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The Great Outdoors

by Phil Thornton


The plan was so simple; we’d drive up to Ben Nevis, climb to the top and come home. Vinny had just bought a Land Rover and wanted to test it out. We’d already done Snowdon and Scafell Pike so Ben Nevis was the obvious choice for our next summit; the three peaks. We’d started doing it for a laugh, an opportunity to get out and escape the polluted air of the Mersey estuary. I was strictly an amateur however. I wore hiking boots as fashion accessories not as practical footwear to ascend forbidding peaks (or as forbidding as our puny mountains are compared to beasts like Everest or even Mount Blanc) and actually climbed a rocky face of Snowdon in a pair of Adidas Marathon during a blizzard. Vinny had got the bug though, which wasn’t a bad thing as he had recently been up on charges of affray, assaulting a police officer, GBH and criminal damage after a fight at a Greek restaurant had turned into a full-scale riot. Even though his three brothers had pleaded guilty and had been stuck down for their part in the fracas, Vinny had miraculously got off after a lengthy court case. After staring at 6 years inside, he had decided to take things a tad easier in future. Just walk away Vin-nay!


Vinny was my brother-in-law and usually it was just me and him on thes expeditions but lately he’d been bringing along Liam, his brother who was just out of jug and had recently succumbed to perils of skag. Liam and his other two brothers, Terry and Paul were also on-board and together they were a terrifying prospect. Put simply, they had been brought up by their dad to be competitive in every respect. When they were kids he’d tie them together and force them to fight in their back yard. Needless to say such treatment toughened them up and when they all got together a scrap was never far away, either between themselves or unlucky passers by.


The day started early and badly. We’d only just set off and it soon became apparent that the drive ahead would be long and tortuous. We had to stop for cooking gas for the tent and en route to the shop, which was about five miles away, Liam and Paul were already sparking up blunts and filling the jeep with blowback smoke. Added to this, the  Landy’s in-house stereo was stuck on Atlantic 252, which was without compare THE worst ever radio channel in broadcasting history. AND the fucking cassette didn’t work! Atlantic used to have about 12 records on its daytime playlist which were recycled endlessly inbetween the most inane, non-ironic Smashy & Nicey DeeJay patter and tediously parochial Lancastrian adverts and moronic competitions.


It was 1996. The Friends theme tune played again and again and again as we drove north. I’ll be there for you. Aaaah! I didn’t even know what Friends was at the time but if it was anything like that annoyingly trite theme tune, they could all get to fuck. When it hasn’t been your day, your month or even your year ! MAKE IT STOP!!!! As we drove over the border and entered Caledonia, we gave a little cheer and headed towards Glasgow.  Infact there was no orienteering to do as the M6 simply becomes the M74 once in Scotland and so we drove in the belting rain, through the barren plains and desolate hills of the borders, past  beautiful Loch Lomond and onto The Big G.. None of us had actually been to Scotland before and once we approached the outskirts of Glasgow, we suddenly realised that we didn’t actually know the way to Ben Nevis.


‘It must be signposted’ I stated but as we drove ever nearer to the city centre there was no signs for Ben Nevis or even the Highlands. Quite why we’d expected signs saying Ben Nevis This Way when we were 80 miles or so away from the mountain was a mystery. Needless to say we got lost and ended up in deserted streets outside Ibrox stadium. The area surrounding Ibrox is largely Asian, which surprised us as we didn‘t even know there were Asians in Glasgow. We asked for directions in the grim boarded up shops and somehow managed to find ourselves on the right road. Once north of Glasgow the countryside improved but sadly the weather didn’t. We eventually managed to find ourselves in Fort William, just in time for a quick bevy.


The plan was to have a few drinks, drive to Ben Nevis and find ourselves a nice spot to pitch the tent, have an early night, get up bright and early next morning, do the climb, head back down, pack up, head back into Fort William in time for the FA Cup final - Man Utd v Everton - and then have a leisurely drive home. It didn’t quite go as planned. It was my fault I suppose. Once we got to Fort William we sojourned to the first alehouse on the High Street and suddenly it was four hours later and we were all blitzed. The locals were either giving us the eye or giving us daggers - I don’t remember if it was the males giving us the eyes and the females giving us daggers or the other way around. Then, we went to Fort William’s only night club and the night got uglier as the locals became suspicious of our accents and manners. At around 3 o’clock we realised that we were in no fit state to take on the entire male population of Fort William and beat a hasty retreat in Vinny’s Land Rover. He was totally munted yet somehow managed to find a car-park at the foot of Ben Nevis. Liam, Paul and Terry eventually managed to pitch their tent but me and Vinny just got our heads down in the Landy. 


