On Climbing Ben Nevis

Sonnet. Written Upon the Top of Ben Nevis

By John Keats

Read me a lesson, Muse, and speak it loud


Upon the top of Nevis, blind in mist!


I look into the chasms, and a shroud


Vapourous doth hide them, –just so much I wist


Mankind do know of hell; I look o’erhead,


And there is sullen mist, –even so much


Mankind can tell of heaven; mist is spread


Before the earth, beneath me, –even such,


Even so vague is man’s sight of himself!


Here are the craggy stones beneath my feet,–


Thus much I know that, a poor witless elf,


I tread on them, — that all my eye doth meet


Is mist and crag, not only on this height,


But in the world of thought and mental might!

 

My friend Charlotte is clever. She didn’t ask me, “Hey Cher, how would you like to climb the tallest mountain in Britain”, or “How about a trek with the mountaineering club.” No, she said nonchalantly, “Do you like John Keats.” I said that I did.  “How would you like to hike up the mountain that was John Keats’ inspiration. What the hell was I supposed to say to that? Before I knew it, ten of my precious pounds were in the grubby hands of the mountaineering club.

 Two days before the climb we received an email.  “Please meet us in front of the sports center at 6:00 AM. If you are late we will leave without you. Bring a head torch and a compass.” 6:00 AM? A head-torch?  The night before my roommate Harriet and I said tearful goodbyes in case I didn’t return the next day.

 My alarm went off at 5:25 AM. I slept in the clothes I was planning on wearing just to avoid an extra step. Luckily, out of concern, Charlotte’s roommate Catherine had brought two pairs of hiking boots up. “You cannot climb a mountain in trainers.” Thank God for Catherine. She was so right.

Charlotte and I trudged to the sports center sporting hiking boots, thick socks, layered leggings, sweatshirts, hats, and a waterproof (A.K.A. Raincoat). We had a map of Ben Nevis in a waterproof folder and blister Band-Aids in our rucksack. We felt pretty damn prepared.

We arrived at the sports center. It was still pitch dark.  We hopped in a van and slept on each other’s shoulders for three and a half hours until we arrived.

When we got there it was snowing. Not just gentle flakes falling gracefully, but actually snow-snowing. Charlotte and I looked at each other, and looked up at the mountain.  Here goes nothing.

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Our first mistake was we brought no money. Ben Nevis is about a six-hour hike and we were allowed eight hours. There’s a pub at the base of Ben Nevis but we couldn’t very well stay there for two hours without buying anything. Luckily our friend Erik was on the trip and spotted us four pounds.

We began our ascent, passing sheep and climbing over boulders. Here’s the thing about climbing a mountain: it is all uphill. I don’t think I entirely appreciated that until it was too late. We were climbing a mountain. There was no going back. I consoled myself with the fact that I would undoubtedly return with amazing Instagram photos.

ImageI thought about John Keats. He probably didn’t have hiking boots. He probably hiked up this mountain in loafers armed with nothing but a notebook and a sense of wonder. We had hiking boots a waterproof, and a map in a folder. We could do this! Once we hit the first viewpoint I understood the reason he climbed the mountain just to write a sonnet.

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We continued trekking, stopping occasionally to eat a Pop Tart or apply a blister Band-Aid, but we were making good progress. Suddenly I didn’t feel powerless or tired. I felt like the queen of the world.

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We made it to a frozen lake and decided to stop for lunch. We sat on a snow-covered rock in the bitter cold, “like water nymphs” we joked. Charlotte munched on pita’s spread with Nutella while I ate a rock hard loaf of cheesy bread.  We finished as quickly as we could. Some huge crows were starting to loom closer to us.  Plus it was much warmer while we walked.

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We reached the top of the damn mountain. It was worth it. It was.  We felt accomplished and wonderful, until we realized we had to climb back down.

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We slipped down the mountain. The icy rocks yielding under our boots. By the time we made it to the pub we were exhausted. Charlotte fell asleep on a couch after spitting some cheesy garlic bread.  I closed my eyes contentedly too realizing that Charlotte Gorman and I, two wee American girls in a strange country, conquered the tallest mountain in Great Britain.

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