A friend told me that climbing a mountain is like childbirth. It is horrible and painful to begin with but once it’s over and done you realise you can do it again!
Now that I’ve climbed Ben Nevis, in particularly challenging conditions, I can see what she was talking about.
I always wanted to climb mountains, especially Mt Kilimanjaro. The idea occurred to me during my gap year when I saw an advert about volunteering in Tanzania and climbing Mt Killi. I thought it would be the perfect way of summing up all the challenges I’ve faced and overcome so far, by climbing the tallest free standing mountain in Africa and reconnecting to my African heritage as well. I was unable to climb it that year, due to more challenges about university, but the dream has always remained with me. Speaking to a seasoned mountaineer I was advised to start climbing smaller peaks like Snowdonia and Ben Nevis before climbing Mt Killi, and this is how my interest in Ben Nevis began.
When the opportunity to climb Ben Nevis for Ahlulbayt Foundation came about I jumped at it, not only would it bring me closer to my dream but it was also for a great cause. In these days where Muslims are being blamed for all the terror that is happening in the world, it is now more important than ever to help the charity have a voice and spread the message of the Ahlulbayt (as) and continue with the charitable work they do around the world.
After weeks of fundraising, me and a group of 11 Muslim sisters embarked on a 12-hour coach ride to Scotland to climb Ben Nevis. Arriving the following morning at 8 am, sleep deprived and anxious, we drove to the foot of the mountain and started climbing at 9 am. Not sure what to expect, with unfamiliar hiking gear in hand and rucksacks packed with clothes and food, we started on what looked like a beautiful walk in the country side, with tall green hills and sheep placidly grazing, little did we know we were going to war!
Soon the smooth path started to twist and become steep, stones became larger and within half an hour of starting we were out of breath, but not weakened. Seeing how I was panting and knowing that there was another 4 and a half hours of this, it was evident to me that if I wanted to have any chance of reaching the top then it was better not to look upward and instead focus on my feet and the feet of the person in front of me.
Ben Nevis is 1,346 metres high, the summit is covered in fog and the journey is tortuous (and torturous, as we will later see). It isn’t much the physical strength but the mental strength and your psychology that you use climbing the mountain. We had to push each other to push ourselves as well. Looking back at how far we had already come was an energy boost, and not looking forward and instead focusing on the feet of the person in front became a useful distraction, almost like hypnotizing our limbs into a constant rhythm of going up an endless flight of stairs.
I had thought that maybe I would be able to talk my way up the mountain, but that was not possible, because we had to keep hold of every ounce of energy we had and channel it into our brains and legs. During breaks we ate morsels of high-energy food and sips of water, the last thing you want to do it have to go to toilet where there is none!
I remember reading that climbing Ben Nevis was easy and more like a long walk. I beg to differ. After 2 hours of walking we weren’t even close to the foggy summit, we had split into two groups and we had to keep up a fast pace if we were to make it to the top. By now, I felt tired and cranky. I had used up all the tactics I thought I had for climbing a mountain. I had sung all the songs I knew in my had, read all the duas and memorized every detail of our guide’s shoes! But still we had another two and a half hours to go. Here, the words of encouragement of fellow climbers were all I had to go by and so I continued to put one foot in front of the other.
Soon we reached a reasonably flat surface to walk on, this was a blessing for our legs and also a short resting period before we quite literally walked into the storm. At this point we walked into the fog surrounding the summit and it started to rain. The wind became stronger and stronger turning the delicate raindrops into daggers that scratched our cheeks. The wind took our breath away, and I had to open my mouth widely to breathe. The fog became thick and the stones were now grey and sharp. It was clear that now we were on our way to the summit. The path became steeper and we had fewer breaks to stop and rest. The storm continued relentlessly. The situation was unbearable. I could no longer look back at how far I had come and let the beautiful scene boost my energy. Now, all I could see through semi open eyes looked more like a graveyard from a Harry Potter scene. Here, we really needed mental strength. We had another hour and half of this uphill battle and logic was beginning to tell me to turn around and go back. Why should I keep going? I felt like I had proved enough, tried hard enough and challenged myself enough. After all, what could I possibly see from the summit with these conditions anyway? But then I thought of the people who donated generously, prayed for me and were excited for me. Many of them I didn’t know well, yet they eagerly asked me to take photos and let them know how it went. I thought I had to do it for them. And so we went on. One step in front of the other. Baby steps, literally. And I tried not to think of the time. Time was now our biggest enemy, nothing was in 5 minutes, everything was in hours.