Next morning I woke up with the sweet smell of shit wafting in my nostrils. My head was caved in from bitter and whisky chasers, bad speed and cheap weed. My trainers were covered in human excrement. Unfortunately so was the back seat. It transpired that during the night I had emptied my guts next to the Land Rover then drunkenly walked through it and fell asleep on the back seat, unaware that my shit was now all over the car. Vinny wasn’t happy. As they all tucked into sausage, egg, bacon and beans, I had to clean my own shit up nursing a hangover that would’ve made George Best vow to go on the wagon.


The morning was still and cloudy but luckily it wasn’t teeming down. The summit of the mountain wasn’t visible and we were parked right at the foot with a path nowhere in sight. I suggested we ask someone where the nearest path was only to be met with anger and abuse. Even though the entire side of the mountain was covered in thick snow (in May!!) the Brothers Grim decided that we’d climb it from our starting position in one straight line. As Yazz once so eloquently put it; the only way is up! Now me, I’m a natural pessimist; the glass isn’t only half empty, it’s got a pube floating on the surface. All I could imagine was falling through snow into crevices hundreds of feet deep and dying a slow, cold, painful death but Vinny and his brothers were now in full sibling rivalry mode, each trying to outdo the other in terms of sheer recklessness. Once we hit a plateau, they decided it’d be fun to toboggan down a huge slope using a tarpaulin. This took up about an hour and we we’d only just started. We saw nobody  at all until our unofficial route eventually met a path about half way up and then our sense of adventure and daring do was somewhat doused  by the sight of many elderly folk yomping eagerly to the summit, some with small children and even dogs in tow.


The summit itself was something of a let down. It didn’t even have a café like Snowdon. The sun was beating down by this time - about noon - and we had to take our big coats off, even our jumpers came off as we marvelled at the scenery. We ate our scran and looked out over the azure coastal islands, spread out beyond the small towns and villages of the mainland. What a sight! Only the nuclear power plant spoiled the view. Scotland in the sunshine must be the most beautiful place on earth. Yes, there are bigger mountains and deeper vallies but this is where the Romans differed from the ancient Greeks. The Greeks understood about proportion and not sheer size. Beautiful panaromic views or not, as a United fan, I wanted to get back into Fort William to watch the match and we began the descent. For about a quarter of the way we used the paths, passing ever more tourists, with maps, and walking sticks and sensible footwear and all that caper. I knew it wouldn’t be long before the Brothers became bored with this sketch and so it proved.


I think it was Paul who lead the way, the youngest and most eager to compete of them all. Off to the left he ran and the others followed. Down we went. Sliding, falling, bouncing on soft heather until we reached a ledge. The sun was so hot by this time and we were so knackered from all the carousing and the climbing that we all lay down and dozed off, only waking a few hours later AFTER KICK OFF!   I tried to hurry them along but unlike them didn’t have any spare fuel in my tank and as they whooped and leapt hundreds of feet in a matter of minutes along sheer cliff edges that fell for what looked like miles below us, I got left behind. They all possessed the agility and fearlessness of mountain goats whereas I resembled a lame kid, awaiting the claws of a hungry osprey. The gradient of the cliff edge had taken its toll on my ankles and I was now forced to slowly make my way down the side of the north face of the Eiger using my arse as a mode of transportation. If it hadn’t been for the heather to hold onto, I truly believe that I would’ve died that day.


Not that the brothers were in any way concerned about my plight. No, they were still competing to see which one of them could reach the bottom first and I could only just see them, miles ahead of me, as they raced each other across the flat fields, over fences and across the brook. It took me about 20 minutes to finally reach them and how they laughed at my pain and injury. This was no place for a pen pusher. This was real man territory. This was a place for lads who’d done time in Youth Offending Institutions and Walton or at the very least, bitten the ears of police dogs. It was about 5 o’clock and the match was over but we didn’t know the result. Unfortunately we were now on the opposite side of the mountain to where the car was parked and had to walk a further 3 miles or so, searching for the fucker, which isn’t easy when you’re hobbling like Dustin Hoffman in Midnight Cowboy. Eventually we reached the car, packed the gear and set off home, Atlantic 252 still playing The Friends Theme (it was on Longwave and you could pick it up on Pluto). At one point, with Vinny knackered and the others stoned, I tried my hand at driving but unused to four wheel drives, began to swerve all over the road and was forced to pull over. Bonged off his box, Liam could still drive far better than me. The night was closing in and we went AWOL in Glasgow, somehow finding ourselves on a mad estate in the middle of Paisley. You think where you live is grim? Go visit Paisley! By the time we reached home and dropped the others off, Vinny pulled up outside my house, threw my shitty sleeping bag at me and we planned our next outing.


We never got around to it. Vinny got into mountaineering big time, climbing Mont Blanc, Kilimanjaro, the Atlas Mountains and even going as far as the Himalayas. If it involved ropes or the slightest chance of injury, I wasn’t interested and so, that was my mountain climbing days over. Sadly both Liam and Paul got hooked on H and Terry became a lift engineer, although I’m not sure which is worse. United lost 1-0. Shit game anyway.







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