The Boy of Ten Who Conquered the Ben!

By @Sam Watts

It’s just after 3pm on a cold and blustery April day as I ponder my current situation; I am just over 500m away from the summit of Ben Nevis in thicker than anticipated snow. On my back is a 18kg full suspension mountain bike in addition to another 30kg of kit, clothes and food. Next to me is my 10-year old son, Xavier (Xavi for short), my wife Holly and our crazy spaniel Monty.

After five hours of slow and relentless hiking, I hit a wall. The kit on my back is getting heavier with every step, the snow is getting deeper by the minute and my legs feel like jelly as I stand braced against the 40-knot wind blasting the top of the mountain. There is just one last steep climb to overcome before the summit plateau reveals her prize but I hesitate; should we turn around now in the deteriorating conditions or push on? Are things still safely in control or has the threshold of “out of control” been reached and passed?

And then I look across at my son Xavi and in that one action everything changes; all doubt, all uncertainty and all hesitancy melt away. His almost palpable optimism, excitement and unshakeable belief in my ability to get him, and his beloved mountain bike, safely to the summit has an effect akin to a shot of adrenaline in the arm; my legs strengthen, my resolve returns and I know, come what may, that I will get Xavi and his bike to the summit and in doing to make real his world-record setting dream. And after all, Xavi is the sole reason I found myself in this situation in the first place.

To fully understand why we are here, we need to rewind 10-years to when Xavi was just one-years old. Quickly becoming unwell, he was rushed to Southampton Children’s Hospital with a serious and potentially life-threatening kidney disorder.  The next ten days in hospital merged into a prolonged period of no sleep, lots of stress, much uncertainty and the constant fear of the worst case scenario. However, at some point during that ordeal a miracle kicked in and Xavi’s kidneys began to heal themselves and he was able to leave hospital just 10-days later with nothing but a few medicines to take. To put the significance of this into perspective, less than 5% of children with Xavi’s condition experience this kind of recovery and many get very sick, a stark reality that was tragically brought home by the fact that two children with the same condition died during the time Xavi was in hospital.

In the decade since his recovery, Xavi has grown into a loving, funny and indomitable ball of energy. He has also turned into a passionate (borderline obsessive!!) mountain bike fanatic! He loves downhill racing, trail riding and most of all adventure riding and Xavi and I have completed some pretty huge and epic trail rides in the French Alps, the most significant of which was a full descent from the 9000ft snow covered summit of Mt Saulire as a wee 8-year old!

2022 marked the ten-year anniversary of Xavi’s miraculous recovery and we wanted to undertake a bike related challenge that would allow us to raise much needed funds for Southampton Children’s Hospital whilst also allowing us to acknowledge and thank the staff for the exceptional and life saving care he received there.

However, we were struggling to come up with a challenge that fitted the bill. That was until one afternoon whilst out on a trail ride in the South Downs National Park when Xavi casually asked if it was possible to ride a bike down Ben Nevis, the tallest mountain in Britain. Upon returning home, I jumped in front of the computer and several hours later had learnt that, yes it was possible and better still, that the current world record for the youngest person to do so was 17 years old.

The seed was sown; we would endeavour to get Xavi and his bike to the summit of Ben Nevis so that he could bag a world record as the youngest person to climb up and ride down the 4412 feet of Ben Nevis on a mountain bike whilst also raising as much money as possible for Southampton Children’s Hospital.

Xavi was as enthusiastic and excited about this adventure as I was and with my wife’s permission sought and received, it was all hands to the pump! We had to source kit, work out how to carry a heavy downhill mountain bike to the summit and train for doing so. What ensued was four months of sheer fun and hilarity out in the hills spending precious and unforgettable time with my amazing son as we tried different kit options, experimented with the easiest way of carrying his bike and worked out how to carry all the rest of our kit to the summit.

By April 2022 we were fully prepared and ready to go; the only missing piece of the puzzle was a weather window. The weather on the higher slopes of Ben Nevis can be notoriously challenging in April with huge variations in conditions, lots of snow and high winds being the norm. Every day I checked the mountain forecast with growing frustration; the temperatures were well below zero, visibility was poor and the winds were gale force. Any yet despite this, I strangely held an inner belief that Xavi’s good luck would prevail once again and that a weather window would present itself, despite the prevailing conditions and statistics saying otherwise. Sure enough on Saturday 16th April a small 24-hour window of sun, good visibility and moderate winds was predicted out of nowhere.

