Peak of Paw-fection

 Paul Forrester - the Writing Man - and his springer spaniel Chloe at the third highest waterfall in Scotland, at Glen Nevis

No matter how strong the bond you share with your dog – they might greet your return from work with a wag of the tail, or impeccably perform any task required of them – there are some things you simply cannot communicate. There’s no telling them that cow muck does not form part of a healthy balanced diet. You can’t explain that the football on television is not a real ball. And you certainly can’t get across what length of walk you intend to give them.

With 4409 feet of relentlessly steep mountain before us, and a permanent blanket of cloud over the summit, even we owners weren’t sure what length of walk awaited us. Estimates and averages state seven or eight hours is the norm. The weight of our packs suggested we might be out on the hillside for a week.

The six of us had climbed mountains together before. We’d ticked off Snowdon and Scafell Pike. But we’d never had canine friends for company, and just reaching the foot of Ben Nevis was an achievement in itself.

Adventurers Assemble

Our ten-strong party assembled to take on the challenge: Helen and Gavin, with their rescue dogs Flint and Ruffles; Jo and Dave, with their rescue dog Jim; and Kath and me, with our fourteen month-old dog Chloe. We raised £445 in sponsorship before the event for five local animal charities – a nod to the scale of the challenge, and to help dogs like Flint, Ruffles and Jim who are not as fortunate finding new homes.

Two months earlier, Chloe had developed a limp in her right hind leg. With as much rest as a youthful Springer Spaniel can manage, it cleared up and allowed us to do some hill walking in preparation. Even so, she had never done anything like the kind of distance that lay in store, and as if to prove she maybe understood what awaited, the limp mysteriously reappeared that morning.

To add extra drama to proceedings, just two weeks before heading 360 miles north, Ruffles broke a toe in the most innocuous circumstances – chasing a ball. A three-week recovery was diagnosed, but a heroic period of doing as little as possible saw the toe heal sufficiently for her to do rather a lot; Helen and Gavin just hoped she wouldn’t need carrying.

Nobody was sure whether Flint had a ten-mile round trip in him. Not for health reasons, but because he often stops to sniff anything and everything along a walk, and is equally capable of declaring “enough” and staging a lie-down protest from which he will not be shifted. The only dog you’d have put money on completing the walk was Jim, who scampers about with such ease that the only challenge he might find taxing would be attempting to break a pedometer.

Progress!

An hour later than planned, we got going.

All the dogs except Chloe found this sudden progress overwhelming and duly felt the need to poo, meaning prompt retreats to the car park for responsible disposal. Wishing not to be left out entirely, Chloe waited until it was no longer feasible to turn back before doing her ‘business’. Yours truly thus had the dubious pleasure of tying a used poo bag to his rucksack and taking it up the mountain with him. Despite the unique perfume of this unexpected extra cargo, progress was smooth.

Ruffles and Flint remained on lead; the former on instruction from the vet, the latter because he possesses no sense of self-preservation and would have merrily run off the side of the mountain. Chloe and Jim were given the freedom of the Highlands, the desire to explore filling their noses. Good training and instincts kept them on the fabled pony track, repaying the trust and always returning to our sides when called.

 The Writing Man and his friends stop for refreshment on the walk up Ben Nevis

The valley floor became an increasingly distant memory, and thick cloud an ever-present threat. In the gloom we strung out, Kath and I lagging behind. Chloe remained faithful and stuck with us, trotting a short distance up the path and back again with wonderfully reassuring consistency. Rain lashed down upon us and fizzled out as quickly. We reconvened at a cairn to take on extra layers, and there was relief in the dogs’ eyes as we fastened coats around them. The temperature was getting uncomfortably low – snow littered the sides of the path, and people returning from the summit looked damp and talked of ice.

Ben Nevis resembled an Arctic wasteland, but the inches of snow brought out Chloe’s playful side and suddenly she was having fun rather than enduring a hard walk. There was no doubting its difficulty though, for as the path levelled out toward the summit we noticed spots of blood tarnishing the pure white. The thought of our little girl in discomfort from a grazed pad on her front left paw tainted the thrill of making it to the top. Photos were taken, but the cloud and the cold offered nothing to savour and we commenced the descent without hesitation.

 The Writing Man, his friends and their dogs reach the summit of Ben Nevis

The bleeding stopped quickly, but further tests lay in store. As if taking revenge on us for daring to succeed in our quest, ‘The Ben’ threw down a stinging shower of hail. Harsh and painful it may have been, but Flint continued stoic as always. Sadly, the arduous journey finally got the better of Ruffles’ toe, and Helen had to carry her a while to give the foot some respite.

Giving in to gravity is harder on the body than going against it, and with knees rapidly weakening we all found a comfortable pace. Late summer sun saw us back to the car park within the eight-hour mark – an average time, but a far from average day. A brief, cleansing shower accompanied the removal of our weary boots and, under a perfect Highland rainbow, Flint and Ruffles gave a metaphorical shrug and casually resumed residence in the car. In the following days they showed no after-effects of the epic journey. Even climbing mountains, life with Helen and Gavin clearly suits them.

Demonstrating Jim’s indefatigable nature, you only need know he was chasing his beloved ball upon returning to the campsite that evening. He showed some strain at the end of the week, and Jo and Dave were just grateful to know that something can tire him out. Chloe, in many ways still a puppy, suffered most. Every bit as stiff as her owners the next day, she slept off the effects of the walk right through the weekend.

Conquered

So unpredictable is the weather around Glen Nevis that even setting out from the visitor centre we had no idea if the elements would prevent us from making it to the top. Though we would never have taken risks, thanks to the generosity displayed by everyone who donated sponsorship, it would have been doubly frustrating had we been forced back prematurely. In the end, the sense of satisfaction was doubled as we returned knowing the good faith of those donations had been fulfilled.

All four pooches conquered the fearsome peak, but they had no concept of standing at the highest point in the UK. Nor of raising a fabulous sum of money – in Flint and Ruffles’ case, for the very charity that had found their home. For all that we fussed them and told them they had done brilliantly, no amount of praise could help them understand how proud they should be, and exactly what that seven-and-a-half hour walk achieved. Proof, if any were needed, that there’s no telling dogs sometimes.

 The Writing Man, his friends and their dogs celebrate their achievement at the Ben Nevis visitor centre car park