The true-life account of a mountaineering incident on Ben Nevis – written for ‘Life Times’ a Christian magazine – to illustrate the awareness of spiritual guidance in the Christian life. The climber trusts neither the compass nor his spiritual direction, and goes his own way, narrowly escaping death.

It was winter, the sky was clear and blue. Streaks of wispy cloud floated along the sky and crisp white snow covered the ground. The warm sunshine made my walk feel fresh and exciting as I ascended the highest mountain in the British Isles. Scotland’s Ben Nevis, (Beinn Nibheis – the gaelic means ‘Mountain of Heaven’), is a massive mountain; rising from sea-level by the shore of Loch Linnhe, it towers 4,406ft (1,344m) above the town of Fort William. The 4 to 5 hour zig-zag route up the popular tourist path from lower Glen Nevis to the summit observatory – it was first ascended in 1771- is estimated to attract more than 100,000 ascents each year.

Alone on the summit

When I reached the summit of this enormous whaleback mountain I found to my amazement that I was the only personCover of Life Times - Ben Nevis Story there, usually there are scores of people walking around the plateau. The panorama before me was tremendous; mountain upon mountain stretched across the horizon. Ridges were laid out like the edge of a saw cutting into the blue sky. It had all been worth it. I was excited at being blessed with such a fantastic view; after hours of trudging up a path that had seemed never-ending; after hours of listening to the sound of my boots squeaking in the snow and crunching and scraping over stones worn smooth by the passage, in years past, of millions of feet. But my exhilaration soon turned to concern. The view didn’t last long; it seldom does on the ‘Ben’ – as the mountain is affectionally known among climbers. In a few seconds everything around me had been obscured. There was no time to think. I was quickly covered by grey cloud. This alarmed me, because one minute everything was clear, and the next I could see nothing. It was even more puzzling to try and understand where the cloud had come from. I could only assume that it had raced up, unnoticed, from the cliffs below. I was grateful for the few minutes that I had been privileged to appreciate this wilderness. I turned to go back the way I had come, but noticed that the path which I had relentlessly toiled up hours before, had vanished behind a curtain of dull, grey cold mist. I was now completely wrapped in cloud – 4,406 feet above sea level and 7 miles from Fort William – just me, a flask, and a box of sandwiches!

Wrapped in cloud

Ben Nevis, in winter, is a truly beautiful and wild place. It is a good place to enjoy the beauty of creation, but with the mist surrounding me I felt apprehensive and very much alone. It was eerie to feel so vunerable, so far from anywhere, so high up, so isolated. Standing in the mist it seemed as though I had been transferred to another place, nothing was recognisable any longer. I felt lost. I was conscious of how insecure I felt. The cold, freezing mist, swirled around me and with every minute that passed my confidence of personal safety ebbed away. I waited for the mist to clear, but it didn’t. The cloud didn’t move. I knew where I was and I also knew that once I moved I could lose my bearings. I was gripped. The joy and confidence that was once so powerful had gone. I thought it best to wait until the mist cleared. Iwaited. It didn’t. I realised that very soon I would have to make the decision to walk off the summit. The cold air was beginning to creep through my clothing and into my skin. I could not stand still much longer. I tried to locate the start of the path which would lead me off the summit. Earlier, I had taken a quick mental picture as the mist had started to obscure my view. I could just discern the shadowy cairns on the ground that had not yet disappeared into the mist. I turned and walked confidently towards them, constantly looking back to keep my back-bearings, and looking forward towards things that I hoped would lead me in the right direction, hoping that the heading I had calculated on my compass was accurate.

Brief escape

It wasn’t long before the landscape didn’t seem quite as familiar as before. We instinctively know when something is wrong. My confidence began, very slowly, to break apart. I checked the bearing on my compass again, convinced that I knew where I was. It would be fairly accurate I thought, because I had not been walking long! But gradually I began to accept that I didn’t have a clue where I was. I managed to hide from myself the fear of being lost, that was starting to creep into my conscience. I told myself that I was in control, but I knew I wasn’t! Then, suddenly, the clouds parted, and I could see the landscape again! Fantastic! Using the view before me I quickly worked out my position and the direction I should walk. But it was brief. Within a minute the cloud once more covered the mountain, and me! Aligning the compass needle I confidently walked into the mist, following its direction, and hoping that within minutes I would get back onto the path. Thoughts flowed through my mind when the path did not appeared as expected. Maybe I was not walking in the right direction? Maybe the compass was faulty? Perhaps the bearing I had taken was slightly wrong? Was I sure? I noticed that I was wandering from away the bearing. The direction I was walking was in conflict with the direction the compass was showing me. Who was right? I felt I should be walking in one direction and the compass was telling me that I shouldn’t. I tried lining up the needle to point in the direction I wanted it to. I couldn’t! I was getting angry with it. I drifted further and further away from the true bearing. The fact was that I didn’t trust the compass anymore. It was leading me in into danger. I knew better! It was wrong! I knew the best way. My instincts told me to go my way. The compass was leading me away from the path, from safety. It could be leading me to the edge of a cliff. I would not know until it was too late! Better to trust my own judgement! It was definitely pointing in the wrong direction, wasn’t it? I was not so sure.

