Wheelie Tough Mountain Day – Donald Pow

Ascending Ben Nevis in a Wheel Chair

It’s 6.00am, in steady drizzle.  Already there’s a bustling crowd at the Ben Nevis Visitor Centre car park, as eight teams from across the UK get ready to tackle the Bowmore Whisky Ben Nevis Challenge.

And what’s so unusual about that, I hear you ask.  In wheelchairs, no less, is what!

Yes, wheelchairs. Specially designed chairs, to be fair – more like an old-style street cart, with mountain bike type wheels and tough as old nails.  But still a chair that needs to roll and carrying an immensely trusting disabled team captain.

Each captain is backed by five big-hearted, able bodied team mates, who’s job it is to push, drag, bump and very largely lift the captain up ‘the Ben’.  For any of you who know it, it’s not just Britain’s highest mountain but sports one heck of a rocky, split-level path most of the way to the top.

I’m one of the mountain leaders allocated to each team, to provide general safety and support.  It’s going to be long, hard day on the mountain for these guys so we need to be prepared for any eventuality.  Enter my new Vango Contour 65+10 rucksack from GO Outdoors.  It has to fit complete set of spare clothes,including waterproofs and fleeces, for anyone who might need them.  And a rope, first aid kit, etc.  And spare food and water for everyone.  And of course the emergency shelter.

Pleased to day, the Vango sack coped admirably with what turned out to be a 12-hour marathon of Herculean proportions.  There was room and more for everything required and handy pockets for ready-access items.   The padded shoulder straps and especially the grippy waistband shared the load around without that crushing, cutting-in feeling.  And everything stayed perfectly dry through the early morning downpours.

Happily to say, all eight teams made it to ‘half way lochan’ and six were able to struggle all the way to the top.  Every few yards gained were accompanied by another episode of “one,two, three . . lift”, as the chairs had to be man (and woman) handled over the next rocky step or outcrop.  You might not notice these so much if you’re walking but trust me, it’s not a path designed for rolling over.  So we have two at the front pulling on straps, three at the back shoving and lifting.

So imagine the elation on reaching the top!  What a fantastic achievement.  And then but a short break before tackling the even more worrying thought of the descent.  One oversight and we have a wheelchair hurtling down more than 4,000 feet of mountainside.  So straps to the back, plus a roped anchor-man (Gregor was just the right build!), plus much lifting and re-directing at the front this time.  Fortunately the whole affair is beautifully and safely managed by the great people from Capability Scotland and the safety team co-ordinated with military precision by ex-SAS soldier come TV presenter Ken Hames (larger than life in the flesh, as on screen).

Teams averaged 12 hours for the round trip.  Finally, it’s time to lay down the now highly-regarded Vango sack and savour a fine tipple or several courtesy of our whisky-distilling sponsors.  A fabulous sense of achievement for all the teams and of course the daring team captains.

So if you ever have to take wheelchairs up a mountain – or just a hefty kit anywhere over rough ground – pop in to GO Outdoors and think Vango Contour.  I’ve also had it now on overnight camps across the Cairngorms and it’s much the best solution yet for major loads in the big outdoors.

Of course, I also learned other lessons from the challenge.  Not least, as one captain put it, “that disabled people don’t have to be wrapped in cotton wool”.  They certainly weren’t as we bumped and scraped them around for hours on end – but they showed they can overcome all of this and reach a personal high point in their lives.  Something which proved truly humbling and warming for everyone there to be a part of.

Donald Pow
Bridge of Allan