Seven Things I Learnt About Climbing Mountains, Whilst Semi-Successfully Carrying My Saxophone Up A Mountain
We at Nevis love a challenge, and in August 2018 on Day 7 of our inaugural tour we climbed Ben Nevis as an orchestra to perform a concert at the summit. I’ll admit, I had never climbed an actual mountain before, only average-sized hills, but this was a day that I was super excited for, as I really do love challenges – particularly those that I question my competence for. In my subsequent words, I shall reflect on this experience through identifying a number of observations I made throughout this rather exciting day.
1. Believe (and most importantly remember) what your PE teachers told you about the importance of warming up before you exercise.
It didn’t cross my mind until halfway up Ben Nevis that walking uphill for an extended period of time (and then ultimately having to go back down again) constituted as “moderate” exercise, and that stretching before undertaking this task would’ve been quite a sensible thing to do. I would call myself rather foolish for not making this link, considering how much sport I did in my schooldays. After a promising start, it all started to go wrong and I began to feel an injury developing in my groin. I compensated for that pain by leading with the uninjured leg, and then actually did the same thing to the other side. I can only blame myself for this stupid error, but not wanting to be the only one not to finish, I carried on regardless.
2. You are never near the top of the mountain (despite what everyone going down the mountain will tell you)
For the first hour I was walking quite comfortably in the middle of the group. You could say I felt somewhat physically elite. However, the beginnings of an injury and my incredibly average fitness led me to slowly drift towards the back of the pack. I didn’t quite realise the extent of this drift until the intrepid mountain climbers of our group were already on their way down and I was only two hours into my climb. Expecting to be comforted by a small figure, I naïvely asked ‘How long until the top?’, to which I was optimistically told ‘You’re nearly there! No longer than 30 mins!’. FANTASTIC, I thought. Well, that was the biggest lie of the tour as it was actually another two and a half hours until I summitted (and a further four hours until I got back down to the bus).
3. Saxophones (and their players) don’t work at their optimum at 1345m above sea level
Sadly, the weather (cold and wet) on the day was far from ideal to perform as a whole ensemble, but as we lugged all our instruments up (cellos included!), we all played individually as and when we arrived at the summit. I’m not really sure what I expected to happen. Certainly not a world-class performance, but I really did not expect the noise I made. As a saxophonist, I could’ve chosen something really, really cool to play, but no, in the moment I decided to attempt a rather boring technical study which, listening back to the video, is entirely unrecognisable. The cold made my fingers as useful as some wooden sticks and the instrument INCREDIBLY flat, my reeds wouldn’t really make a sound, and the altitude (and my exhaustion) meant I couldn’t find enough air to even finish the phrase. A true musical disaster (but one which, given the circumstances, I’m really, and weirdly, extremely proud of).
4. Everyone needs a Duncan
For those unaware of the make-up of the Nevis management team, Duncan is the Tour Manager, responsible for many, many things including ensuring that musicians don’t get lost, that we’re all aware of timings for the day, and probably totally obliviously to him upon his appointment in the role, carrying my saxophone up a mountain. I managed about an hour and a half solo lugging, before it became obvious that I was struggling. Duncan made an offer that I could not refuse and suggested that he should carry my saxophone for a bit so I could focus on walking. Ever the hero, at any point on the ascent that I offered to take it back, Duncan wouldn’t let me. I carried it for a chunk of the way down though, and the final five minutes. Big thanks to Duncan.
5. Lengthy walks are much more enjoyable when there is an element of visibility
As a typical August summer’s day in the Highlands, it was raining, misty and cold. I couldn’t even tell you what Ben Nevis looked like. We knew before starting the climb that the concert as initially planned wouldn’t work out. However, this meant we could focus all of our energy on climbing rather than saving some in the tank for a performance at the top full of the usual Nevis energy. I would’ve been able to look past many of the difficult elements of the climb if I was surrounded by spectacular views, but only being able to see the rocks around me for the majority of the time, CERTAINLY made the climb even harder.
6. Steve Reich’s Music For 18 Musicians is a very good soundtrack for mountaineering
An hour or so into the climb I thought, what better way to distract myself from the pain of dysfunctional legs than listening to some music. I had prepared myself for needing some musical motivation, and so prior to the day, I constructed a ‘Nevis Climb’ playlist full of my favourite (and lengthy) minimalist and post-minimalist pulsating tunes. Music For 18 Musicians by Steve Reich was the first piece of this playlist and it really was exactly what I needed to hear: pulsating percussion to drive my walking, and gradual harmonic shifts which almost seamlessly mirrored the gradual changes in scenery. Dreamy.
7. It’s always the people who are rubbish that have to spend the longest amount of time doing the things they are not good at
It’s probably quite clear by now that my first experience of climbing a mountain was difficult. If rating my ability, I would class myself as ‘rubbish’, which is why it is also truly frustrating that my inability to effectively walk uphill for a prolonged period of time meant that I was walking on my useless legs for a total of eight and a half hours. But my paradoxical observation being, why did I have to endure eight and a half hours of being rubbish at climbing a mountain, when those who are really good only got to do it for four hours. I almost feel sorry for them.
Although this could primarily be interpreted as an expression of my anger towards mountains, many of my points made have deeper meanings beyond the superficial. For example, the immense support of Duncan in carrying my saxophone, and the very tactful move of those coming down in saying I was closer to the top than I really was, emphasises Nevis’ camaraderie, kindness, and fun nature. These characteristics are shared between people and performances. Furthermore, the soundtrack to my climb is an indicator of personal relationships between music and the outside world; one which is so regularly experienced by audience members at our concerts.
Despite it not being the easiest ride for me, I couldn’t think of a better group of people, and for a better reason, to climb a mountain. The Nevis motto is ‘music for everyone, everywhere’, and we did that, taking music (and a rather grumpy me), to the highest part of the British Isles, entertaining those who happened to also be climbing that day, and a group from Refuweegee who had joined us to help us carry our instruments, with our various tunes that we played as and when we reached the summit.
P.S. No joke, I really am looking forward to the next time I climb Ben Nevis. I’ll probably stretch beforehand, choose a really beautiful day, and definitely won’t be carrying a saxophone.