The train journey through from Glasgow to Fort William was incredibly scenic. As we hurtled past mile after mile of glens, valleys, mountains and streams, I gazed proudly at the beauty of my home country. I re-adjusted my mask (again) in discomfort caused by a combination of the heat and the length of time it had been hooked around my tiny ears. For me, at least, I believe the magic of nature will never fade. I still feel my insides leap with joy every time I spot any form of wildlife (except spiders – my whole body leaps in the opposite direction when I see one and the jump is usually accompanied by a pathetic squeal). Birds of prey hovered impressively, sheep ambled about, cows grazed amongst their many calves who darted about clumsily, a red doe poked her head up through a thicket of vibrant green ferns and two heron stood upright in a field, like imposter scarecrows. These seemingly insignificant sightings made my heart swell. I couldn’t decide which window to look out of from fear of missing something incredible.
I’ve been to Fort William briefly before, and I’ve been hiking before, so what was the big deal? Firstly, it was my first proper hike without being accompanied by someone I knew and whom I was comfortable with. It was also the first time I’d actually travelled and stayed overnight in accommodation on my own. This fact only occurred to me on the train journey as I’ve done a fair amount of travelling (nowhere near as much as I’d like!) and have flown down to England alone numerous times to visit family. The difference was that there was always someone waiting for me on the other side. As a rather nervous and anxious person, this was a relatively big deal for me as it was pushing me out of my comfort zone. There was no one to rely on, no one to hide behind. I was pushing myself out of the nest. Furthermore, my hike was for charity to raise funds for the Alzheimer’s Society in memory of my late gran whom we lost to dementia. Fittingly, the charity hike was taking place the week before the second anniversary of her tragic passing, also known as probably the most difficult week of my twenty-six years so far.
When the train stopped at Speak Bridge, the stop prior to Fort William, I knew it was going to be an emotional couple of days when I found myself welling up merely from witnessing an elderly woman being greeted off the train by (presumably) her daughter and young grandsons. My heart ached knowing I’d never again have a special moment like that with my own gran, but it was beautiful to watch all the same.
That Thursday was a day of many firsts. It was the first time I’d checked into accommodation alone. It was the first time I was going on an adventure without someone to bounce my nervous and excitable energy off of. It was also the first time I’d asked for a table for one at a proper restaurant and been on the receiving end of the pitiful look when the waitress realised I was alone. I felt a little awkward, but mainly, I was irritated by the fact that being alone is viewed as ‘a wee shame’ or ‘tragic’. As I’m mostly introverted, I’m definitely one of those individuals who requires some solitude now and again to recuperate and recharge their social battery, so I didn’t really mind. However, I have to admit, eating out on my own did feel a little tragic purely because all of the other tables were full, and I was the only person without someone to chat to!
The next day, upon meeting at staggered times at the Alzheimer’s Society event tent, the groups set off one by one approximately ten minutes apart. My slot was roughly in the middle of the two hours’ worth of slots, at around 7am. A nerve-tinged excitement reverberated around the tent as people readjusted their hiking gear, stocked up on snacks and lunches and served themselves hot drinks provided by the charity. I slowly ate my croissant and sought out the starting point, mentally and physically bracing myself for I wasn’t quite sure what (and silently pleading with all the Gods that they’d hold the rain at least until we were back at the tent).
Somehow, I actually reached the summit first out of the Alzheimer’s Society group! For that reason, I lingered around for a while, taking plenty of photos, video-calling my mum from the summit and having a quick snack. I had prepared an important, personal and emotional post for my Facebook page and blog to upload upon my arrival at the summit. It was a piece I’d written about our experience with my gran’s decline with dementia, and a way I chosen to look at it to make it feel ever-so-slightly more bearable, that I’d always been too shy to share with those I wasn’t close to, despite my mum loving it and having copies printed for my gran’s funeral. The link to that post is here, if you are interested in having a read.
Shortly after my arrival at the summit, thick clouds had rolled in, unfortunately obscuring the view almost completely. Eventually, the chilly breeze kicked in, so I put my zipper back on and decided to begin my descent. I video-called my best friend at the start of my descent to let her know I’d made it (and show her the large patch of icy snow I had to climb down to get back to the path because my inner child was thrilled, obviously).
