Every year, there’s a handful of deaths on Ben Nevis and the grand, spectacular range around Fort William in Scotland’s Western Highlands, including the spur we’re climbing, known as Carn Dearg.
It’s a small risk when you consider 110,000 people ascend the 1344m peak every year — although that’s mainly in summer.
During winter and spring, the peak is for experienced climbers only (or amateurs like me under the expert watch of a guide), and you’ll need a fine day and all the hardcore climbing gear you can find for an assault on the summit: crampons, ice axes, safety ropes, plenty of sub-zero clothing and a swag of emergency supplies.
And it ain’t easy. At one point, after four hours of slogging steeply uphill through snow-filled gullies and around icy buttresses, we hit a narrow ridge that marks the final stage of the assault on the summit.
I find myself staring rigidly at my feet, nervously taking one step at a time and trying desperately to ignore the yawning drop barely a metre away to the left and to the right. I’m roped to Pescod and TNT photographer Brendon Bishop, but that doesn’t stop the feeling that one missed step could be fatal.
“A lot of very good climbers can’t stand heights — they just never look down,” says Pescod, when I tell him he’s bloody nuts for dragging me up this high.
After what seems an eternity, the ledge opens up and I find myself abruptly at the summit. It’s a colourless world of grey rock and white snow — stark, harsh, beautiful.
For a few brief minutes the view is incredible — then white-out conditions return as the next snow-laden cloud engulfs us.
From the summit, it’s an easier two-hour trek down the opposite face of Carn Dearg, first through snow and then, lower, across haunting moorland crisscrossed with snow-melt streams, where we spot red deer.
Carn Dearg is just one of dozens of routes on and around Ben Nevis in the Fort William area, which Pescod describes as a ‘world class’ mountaineering destination. Fort William is also the home of modern ice climbing, where athletes use pronged boots and two ice axes to scale towering vertical ice walls and frozen waterfalls.
There are dozens of guides who can take you on a hell of an expedition, whether it’s for a day or a week, and whether you’re into mountaineering, rock climbing, ice climbing, scrambling or hiking. Just make sure to check on the avalanche danger rating — remember, it only goes up to five!
On the ice wall
Not far from Fort William is the Ice Factor — the world’s largest indoor ice climbing wall. Here are five reasons to give it a go:
1. It’s indoors, so if it’s bloody awful outside you’ve still got somewhere to have some fun.
2. The walls look impossible to scale. So when you get to the top, it’s damn satisfying.
3. You get to wield weapons like ice axes and ice boots. Grrr!
4. There are different routes with various difficulty levels so you can start easy and move up.
5. Although you’re roped in it’s still daunting climbing a vertical wall with only your boots and axes — so it’s guaranteed to get the adrenaline racing.
Beginner lessons start from £45 (01855-831 100; www.ice-factor.co.uk).