"There’s Always Another Way" or "If We Lose the American, No One Will Know": A Love Story (Perhaps not the kind you’ve been waiting for, but a love story nonetheless.)

Approaching the North Face.

 

Before I get into the story, some background:

1) Ben Nevis is the highest mountain in the United Kingdom; strong, solid, and demanding at 1,344 meters (4,408 feet). There is the Pony Track, also known as The Tourist Route, so people like me (untrained climbers, non-mountaineers, tourists — though I consider myself a traveler, not a tourist) can get to the top without needing a map and a compass.

2) Steve Fallon has completed 17 rounds (pretty sure I’ve got this correct) of Munros, which are mountains in Scotland that are over 3,000 feet… and there are 282 of them.

3) Brene Brown says courage is “showing up and letting ourselves be seen” (Daring Greatly 30).  In the same work, she also explains our worthiness, “that core belief that we are enough, comes only when we live inside our story” (132).

Finally, I’m living inside my story.

You know the saying: “Some people have all the luck.” Though I no longer believe in luck,  I do understand  how it can appear some people seem to always be in the right place at the right time. Well, I’m going to go ahead and brag about it:

On Monday, the 14th of September, I was one of those annoying people who seem to have all the luck.

Let me back track a bit. Sunday morning, I stopped by the store to pick up a few things before heading to Fort William, where I planned to hike up the tourist route to the summit of Ben Nevis. (A popular tourist attraction — but not such a great scenic experience, according to true hillwalkers — I wanted to avoid it but knew I didn’t have enough wisdom to keep me safe on my own. So, reluctantly, I decided for once in my life to take the road most traveled. ) I was talking to the cashier about my ventures, and he told me there are men who have run up and down the mountain (remember — 4,000 feet) in under two hours.  Didn’t believe it and was certain he was full of B.S.

Once I arrived at my Glen Nevis Youth Hostel, I was speaking to one of my bunk-mates who had climbed Ben Nevis. She advised I take an alternative route. I inquired about the route at the front desk, and another hostel guest overheard my questions and helped me figure out the route on the map. So…it looked like I’d be taking the road less traveled after all — or at least attempting it.

Monday morning was beautiful: bright, crisp, and blue skies with a few clouds. I set out early, and I eventually found the turn off for my planned route. Giddy to be off the tourist route (but mindful of landmarks in the event I had to turn around in sudden fog or finding myself without a trail), a cloud overtook the mountain for a few minutes. I could still see the trail, and I made my way carefully through the blue-hued mist. It was so thick I could barely see the mountain to my right, but it was peaceful. Eventually, the cloud moved on, and I could see I had turned the corner on my way to the north face of Ben Nevis.

At that point, I realized I may not recognize the cut off to the suggested route. But the sun was shining, the sky was a bright blue, Ben was off to my right looming powerful and beautiful over me … and I saw two walkers to my distant left, so I didn’t feel so alone. I kept walking, admiring Ben’s north face (a sight unknown to those who take the Tourist Route) and talking to a few sheep.

I saw a hut in front of me, and I had hoped to cross paths my fellow hikers in order to ask for advice. Just my luck, they had taken a break at the hut for some lunch. When I asked if I could bother them for a minute, the one guy said, “You’re an American and you’re lost.”

Well, my pride would’ve been only a little hurt if he hadn’t said it with some humor, so I explained I knew exactly where I was on the map, but I wasn’t sure if I should keep going. I was more than prepared to turn around and go up the tourist route. After a bit of chat, to my surprise … they offered to have me tag along!

Let me stop the adventure story and explain something at this point: I love to hike. I love to move. To swim. I was a Crossfit member back in the States, and I do not balk at hard, physical labor. In fact, I’m attracted to anything that will push me and make me sweat — maybe even cry. However, though I’ve been making great gains on my journey to personal acceptance, the unwelcome-voice in my head still kicks in every now and then to tell me I’m too overweight and out of shape to do the things I want to do and live the life I want to live. Rock climbing, for instance. Pull-ups. Surfing. Now, I’ve attempted all of these things knowing my weight was a hindrance — but I tried anyways.

 

With David, after I said “yes”.
(Photo from Johnny’s blog.)

Back to standing with two fit men, a fit dog, and Ben Nevis’s face staring at my back. I turned around, quickly skimmed the  mountain for any sign of an obvious trail, and found none. I simply didn’t think I could do it. I wasn’t prepared. I hadn’t trained and I’ve been feeling poorly about my physical self. After introductions — David, his dog George (a female), and Johnny (mountain guide) — I thanked them for their offer, but explained I didn’t want to impose, nor did I think I was fit enough to keep up with them. Johnny, the expert (though David would say he’s not an expert, he’s damn-near close in my eyes), was encouraging: “I saw you walking, and you weren’t exactly slouching.” I only had a brief minute to make a decision, and that’s when (enter Brown’s explanation of courage) I decided to show up and be seen – soft belly, extra weight, and all. Who was I to turn down an offer from the universe?!?! I know that sounds a bit exaggerated, but my heart’s desire was to reach the summit of the highest mountain in Britain without taking the usual course. And there, standing in front of me, were two men (and a pup) who knew what they were doing, having confidence in me — offering to share their day with me. Something like this would not happen again.

