6:54 AM, Monday the 11th of May, 2009
For what seems like the hundredth time over the past hour, I pause to rest my calves. The ice feels very steep, doubly so with the heavy weight of my pack, laden as I am with food, water, and bivouac gear. I kick into the ice with my right foot. The front crampon-points bite and hold, and I straighten the leg, allowing the other to relax. There is a deep burning in my muscles, but I am close to the top of the face, and in my heart there is a growing elation as I know I have got the North Wall of Aonach Beag in the bag.
I came here alone and with no guidebook or knowledge of the face; just a desire to find a route up one of the greatest mountain walls in Lochaber.
I do not need to take stock of my situation, for my senses are alive in a way they never are at sea-level, and sensitive to every detail around me. The sky arcs over my head as a dome of azure, glittering with that perfect Alpine clarity that I know and love from high ascents in the Zermatt peaks. The sun rose some time ago, while I was low down on the face, and as soon as its rays hit the ice my route was transformed. To my mind, from the moment I left my tent in that magical corrie hours before, this was no longer a Scottish mountaineering problem, but an Alpine ascent.
The sun burns hot and bright. I am in my shirtsleeves, and my arms are burnt brown already, but wear thick woollen mittens to protect my hands from the ice. I wear glacier goggles and everything is monochrome yellow-green.
I look down between my legs. The great sweep of ice descends sheer downwards for over 1300 feet at an angle approximating 60 degrees. There are two gaps in my tracks, hidden by the even steeper icefalls which approached the vertical. Looking far down into my beautiful corrie, I can see the snowline, and beyond it, the waterfall and grassy alp where I had spent the night. It is a wild and remote place, far beyond all paths and human contact.
Above me, the ice steepens yet further, but there is only a short distance to climb before the cornice, and the long-anticipated summit.
I get going, climbing powerfully despite the weight of my pack. The ice is hard, plastic; perfect conditions. I turn the cornice, hook over the final vertical metre, and collapse, exhausted, upon the icy plateau of Aonach Beag.
My thoughts are entirely vacant. The sky blazes upon me and I can feel fire in the crisp air. My hands are heating up in their woollen cocoons. I turn my head to the side and look along the ground, but can see only two colours: white and blue.
With effort I stand, breathe deeply, and slowly raise my eyes to greet the view. Ben Nevis, highest peak in the British Isles, pierces the sky with its white towers. I can hear the silence echoing around the vastness of this hallowed place. This high summit is the altar at which we worship this mighty game we play. I feel like the first man to see into the promised land of the mountains, and as with so many of these moments before, the image is burned forever into my mind in an instant.
My reward for this physically and mentally trying ascent is the experience itself. Alone, at the start of the day and with many miles of mountains yet to cross, my path will take me to the summit of Ben Nevis and then back down into the mundane real world.
But the physical journey is not why I play this game.