I told myself this step is for what I went through leaving Iran after 16 years. This step is for the troubles I had finding a 6th form to go to. This step is for trying hard for my A levels. This step is for reapplying for medical school. This step is for the stress of applying to university. This step is for getting into medical school. This step is for paying my tuition fees myself. This step is for working whilst studying. This step is for doing great in end of year exams. This step is for my family. And so on, finding something to move forward for.
All these thoughts occupied me up until I reached a level surface. I couldn’t see anything beyond it and I felt like a winner! With new energy in my legs I climbed up, nearly fell, until I reached what looked like the summit. But I was wrong, the stormy weather meant I couldn’t see the rest of the path, and our guide showed us the way ahead. Another 20 minutes she said. 20 minutes?!! That’s 1200 seconds! I felt like giving up. 1200 seconds is soooo long! But I couldn’t let a pile of rocks beat me, so again we plowed on. Twice more I thought I reached the summit but I was wrong. I thought of Hajjar and the hills of Safa and Marwa. Surely I could not have it worse than she did. After all, this was not a desert and there was no infant depending on me for water. So we went on, one step at a time. It was a huge mental challenge to keep myself sane while the storm got worse and worse. And then we were there! We had arrived at the summit at last. This time for sure. It was a flat area with a tall platform marking the roof of Britain. As I reached the platform I noticed the 4 manmade steps. The steps mocked me, after 5 hours of climbing, 2 hours of which was through a relentless storm, now I had to climb 4 steps, perfectly made by someone to declare myself a victor? I did it anyway, and there we were.
The summit was unremarkable to begin with, with hardly a view of anything never mind a nice one. Then we hugged each other and it was so worth it! We made it! Probably under the worst conditions ever, we made it! Up 1,346 meters to the highest point in Britain! Allah made us work for this satisfaction and it was worth it! SubhaAllah these legs are champions!
We couldn’t stay longer than a few minutes, the wind was getting worse and we had another 3 hours to descend. We raised the flag of Imam Hussain (a), took a few hasty pictures and began our way down.
Dear reader, going down was more difficult than going up! Descending with weak legs, using a completely different group of muscles that now felt incredibly foreign, with fingers and toes soaked, freezing temperatures, a wind that still made it hard to breathe and now rain that prevented us from seeing more than a few feet ahead, surrounded in a depressing scene of grey rocks and grey people and grey skies, it was super difficult to not just sit down and cry! I actually thought that I might die on this terrible mountain. Our mountain guide laughed at me. But I am too young to die, I would have a terrible or a nonexistent funeral so I must live! Literally, it was these thoughts that kept me going. Now I was putting all my weight on my walking pole. I was only thinking of the shower, the bed the food and most importantly the horizontal ground that awaited us down below.
Those were terrible hours, you know you’ve used all your body strength when you start having cramps in your thumb! But slowly we found reasons to encourage ourselves. The first patch of dull vegetation was glorious to look at, then, as the fog thinned and we saw hills we hastened even more. When the wind stopped howling it was heaven and faster and faster we walked, hardly taking breaks and thinking of the life we had left behind. Now we eagerly looked forward but never looked back. Soon we reached the end, or the start, depending on how you look at it and we were met with applause and congrats from our second guide and other members of the Ben Nevis guiding team. We arrived at the mountain base by 7 pm on Saturday. Drove back to the hostel, climbed a flight of stairs with agony and met our friends who had arrived earlier.
What a delight to be warm again, and eat and wash and lie down!
We went through hell and back. I thought I was doing this climb to teach the mountain about me, as a symbol of what I’ve achieved so far. But this experience was not a symbol, it was a unique experience in and of itself. The mountain taught me, not the other way around! We saw the glory of God in his soft, tame and beautiful creation, along his rigorous and terrifying one, we learnt the extent of the strength of our spirit to keep us going when all logic teold us not to.
I understand my friend’s analogy better now. I would definitely recommend the climb to others. In better conditions I am sure it would have been a nicer climb with a lovely view at the summit. whether you end up in a storm like we did, whether you reach the summit or not, you are bound to push yourself to your limits and come back a stronger person mentally and physically, with the side effect of being incredibly sore from head to toe!