“Why I camped out at the top of Ben Nevis alone on Christmas Eve”

Adventurer Phoebe Smith explains why she traded mince pies for an icy night alone in the Scottish peaks last Christmas; with a repeat feat planned for this year…

It was Christmas Eve – well, technically speaking, it was Christmas Day, being that it was 3am – and I couldn’t sleep. Not because I was excited for Santa to arrive and deliver my presents, oh no. The reason for my insomnia was that it was actually snowing and had been for the past couple of hours.

A white Christmas might be considered lucky by many. But given that I was not snuggled up in my bed – with the heating on and Christmas lights twinkling like most ‘normal’ people at this time of the year – but rather bedded down in a tent on top of the highest mountain in Britain, it wasn’t the forecast I had hoped for.

The constant flurry of snowflakes pit-patting on the walls of my canvas cocoon initially sounded very peaceful. But over the course of a few hours they, along with the significant drop in temperature, had turned the walls of my tent into sheets of ice, making the inside feel similar to a refrigerator (and a cold one at that).

The wind had picked up and seemed to easily permeate through every stitch of my sleeping bag. And, despite wearing a full set of woolly thermals, two pairs of gloves, socks and a hat, I was freezing.

But then I had to remind myself – I had chosen to do this. I alone had opted to give up my usual Christmas festivities to spend three nights sleeping the 3 Peaks – that is overnighting on the top of the highest mountain in Wales (Snowdon), followed by Scafell Pike (England) and, finally Scotland on the top of Ben Nevis.

As a wild camping adventurer I often find myself in similar scenarios, sleeping in crazy places, all for fun. But over the years I’ve been doing it I have realised just how very fortunate I am, that I can choose to do it, rather than have to spend endless nights outdoors with no end in sight.

Homelessness is a massive problem. On my travels I’ve seen it the world over from India to Australia, Africa to the USA. And recently I noticed that it was increasing at home in the UK too. And so I thought, what if I could dedicate an extreme sleeping adventure to raise money and awareness for their plight, at a time when most of us are busy worrying instead about Christmas presents, making the perfect roast dinner and watching bad TV.

And so the idea was born – to forgo Christmas – that’s all presents, cards, tree, food – the lot, and instead do my challenge all to raise money for the young people’s homeless charity Centrepoint. I was excited at first – I love spending time in the mountains, so why not now? But it was only when I drove to the car park at the foot of Snowdon, night one, while a misty drizzly rain fell and I could see the warmth and cosiness of families and friends inside the opposite hostel eating dinner, that I felt a pang of sadness and a great empathy of what it must be like to be someone missing out on what should be a happy time of year.

It took a lot to force myself out of the car, to make myself begin, but as I did, it gave me time to reflect. The outdoors is somehow different at night. Though I knew the path, every sound was amplified, every rock that scratched under my boots was loud, every breath I took magnified and even the condensation from the warm air I was expelling clouded into a yellow fog in front of my eyes. I didn’t need to see I was near a stream, I could hear it babble and spatter. I didn’t need anyone to tell me snow was on the track, for I could smell it in my nose and feel its smooth texture beneath my feet.

It was windy on the summit that night, but I slept well and awoke with the reward of a rare cloud inversion at sunrise – where I was standing above the billowing white mist, the sun illuminating them like cotton wool.

The second night was harder – with heavy rain and gale force winds – I was so close to calling it a day, but getting back to the warmth of the car after a restless night and being able to dry out my kit, eat food and gain some respite from the elements kept me going. Until, finally I arrived at Ben Nevis, and began the long hike up its slopes to pitch my tent on the rocky plateau.

At first tiredness saw me sleep well. But the arrival of the snow chilled me to the bone. Somehow, though, I did manage to nod off. And, as sunlight broke around 8am, I awoke to one of the most magical Christmas mornings. The whole plateau was encased in a layer of ice and snow. The sun was trying to burn through the clouds and – more magical still – thanks to the support of well-wishers, most of whom I didn’t even know – I had smashed my fundraising target of £5,000 (I ended up, including GiftAid raising over £8,000). So you see, although I woke up alone – I didn’t feel lonely. In fact I felt blessed.

The kindness of strangers I’ll never forget – like the man who had seen my challenge on Instagram and walked up in the morning to wish me Happy Christmas and make a cash donation. Or the older couple who had been staying in Fort William and seen me on BBC Breakfast so decided to delay their Christmas dinner to come and meet me half way and give me a hug.

And that’s why, this Christmas, I will be doing an equally crazy challenge – walking 100 miles across the width of Britain dressed as Wander Woman, trying to raise another £5,000, by the end – just after nightfall on December 25.

There’s a lot of pressure on us to have the ‘perfect’ Christmas we’re shown in the movies, but life is simply not like that. So wherever you are, at home or on the road, with family or by yourself, know that you are never really alone – even if you find yourself on the top of a mountain.

Phoebe will be walking the Hadrian Hundred for the Homeless starting on December 22 and ending late on Christmas Day. Follow her progress on Twitter and Instagram @PhoebeRSmith and help her reach her fundraising target justgiving.com/WanderWoman

The fee for this article will be donated to justgiving.com/WanderWoman

Images: Phoebe Smith




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