My story about climbing Ben Nevis starts with my amazing and courageous nephew, Matt Sharp, who bravely battled, yet lost his fight against, leukaemia aged just 25 years old. He battled this terrible disease for nearly six years, and at every step of the way he always had others at the forefront of his mind, including fellow sufferers and his family.
Despite a really difficult journey, he raised an enormous amount of money in the hope that others would not have to suffer the way he did. I am in awe of his bravery, selfless commitment and sheer determination through horrendous circumstances for a man so young. I wanted to give something back, to do something to mark my love and to raise money in his memory, and so I come to Ben Nevis!
Now, Matt knew I was afraid of heights. He also knew I’m, well let’s just say not as fit as I used to be, and he knew I’d rather be basking in the hot sun than walking 4,409 feet above sea level for over nine hours in fully laced hiking boots. When I first found the ‘Ben Nevis Trekking Challenge’ in April this year, I was really just testing the water when I sent out a message to friends to see who would do it with me. Little did I expect that, before I knew it, I’d be signed up and joined by six of my friends! Honestly, I was so frightened, thinking, “What have I let myself in for? I’m never going to make it!” But then I thought about Matt and his shining smile beaming at me saying, “Go on Aunty Trace, you’ve got this.”
So we started our training, finding as many nights after work and at weekends and as many steep hills to strengthen the legs and try to prepare for the climb. We had a Ben Nevis WhatsApp group that averaged about 100 messages a day to double check everything from hiking boots, imagining how the climb would be, sharing stories of people who we knew who had done it before, to what goodies we were taking.
Then the Ben Nevis weekend finally arrived, the last weekend of September, and we left Stansted on a beautifully warm day, having experienced a glorious hot summer. We felt as prepared as we could be; we had all the gear (and no idea), we’d stocked up on goodies for the climb and for the celebration the night after. We had our red t-shirts proudly displaying my beautiful nephew’s face and another amazing young lady, Georgia (a friend of one of our group), who also sadly lost her battle. We had our bottles of prosecco to toast them and their flags to fly at the top. The evening before the climb day, we spent a funny night settling in our dorms and bunk-beds, seven mostly 50-somethings with so much nervous energy; I have no idea how any of us got any sleep. The next morning as we joined the rest of the trekking group for breakfast, we were nervous and filled with anticipation as we carefully packed our lunch into our rucksacks. One thing is for sure, I was definitely not prepared for what was to come!
The first hour of the hike was a steep rocky path that seemed to never end. The rain and wind were driving at us hard, but at this stage it was still fairly warm, and the rain had to stop, right? Wrong! The rocky path was so slippery that you couldn’t look up. I just had to concentrate really hard on every step so that I kept my footing.
An hour and a half in and the rain wasn’t letting up, the wind was fierce, and it started to sink in that this was going to be really tough. We had talked so many times about staying together as a group, but the reality was so different. It took every drop of concentration to keep going without falling over and it was so easy to lose track of who was behind you and ahead of you. The 45mph winds, driving rain and increasingly dropping temperature meant there was no stopping for chats, no stopping to eat or drink, no views, just hour after hour of grim, uphill, stomping in dreary fog, rain and wind.
At the half-way point, worried guides were making the call about whether we could continue as the weather was not easing. The decision was made to keep going. By this time, despite having fully waterproof gear on, I was still soaked through as the wind drove the rain into any hood and hand opening. Luckily, my feet stayed dry as my waterproof trousers were drooping so much they covered the top of my boots! There was hysterical laughter at points, songs to keep us moving and tears as the climb went on and on and on. The fog was so dense, the rain so hard and the wind so fierce that it was just plain grim. A girl we met on the plane had told us “you’re going to love it”; must have climbed a different mountain!
We finally made it to the top at about half-past 12; it had taken us about four hours. Our plans to fly Matt and Georgia’s flag was at the forefront of my mind, but guides were demanding us to turn straight round and walk down. With temperatures at -6 degrees, 45 mph winds and driving rain, the guides knew standing around would not be good. However, I was determined to fly Matt’s flag.
I didn’t want to leave him at the top. I cried, I was drained, physically and emotionally. How could I leave my angel babe up there in that horrid weather? So, I tucked him into my jacket belt and started the descent, the grim, unrelenting journey back the way we’d come, in the same horrendous conditions. I hadn’t gone far before Matt’s flag started to pull away. It was like he was telling me, “let me go, I’m ok, I want to stay here to mark what you have done for me”, so I tucked him into one of the pillars of stacked rocks, kissed him, cried some more tears and let him free.
The journey down was no easier, as there was still no stopping and no nice views to take our mind off the terrible weather. I had split into a smaller group of four and we kept each other going, singing songs, encouraging and urging us all to keep going. What else could we do?
Some three hours later, we finally reached the hostel. I cannot tell you what a feeling it was to walk inside a warm, dry room and be greeted by friends and the rest of the climbers who had finished earlier than us. Showers were first on the list, and our dorm was just a pool of water from all our clothes, wet bags etc. We didn’t care, we were in shock I think, and boy were we going to celebrate! That night was such a funny night and one I will remember for the rest of my life. We laughed, we cried, we ate, we drank and then we drank a bit more! We received our medals from the guides and then took the celebration back to our room and carried on into the early hours.
All seven of us were pleased to have completed it, but none of us would ever do it again! I am so immensely proud of my achievement and this group of women, my friends who were with me every step of the way. Losing Matt is the hardest thing I have ever had to deal with (and I’ve had my share). I will never get over his loss, but I will always remember his bravery, and now I have this amazing memory with a group of friends who made it all possible. Until we meet again Matty boy – this one was for you!