Misplaced trust

I stopped. I looked around. Through the mist I tried to locate something that might give me a clue as to where I was. My confidence had gone. Something was not quite right. “Make sure you keep to the path,” a climber had advised me, hours before, as I had been walking up the mountain. “I will,” I had proudly replied; confident in my ability to navigate, whatever the weather. After all, I was a seasoned mountaineer! Then the wind seemed odd; it had changed direction – or had I changed direction? The ‘sound’ of the mountain was also wrong. It was echoing off something. It was the sound you get when you are surrounded by rock, but that should not be the case. I sensed a danger ahead of me. I was lost! Life Times - Ben Nevis StoryThe compass was useless to me now. I did not know where I was. In hope I looking at the map. I had walked for about 30 minutes and had set out in a south westerly direction. I tried to calculate my position on the map. It was a forlorn and desperate attempt to extricate myself out of a hopeless situation; one of my own making! Suddenly the wind picked up. The mist opened like a curtain. Clouds raced up from below, over the crags, riding on the back of the wind. It was freezing. What I saw next, gripped me with fear; I was on the wrong side of the mountain! I froze! I was standing on the edge of a cornice, possibly seconds away from death! The Oxford Dictionary describes a cornice as, ‘an overhanging mass of hardened snow at the edge of a precipice’. Apart from the snow I was standing on, there was nothing underneath my feet except the valley floor 2,000 feet below! This fragile lump of frozen slush could break and I would instantly fall to my death. It’s scary to think my life now relied on something that resembled a ‘slush puppy’; the thing that children clamour for, strawberry, raspberry, etc!

Walking over a cornice

I was in extreme danger! Any movement could cause the cornice to break off and go crashing down to the valley with me riding on the back of it! In fact, I really didn’t have to do anything at all; if I just stood here it would eventually happen. Gingerly, I edged backwards, taking very light and careful steps. It seemed an eternity before I reached the solid rock of the mountain. I was off the cornice! I looked back to see if it was still there. It was. Waiting, silently, like a long finger, pointing. With an overwhelming sense of freedom, I walked quickly back to the path. I was blessed, the cloud remained broken, I knew exactly where I was. My hands were shaking. Taking the compass out of my pocket, quickly I took my bearings. If the cloud returned I promised myself that I would diligently trust in it. The wind dropped and the cloud did cover everything again. I held the compass out in front of me and never once allowed the needle to wander until I reached the path and safety. I stepped out below the cloud. I could see the path snaking its way down towards Fort William and with great joy in my heart I followed it. I was safe!

Compass, Spirit, or me?

Each day in our life the Lord guides us through the Holy Spirit and enables us to walk with Him. Yet many times we rebel against this guidance and choose to go our own way, rejecting His advice, and choosing to walk in the flesh: in our own will and understanding. Much of the time we cannot see the path He has laid before us, or discern were He is leading us. In our weakness we fail to trust Him. We follow our own understanding, follow the direction we feel is right, and in our pride reckon that we know what should be done. At other times it may be our fear that causes us to rebel against the guidance of the Holy Spirit and we seek security in the things we can see, touch, and recognise. The Holy Spirit is our compass, to guide us in our walk with the Lord. The Lord says, “I will guide you along the best pathway for your life. I will advise you and watch over you. Do not be like a senseless horse or mule that needs a bit and bridle to keep it under control”‘ (Psalm 32:8 NLT). When we cannot discern God’s answers to our prayers we can feel that He does not care about us. We can feel that He is not helping us the way we feel He should be doing. We can try to put away God, feeling we have got it all wrong, and instead follow our own understanding and wisdom. But this course of action can lead us into dangerous places and situations which could have been avoided had we continued to trust Him and follow Him.

Safely home

He is gracious though and He parts the clouds to show us where we have gone wrong. He shows us how we have walked off His path, shows us the way back, and gives us the strength to continue walking with Him. We will always need to trust Him when we have asked Him to help us, and, like the compass, we need to keep our will alined with the direction His Spirit is leading and not fight against it and go our own way. ‘He who gives attention to the word shall find good, and blessed is he who trusts in the Lord’ (Prov. 16:20 NASB).

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