Where we were headed. Do you see the route?

 

 

 

Up we went. I learned we were taking the Ledge Route but leaving that path a bit due to having George and some slippery rocks. As you can guess — that meant nothing to me. I just looked up and saw rocks. Strong, solid, ancient rock. I had no idea how we would get to the top, and Johnny would stop and point out the plan. At the time, I thought I couldn’t spot the trail, but now I know that’s because there isn’t one; we were going to be scrambling over and around rock all the way to the top of the gully (every time Johnny said gully, I thought of Fern Gully the movie).

The climb was amazing. At first, we were just walking over rock, but then, after crossing through the gully, we really started scrambling up. (Scrambling is exactly what it sounds like — not walking on a flat surface, but not as extreme as rock climbing. Both hands and feet are used to maneuver up ridges. Sometimes knees, in my case.) The conversation was great — Johnny sharing his knowledge of the place (and pronouncing the names of the mountains in wonderful Gaelic — it’s a wonder I didn’t swoon right off the mountain. I love the sound of the Gaelic language), David asking questions, the two of them telling stories, and the sun providing warmth and a stunning view. Occasionally, as we were scrambling, George needed some help over some rocks. At one point, Johnny said something to the effect of being more worried about George than being worried about me. David’s response? “I’m a dead man if I go home without the dog. If we lose the American, nobody will know.”

Being knowledgeable.

A good laugh came from that comment, but something inside of me clicked. As I slowly made my way from rock to rock, trusting the men in front of me, trusting myself, trusting the rock, trusting the universe — I was doing something I would have never signed up to do. If I had looked at Johnny’s website, I would have passed on the opportunity on the grounds of my perceived incompetence and poor fitness. No way I’m fit enough or experienced enough to do something so dangerous. And yet, there I was, climbing up the tallest mountain (no, not vertical, but still up) in the UK with two experienced climbers and their dog. And I hadn’t fallen…yet.

 

We reached a viewpoint and a good place to stop for food. As we sat and looked out, I can honestly tell you I hadn’t realized how high up we had climbed at that point. It was incredible. Thank goodness for adrenaline, though, because it wasn’t until I looked behind me and up did I understand the adventure I accepted when I said yes to David and Johnny’s invitation: it wasn’t a flat slab of rock, but it looked narrow and edgy … and scary. I had to do it, I had done it so far, but — whoa. I couldn’t believe I was in that moment.

From the viewpoint — about midway (I think) on the route.

Packing up for the last half of the Ledge Route, I was mindful to be careful. What happened on the second half of that climb, in my opinion, is what makes Johnny one of the greatest men out there — not just as a mountain guide, but as a person. I hadn’t said anything, but my nerves were close to kicking in. Something about taking a break to appreciate our accomplishment thus far — and realizing just how freakin’  high up we climbed — made me hyper-aware of how dangerous this could be if I weren’t careful. I knew there was nothing to do but breathe, stay focused on what was in front of me, and not rush, so there was no use in saying, “This is scary. I’m a little afraid.” I would have, though, if I were stuck. But Johnny — he sensed it. Calmly, but not the least bit condescendingly, he told me to make sure my footing was solid first, then look for handholds, to not pull on the rock to get up, and to trust the rock. At that point, I remember him slapping it, showing me it was solid and could be trusted. Never, not once, did he or David make me feel like I shouldn’t be there, and to my surprise, I didn’t feel like I shouldn’t be there. (Good thing. Had I thought that and had to be rescued, I would’ve been embarrassed for years and years.) I suddenly accept my worthiness — I was enough. As I am. I’m enough. I. Am. Enough. For whatever comes my way, I am enough for it.

High up: a humbling place.

It was an experience. An experience of a lifetime. It was then, as I moved passed a little fear and hesitation, I called on my recently-acquired meditation practice. Scrambling requires focus on the exact moment you’re in: not one minute in the past, and certainly not a minute into the future. You shouldn’t be thinking of anything else; scrambling up the side of a mountain is not the time to be thinking of heartache or grocery lists. It demands the scrambler to be present in the moment.

After finding the other way
(Photo courtesy of Johnny and his blog)

Speaking of being in the moment, I got to a point when I felt stuck. David had just helped George up and over a jagged rock, and I watched his foot placement. I knew better at this point than to turn around and look down, so I waited for him to move, hoping to copy his tracks. Shockingly (sarcasm, there), my legs are not as long as his, and I just couldn’t get my foot up to the spot he used to move along the way. I said aloud, “I think I’m stuck”, and then looked to my left to see the perfect place for my left foot. As soon as I started moving, Johnny called out, “There’s always another way, Katie.” I repeated that line back to him because ain’t that the truth?

There’s always another way. Another way through sadness. Another way through boredom. Another way up a mountain. Another way through life. If something isn’t working for you, there is always another way.

With Johnny & David after the Ledge Route!
The Isle of Skye is in there … somewhere.