And with this weather window came a tidal wave of panic! We had just one day to load up all the kit, food, supplies and bikes and drive the 13-hours up to Fort William from our home on the south coast of England!

But make it we did and after a wonderful night wild camping in our campervan next to a stunning loch, we woke to clear skies and a beautiful-beyond-words vista of snow covered mountains, fast flowing waterfalls and silence. 

After a high calorie breakfast (nutritional parlance for a full English!) we made our way to the Ben Nevis Visitor Centre car park to begin our climb to the top. The nerves were setting in at this point; could we get the bike up there? Would Xavi have the stamina to make it to the top and even more so, to ride down to the bottom? Would the weather hold? Would the visibility on the notoriously dangerous summit plateau remain good enough for us to summit? The only way to answer these questions was to try and with everything ready, we set off.

What ensued over the next 6-hours is, for me, best described as a juxtaposition. I have never known or experienced such contrasting emotions in such a (relatively!) short period of time. There was the sheer joy of sharing this kind of experience not only with my son but also my wife. The views were mesmerizing, the raw beauty of the mountains captivating and the limitless sense of space beguiling. There was the ringing laughter of my son as he struggled over a particularly steep section of the climb, the tireless tail wagging of our faithful spaniel Monty and the family cuddles after each mile was ticked off on the map. There was the realisation of the privilege of sharing this whole thing with my son and the gratitude that his health was robust enough to allow his to do so; it could so easily have been very different. There was the casual glimpse out of the corner of my eye that caught Xavi staring out into the void below, lost in the immensity the view and seeing the bright light shining in his eyes. There was the sense of achievement as we progressed ever upwards and the pride I felt at watching my son master himself when things got tough.

But contrasted against these emotional highs was a degree of pain and emotional lows! I had done lots of training with the 45kg bike and backpack combination but it hadn’t prepared me that well it turned out for Ben Nevis. The weight sapped my strength and my resolve, the size of the bike upset my walking rhythm and the handlebars kept hitting the rock walls, forcing me to continually lose my balance. And once we reached the snowline, a nagging doubt about my ability to get to the top set in. The muscles in my legs and back were cramping, I felt devoid of energy as the 40 knot headwind rendered our progress painfully slow and the ever deepening snow sapped our strength with every passing step.

But, step after step, minute by minute we edged on, our ice axes and hiking poles proving to be the difference between forward progress and backward regression. As we climbed up onto the summit plateau, seeing Xavi’s excitement and hope, I knew nothing would now stop us and after what was a painfully slow final 500m, the summit cairn finally came into view and with it the realisation of all of our dreams and hopes for this project.

Finally, at 3.50pm, Xavi and I, hand in hand, reached the summit of Ben Nevis and, holding him in my arms in an almighty bearhug, with the whole of Britain below us, I was overcome with emotion to be sharing this unique record breaking experience with my son. Even now as I write this a week later in the sunny and warm south coast of England, I can shut my eyes and return to that very moment and picture every detail in absolute clarity. These are memories I will take with me to the grave!

After the obligatory summit photos and a short video, we now had to get down which for Xavi was the fun bit! Having descended off the snow line, we built up the bike and turned on the GoPro for what would amount to the longest downhill trail in Britain and one that would lead Xavi straight into the records books as the youngest person to climb up and ride down the tallest mountain in Britain.

As soon as Xavi set off, all of his tiredness and fatigue seemed to disappear instantly. He lit up with a huge smile across his face; back on the bike this was his world, what he lives for. As expected, rather than a steady, conservative ride down the mountain, Xavi attacked the trail as if it were a downhill bike race, hitting jumps, gapping the drainage gullies and roosting the turns with his usual panache and flare!

At 8.15pm, after was amounted to exactly 10-hours on the mountain, we reached the bottom buzzing, exhilarated and overwhelmingly happy. The family cuddle back at the carpark was one to remember and perhaps the most impressive bit of all was our faithful spaniel Monty! After 10-hours of essentially sprinting up and down the side of Ben Nevis in snow and wind with a distinct lack of food, his tail was still wagging and he was up for more! Not us, however! What came next was life-affirming! A huge steaming bowl of hot soup, a cup of tea, a celebratory biscuit and then, heaven of heavens, snuggling up in a warm bed.

Just before I turned the lights out on one of the best days of my life, I turned over to check on Xavi. And there he was in the half light of the evening, tucked up in his sleeping bag, fast asleep and breathing gentle with his faithful teddy next to him. So brave, so happy and so full of life but still just a 10-year old! I would love know what he was dreaming!

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