The gantries over the M6 displayed their ever-optimistic revised speed limits. As soon as the glaring orange '40' started flashing in the deepening grey of late-Friday afternoon, our hopes of meaningful progress were numbered and we ground to an inevitable halt a matter of metres later.
The only explanation as to why this always happens is that '40' is not the required speed limit, but some sort of Highways Agency in-joke; a code number shown to unsuspecting motorists that actually means, "It's busy but you're hopeful of keeping going. Wrong! Now why not travel at some other time of day?" Stranded somewhere between Junction 20 and Junction 19, Google Maps promised the exit wasn't far away and thus staved off any potential despair. Some seven hours after setting out, home wasn't far away.
Witnessing the end-of-the-week rush hour in full flow (sort of) was a shock to the system. Five days in the Scottish Highlands reconditions your brain entirely. The open space, the majestic sights, the lack of traffic; everything makes you question the bustle of your normal routine. Casting an eye over the lethargic tide of idling cars, I couldn't help but adopt a slightly smug, superior attitude.
What have you done this week? I wondered. We've climbed Ben Nevis.
Not attractive thinking, I’ll admit. Such feelings were simply a defence mechanism against being thrust so vividly back into the reality of nine-to-five living. Doubtless there were people in their vehicles justifiably proud of the week’s work just completed; people who felt their impending weekend was well earned. Normally I’m one of them, but all that fresh air had brought about something of an existential crisis.
Is it any wonder? The entire top third of Britain’s tallest mountain spent the week permanently shrouded in cloud. Making the slow ascent into poor visibility had the feeling of crossing into a whole other plane of existence, like you’d imagine the plot of some old Star Trek episode. We left behind a world we knew, a world we could marvel at; we found ourselves on the steep, rocky slopes of a madness-inducing alternative dimension.
During a brief stop to catch our breath, with the declining temperature nipping at our spirits, a man in a red coat materialised from the veil of mist. The colour was intense with the energy of descent, and I made some reference to the weather that he had the satisfaction of leaving behind. I can’t recall my exact words for I was too busy trying to sound relaxed. Trying to sound as though we weren’t amateurs, lured by yesterday’s forecast and its promises of clear skies and giddy views from the top.
“It’s getting icy up there,” he said, sparing us a moment but never faltering in his search for the land of waterfalls and rainbows he – like us – had once known. We turned our faces back to the wind and wondered how many steps we could manage before our lungs started treating oxygen like a scarce commodity once more.
Briefly I thought about work colleagues in the office 350 miles away, but it might as well have been 350,000 miles. Did I really have a desk in Stoke that I sit at for 37 hours a week? Unlikely. The person on that mountainside was not a person who knows everything there is to know about oddly named insulation products. What function could I possibly have there if this is what I’m doing now, and why would I be here if that is where I normally am? I put these thoughts/memories/illusions to the back of my mind.
I was grateful for my coat, the cold no longer numbing my arms. A hail shower came and went, as if simply teasing us into thoughts of turning back when it knew we would force ourselves forwards. Small accumulations of snow had found a way to grow between the rocks. Imperceptibly the scene changed and we trekked across the ice planet Hoth toward our goal. My fingers fumbled to capture a picture. The next most recent camera shot was the lush green of Glen Nevis – some photos taken in the meantime must have been deleted, because this was not the same mountain.
The weight of people undertaking the same journey – and maybe of a few ghosts as well – ensured the path was marked clearly in compacted snow. The occasional cairn turned into structures of a different sort – memorials, the fabled weather observatory, and finally the summit marker itself. People milled around, as if asking themselves whether they had really achieved what they set out to do.
I know that’s what I was doing.
Nobody savours sub-zero temperatures, however. With everything and nothing to see there was little to be gained from hanging around, except perhaps hypothermia. A treacherous descent commenced almost immediately. The cloud lingered, watching us slip and slide back toward the relative hospitality of dry rocks. Once beyond the snow, it threw down upon us a barrage of stinging sleet; the last desperate measure of something that knows it has been beaten.
Grim determination and sheer force of will might be considered a madness of sorts. If they are not, then madness finally manifested itself in one brief flourish under the blue skies of relative normality. Having marched through the onslaught – but still not yet halfway through the descent – I took a moment to look back at what we had conquered. I couldn't see it of course, but with a piercing gaze I looked into its heart and ranted at it under my breath.
"Screw you, Ben Nevis. We beat you."
Again, not my usual style of thinking, but the fever quickly left me. Weary knees and empty stomachs finally overcame the group’s desire to reach a more temperate altitude. On one of the few occasions where random rocks appear to offer the same comfort as bean bags, packed lunches were duly unpacked. Although now clearly visible, the valley floor and all its connotations of civilisation remained a distant dream, but a firmer memory.
The contented peace that accompanies deserved refreshment was briefly shattered, as an RAF jet flew through the hills. Impressive as it was - and how often can you say that you actually looked down upon an aircraft in full flight? - the measure of our experience in that cloud layer made it seem somehow unremarkable. Maybe the pilot, as he employed every bit of his flying skill to skirt round the highest mountain in Great Britain, caught a glimpse of all the walkers negotiating the steep path.
What have you achieved this week? he perhaps wondered. I've flown a fighter jet through the Glens of Scotland.