point the terrain actually got easier to negotiate as the gradient reduced. The weather had continued to be fine and we made excellent progress to a height in excess of 900m which included a short traverse requiring ice-axes before a slight pause for disappointingly minor refreshments. At this stage I was fairly confident that despite the icy delay we were on for a successful summit.
Continuing up the zigzagging track the weather began to deteriorate as we gained height. The wind had picked up and at this altitude we were quite exposed. We also occasionally had to cross sections of deep soft snow that have always been a cause of a significant slowing of progress for myself. Fatigue had begun to take its toll by the time we were exiting the last zigzag at about 1200m and visibility was dramatically reduced. The straightish path was still discernible over the next 100m or so of vertical ascent but the wind was causing significant chilling on both body and spirit. At about 1300m the path became an irrelevance under the snow and we were required to rely on Des’ excellent compass work to avoid wandering off the steep cliffs on our left hand side. The last 50m of ascent going from cairn to cairn seemed to take an age through the frozen cloud we were walking in but eventually we were able to safely divert to the left and make the final short push to the summit. The site of the ruined weather station looming out of the gloom was certainly welcome – our ascent had taken almost exactly six hours!
After a brief stop for frozen snacks, some well-deserved layer addition and what photographs could be gained before the temperature killed our camera batteries we set off on the descent. None of us were sad to leave the summit – it was bitterly cold and the visibility was appalling!
We made good progress off the mountain and in what seemed like a relatively short time were approaching the icy step torture that awaited us. Knowing that with patience we would make it through this section of the path didn’t make the going any more pleasant but after crampons become more of a hindrance than a help I was very kindly guided from step to safe step by one of the group and eventually we made it the end of the path via a not so deliberate diversion! The steps had taken it out of all of our legs but a short return to the car park via tarmac gave us an opportunity to stretch those muscles and we were safely back at the cars five hours after leaving the summit.
One of my fellow Summiteers asked me on the way down what I enjoyed about the day and at first I was slightly stuck for words. Although the eleven hour walk was exhausting and at times slightly nerve-racking (icy steps!) the sense of satisfaction at achieving the summit was enormous. I feel privileged to have been able to experience the stunning views that were available before the cloud closed in and also simply enjoy being in the countryside. Walking with this group of friends is always fun and by getting to the summit of Ben Nevis in winter conditions I feel that their support (and tolerance of my slowish descent) has allowed me to push the boundaries of what I thought would be possible as an above-knee amputee. All things considered, a seriously good day. I wonder what we shall do next?