Sunday, June 21, 2009

STI: A certain frisson that sparks you alive

June 21, 2009

A certain frisson that sparks you alive

Breathtaking views and a hint of danger prove an exhilarating tonic for the writer

By Lee Wei Ling

In June 2004, I was in Britain on business and decided to make a side trip to Fort Williams in Scotland to climb Ben Nevis.

I did my homework and read up on the climb. The guide book gave the following details: the distance of the return hike was 14.5km, the time needed to complete it was about six to eight hours; the difficulty level was 'medium-hard'; 'it is a steep, stony path and a long day to the summit of Britain - an immensely rewarding walk with unsurpassed panoramic views'.

The guide book also warned: 'Despite its popularity, a walk up 'The Ben' should not be undertaken lightly. The mountain measures in at 1,344m, the start is virtually at sea level and the ascent is continuous, all the way to the top. You should be well prepared with mountain equipment and adequate food and drink, and be warned that this mountain can be a dangerous place.'

I made two unsuccessful attempts to climb Ben Nevis on the first day I arrived at Fort Williams - once in the morning and again in the afternoon. The scenery was great during the first half of each climb but sudden rain and fog forced me to turn back both times.

It was summer, so the daylight hours were long. Even at 11pm, I was able to see Ben Nevis clearly from my hotel room at the foot of the mountain. I had a heavy dinner and decided that I would reach the summit the next day, come what may.

I set out at 7am after a drink of water. As was my habit, I had no breakfast. I decided to ignore the warning in the guidebook and climb light and fast - carrying just a bottle of water, thin woollen gloves and a light jacket in my backpack. The weather was fine and the sun well up in the sky when I began and I climbed beyond the two points where I had been forced to turn back the previous day.

Eventually, I was at an elevation where there was no vegetation other than some hardy forms of lichen on some parts of the rocky surface. Then, just as on the previous day, the weather changed suddenly and I found myself climbing against strong winds with sleet. My meagre clothing was rapidly drenched and my hands became so cold that I could not move my fingers or tie the shoelaces that had come undone. I debated whether to turn back and try again another time.

But I was not at all sure I would succeed on my next try. In any event, I was leaving Fort Williams the next day. What would I lose from not proceeding when I was in danger of hypothermia or getting lost or both? Nothing but my pride. Did my self confidence depend on success in foolhardy ventures? No, but I would certainly take pride if I did succeed in this.

My thought process was no more logical or illogical then those who decide to climb Mt Everest or ski across the North or South poles. So I stumbled on, barely able to see one metre ahead, fully aware that every treacherous step up will later necessitate an even more treacherous step down. I tried to keep clear of patches of snow while still remaining on the path. This was not always possible and my running shoes - yes, I was so foolhardy, I was wearing lighter and swifter running shoes instead of hiking boots - were soon soaked and my toes turned cold and numb.

The summit was a wasteland with the remains of the walls of the observatory that had once stood there, and several cairns scattered in a boulder-strewn moonscape. The only view I had was of more mist and fog. I decided there was nothing to gain by lingering. So I started down, my fingers and toes painful and numb from cold. The rain and sleet gradually lightened and eventually stopped. By the time I was at an elevation where there were shrubs again, the sun was beginning to emerge from the clouds. It was only 10am.

I was cautiously jubilant, thinking I was likely to finish the hike in well under six hours. But I knew the danger was not over yet. If I were overcome with hypothermia, no one would know as I had informed nobody where I was going. I walked faster as I proceeded downwards, for I was bordering on hypothermia and I wanted to get to the tavern at the bottom of the mountain as soon as possible.

Now the going was much easier and the scenery was great. True, I had seen the same landscape on my two previous attempts. But each time it was somewhat different.

Admiring scenery is like appreciating good wine. One must have a passion for it and an eye for details - like the angle of the sun, the tint of the sky, and unexpected bonus features such as the rainbow I had seen during my failed attempt the previous evening. Scenery, in addition to the hint of danger, is why I find hiking so addictive.

From this point on, the trail was easy to follow and I walked as quickly as I could. By noon, I was in the tavern, taking off as much of my wet clothing as was decent and drying them using the hand dryer in the wash room.

When I was as near dry and warm as I could be, I chatted with the lady in charge of the tavern. I told her I had just completed the climb in four hours. 'That's not bad,' she said. 'The local lads have a race up and down Ben Nevis once a year. The fastest time is always below two hours.'

I reminded myself that I was much older than those 'lads', not to mention a female. That I completed the hike in a respectable time was good enough for me. I was not out to prove myself to others. I just wanted to know how I would fare after undergoing major surgery in July 2003 and whether I had lost my nerve.

No one but me would understand why I did it. To all who asked me, my answer was: 'For some people, it takes a streak of insanity to make life worth living.'

The writer is director of the National Neuroscience Institute.

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