Although I did spend time chatting to people on my journey up, part of me wishes I’d dawdled more so I could’ve spent more time chatting to all of the interesting people participating. However, in a sense, I think it was also important that I did it on my own. I needed to know I could do it without relying on anyone. After all, although I was doing it for the Alzheimer’s Society and in memory of my gran, I was also doing it for me. The past couple of years have been tough on everyone, and I’ve personally struggled quite a lot throughout some of the lockdowns. I realised during the lockdowns how crucial it is to protect your mental health, and I think part of doing this is to challenge your inner strength – not so much that it breaks you, but enough to help you grow and for your self-confidence to build. For me, conquering Ben Nevis was one of those opportunities to do so.
The hike itself was a dream (for me at least). For starters, it was dry. In Scotland. No rain. I repeat, NO RAIN. It was a miracle! It was warm, there were no midges, there was good visibility for the majority of the climb, excluding the actual summit where the clouds tumbled in as I arrived), it wasn’t windy and the SUN even came out for a while! I had hiked in disgusting weather conditions prior to Ben Nevis – through sub-zero temperatures, gale-force winds, horizontal hailstones which provided the most extreme exfoliation my face had ever experienced (do not recommend!) and can’t-see-a-bloody-thing fog on top of that. As a sun-worshiper who adores countryside scenery, being able to absorb the beautiful sights from half-way up our country’s highest mountain in the glorious sunshine, was, literally, heavenly.
I still met some very interesting people. Unsurprisingly, after my apparently rapid ascent, I was the fifth person to reach the bottom and lingered chatting to the volunteers and the other few who had succeeded before me. Gradually, more and more participants joined us for a delicious feast provided by the Alzheimer’s Society. They served up generous portions of mac’n’cheese, lasagne, and vegetable ragu with the options for garlic bread, salad and tomato soup. Naturally, I devoured a mac’n’cheese with garlic bread, followed by a slab of chocolate cake and cream and eventually followed by a second helping of mac’n’cheese as they had so much leftover food. Unfortunately, around half of the intended participants were unable to join due to complications with covid restrictions and some from having to isolate, hence the immense excess of food (the charity volunteers were joking that no one was allowed to leave until they’d had two helpings – so my two portions of mac’n’cheese was all for the greater good…).
I got chatting to a man and a woman who were staying in the same AirBnB accommodation as me while we were having our well-deserved calorific delights who were a brilliant laugh. They’d travelled up from the bottom of England to do the climb and had a lot of travelling to do the following day. After getting back, collapsing on to the single bed in my room for a while, I peeled my fatigued (and unsurprisingly rather full) self up to shower and get ready to meet them and some others for drinks nearby. With most people having a long day of travelling or an early start the next day, the night was tame but still lovely to sit with a stunning view of the loch, hear other people’s stories and laugh until we ached.
On the Saturday, a little achy but pleasantly surprised I wasn’t waddling around like a penguin or in need of an adult-sized buggy (okay, large child-sized since I’m only 5ft tall), I packed up my belongings, and sauntered off to find somewhere for breakfast for one.
Somehow, ordering breakfast alone felt a little less awkward than dinner on the first night, despite the added discomfort of lugging a small suitcase and hiking rucksack in tow. I suppose with it being Wetherspoons and being able to order through the app made things easier, but it just somehow felt a little different. I somehow felt a little different. Looking back now, I think I felt accomplished. Successful. I’d achieved something on my own. I was proud of myself. I felt too content to care what other people may or may not be thinking of me. I don’t often feel this way so I guess it probably was an unusual feeling.
I felt a new sense of contentment for the remainder of the day as I sat patiently watching the stunning scenery whizz by once more on my return journey back to Glasgow. I noticed a woman I’d briefly chatted to on the climb sat a few rows in front and wandered up (child-sized face mask on, of course) to find out how she’d got on with the hike. We ended up spending the remainder of the journey chatting about our lives. She’d travelled all the way from Northen Ireland to join the hike! I enjoyed learning her story and about her family, and sharing some stories about my own too. We’re actually looking to meet in the future to do more hikes together, which I’m already excited for.
Other people’s lives always intrigue and inspire me. It never fails to amaze me how much people can touch your life, even through the briefest of encounters. Everyone who participated in the charity hike for the Alzheimer’s Society that day is bonded by a shared achievement, and many also, but perhaps unknowingly, by their reasons for being there.
With matched funding of £1000 from my work, I raised a total of £2,467 for the Alzheimer’s Society. The generosity and support from so many family members, friends and friends of friends and family will stay with me forever. Dementia stole my gran and I’ll never forget the heartbreak it caused my family; so, I am eternally grateful for every contribution towards fighting the disease and supporting those who are impacted by it.