The rest of the scramble was incredible, and before I knew it, we had complete the Ledge Route. Standing at the top, we could see Munros for miles and miles; Johnny was able to point out the Isle of Skye from where we stood (look at a map — Skye’s far away from where I stood). Unable to help myself, the tears just started falling. There I was, after completing my first scrambling experience (on the tallest mountain for miles and miles and miles — can’t stop reminding myself of that fact), close to the summit of Ben Nevis, among the clouds in the sunshine and blue sky, overlooking the Scottish Highlands. A moment now part of my very soul, I could only be grateful for the beauty of the wild, of nature, of the guys who brought me along so I could share this experience. I was simply grateful for everything. It was a privilege to be there — to be alive enough to be part of that moment.

Oh, but the universe was not finished with my most perfect day. Once at the summit, Johnny shook our hands and said only, “1344” — as in, we just climbed and survived 1344 meters. After a few minutes of taking it all in, a young man started playing the bagpipes. Cue tears, again. For that moment, for what it meant to me, there are no words, no description to accurately explain what it was like to hear pipes at the very top of Ben Nevis. In the Highlands. In Scotland. More than a dream come true, it was the kind of experience my soul has  been yearning for, for years.

The lovely piper.

On our descent, I was appreciating the scenery and enjoying the sunshine on my face. And then, as if to add to the amazing day, I learned David and his wife lived for a while in Allentown, PA. What are the chances I’d run into a man in the Highlands, spend a day scrambling with him, only to find out he lived in my childhood home state? Then, to make it better, when I told him I grew up in Latrobe, he exclaimed, “The beer!” The conversation continued, and it was unreal to be hiking down the tallest mountain in Scotland — in SCOTLAND! — talking to a man from England, saying the words “Rolling Rock” and “Yuengling”, and sharing an appreciation for them. What makes the world small — or at least not such a large, unknown place — is the reality of surprising, unexpected connections with people. It is a small, wonderful, magic world.

The summit of Ben Nevis.

As I clumsily walked down the Pony Track of Ben Nevis, my mind turned to my conversation about the men who run up and down Ben Nevis in under 2 hours. I could barely keep myself upright going down the mountain, (always a chance of going “ass over tin-cups”, as my dad would say) and I was walking at a careful pace! To be running? No way. I asked Johnny about this — what I was sure was a myth — and he said, “Oh, yeah. Steve’s one of them, the guy who’s meeting us for a beer.” (It had already been established I was joining the guys for a celebratory pint, and one of Johnny’s friends / partner was going to meet us.)

Of course. Of course I was going to meet one of the fittest, most elite in his field. The man who has completed 17 rounds of Munros (do the math, people). Because that’s the kind  of day I was having.


The evening was nothing short of fun and rewarding. We shared some pints and some whisky (up until that point, I hadn’t had a good experience with Scottish Whisky, so many thanks to the guys for setting me straight), had dinner, and relived the day. There was a mutual admiration for our group accomplishment, and as I sat there with Johnny, David, and George, I had the uncanny feeling I was sitting amongst the elite. Not just elite athletes and mountaineers, but elite human beings. These two guys were patient, courageous, and kind. Mostly, they are empathetic and brave.  You know the kind of people you meet who make you think, If only everyone could be like these people, the world would be a better place? Johnny and David are two of these people.

 

Nothing short of thankful.

By inviting me along, they gave me the opportunity to be confront my insecurities and be vulnerable.  They gave me the chance to be courageous. Scrambling up that beautiful face of a mountain, I learned my flabby stomach wasn’t keeping me from doing something I previously thought I was incapable doing. By showing up and being seen as I am right now, I finally understood what being courageous means and feels like. It’s feeling exposed — in my case, to others on higher level of experience and fitness than me, and to the mountain elements. It’s trusting others with your vulnerability. It’s pushing through feelings of uncertainty and new situations. Unknowingly, Johnny and David taught me I am worthy and enough as I am. Not only am I enough to hang out with some of the coolest men I’ve ever had the privilege of meeting,  I’m even enough to climb a mountain.

And that, friends, is the love story. I felt love with every fiber of my being that day: love for the wildness of Ben Nevis, love for the connections made while scrambling around and over rock, love  love for the universe for gracing me with the opportunity, love of the culture and place, and — yes … finally … love of self.

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4 thoughts on “"There’s Always Another Way" or "If We Lose the American, No One Will Know": A Love Story (Perhaps not the kind you’ve been waiting for, but a love story nonetheless.)

  1. Hi Katie,
    Thank you for this wonderful blog post!
    We met in the Glen Nevis YH where you told Dunja and me about your day on Ben Nevis, but I didn't even realise how absolutely amazing this experience must have been. Your description of the day is so lively that I almost feel I was there with you – it actually brought tears to my eyes as it is so inspirational!
    I am so glad I found your blog “by accident” and look forward to reading more about your adventures in the Highlands!
    All the best,
    Nicole

    Like

  2. Oh my goodness – this is so beautiful!!! Wow, this is such a great retelling of a completely magical day. And you GO GIRL!!! For hiking that mountain, for taking a risk, for believing in yourself and for appreciating yourself. So happy for you!!

    Like

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