Snowdon gets the Olympic torch – so why not Ben Nevis?

Ben Nevis – no Olympic torch here Picture: Mike Adam
Ben Nevis – no Olympic torch here Picture: Mike Adam

Yesterday saw the Olympic torch taken up Snowdon, the highest hill in Wales, and held aloft on the summit by Sir Chris Bonington, mountaineer of note. From the TV coverage, it looked to be a lovely day, with mist in the cwms and clear skies up top. There was a good turnout of wellwishers, and Bonington himself was surprisingly weepy when interviewed by the BBC afterwards.

All well and good – this is precisely the kind of high-profile and high(ish) altitude thing that should be done with the old Greek flame, and the reaction from hill organisations north of the border has been positive. “We offer all involved with the Olympics and Paralympics our very best wishes for a highly successful games,” said David Gibson, chief officer of the Mountaineering Council of Scotland. “LOCOG [the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games] have done a fantastic job so far and the thousands of athletes involved in the Games, and millions of spectators around the world, can look forward to what will be a superb festival of sport. It was great to see Sir Chris Bonington, a great ambassador for British mountaineering, carrying the torch at Snowdon’s summit.

“Sir Chris is well aware that both the MCofS and British Mountaineering Council support the bid by the International Federation of Sport Climbing to see indoor climbing recognised as a future Olympic sport. That decision rests with the International Olympic Committee, which will decide in Buenos Aires in September 2013.”

The Munro Society might not have similar ambitions with regard to hill-bagging becoming an Olympic event (or, if they have, they’re keeping very quiet about it), but Peter Willimott, the society’s vice-president, was equally supportive. “I’m delighted that that wonderful ambassador for British mountaineering, Sir Chris Bonington, had such a successful and apparently emotional day on Snowdon,” he said.

There were, however, several oddities and idiosyncrasies about yesterday’s ascent, which will have added to the arguments of those who claim that the 2012 Olympic Torch Relay is a bit of a carry-on, more hype than substance and very selective in terms of which parts of the country are deemed suitable for visitation.

Let’s get the real topographic cluelessness out of the way first. Snowdon is, according to the official London 2012 press release, “the second highest peak in the UK”. Hmm. There are many ways to categorise what qualifies as a “peak”, and hill-list enthusiasts (even the female ones) have been stroking their beards and squabbling over such matters for a century or more. But given that Snowdon is 3,560 feet in height (1,085 metres in modern parlance), it is perhaps simplest to see where it would stand in terms of the Scottish 3,000ft hills, the Munros.

Snowdon would come 57th in the 283-strong Munros list, after Beinn a’Chlachair south of Loch Laggan (1,087m), before Beinn Dearg east of Ullapool (1,084m). So in the most commonly used assessment of hill heights, it would only appear on the third page of the list in the current edition of Munro’s Tables. Alternatively, if the subsidiary summits known as Munro Tops are included in the equation, Snowdon drops 30 further places, to no.87 – just below the 1,086m summit of An Riabhachan South-West Top (a lovely spot) on the north side of Loch Mullardoch.

How about taking a more severe measure? Alan Dawson’s list of Marilyns, first published in 1992, adopts a strict entry criterion of 150 metres of reascent on all sides (whereas Munros, by contrast, are considerably more fuzzy in that regard). But even by the Marilyn reckoning, Snowdon is only the 43rd highest hill on these shores.

Of course, what the Olympic publicists meant – but which they were too hill-illiterate to get right despite their considerable funding – was that Snowdon is “the second highest national peak in the UK”. That pecking order is much shorter and more straightforward: Ben Nevis stands aloft at the top, fully 1,344 metres above Loch Linnhe. Then comes Snowdon, then Scafell Pike (978m) in the English Lake District, and finally Slieve Donard, at 850m the highest point in Northern Ireland. Other candidates could be considered – the highpoints of the Isle of Man, the Channel Islands, the People’s Republic of Arran – but none of these are anywhere near Snowdon-sized.

That raises the question of which, if any, of the other national highpoints the torch will visit during its meandering journey to the Olympic stadium in London on 27 July. Is Scafell Pike on the itinerary? It appears not, perhaps because of the old and ever-curious custom of clumping together a commodity known as Englandandwales. This is something which the entire spectrum of informed opinion, from Kofi Annan to Cameron McNeish, would struggle to adequately define, but it crops up regularly, often in the form: “Snowdon is the highest point in England and Wales”. That is guaranteed to annoy Cumbrians – and, if the phrase takes the form “Mount Snowdon is the highest point in England and Wales”, it is likely to annoy Cambrians as well.

More controversially, the Olympic torch doesn’t seem destined to be taken up Ben Nevis either – although the reaction appears to be more of relief than of outcry. “I’m delighted we don’t have a railway to get the torch to the summit of Ben Nevis,” said Peter Willimott, when asked whether the Munro Society would like to see an Olympic visit to the highest Munro – or indeed to any Munro. And as to who should do the job were the opportunity to arise: “If I could be granted a wish it would be for Sir Hugh Munro to be with us to take the torch to the top of the In Pinn.”

Simon Richardson – experienced winter climber and co-author of Ben Nevis: Britain’s Highest Mountain, the definitive work on the great Lochaber lump of rock and ice, said he was “a strong supporter of the Olympics, and looking forward to the Games starting”. As to whether there should be a follow-up to the Snowdon episode, Richardson was less enthusiastic. “I don’t think that the Olympics and mountaineering are a natural fit, so I’m rather glad that the torch is not going up Ben Nevis. To me, the Olympics comprise outright competitive sports, whilst in climbing and mountaineering it is far more subjective to determine who is ‘best’.

“If the Olympic torch was to be taken up the Ben, I would propose Jimmy Marshall as the torch bearer. This would be a fitting tribute to one of Scotland’s most influential mountaineers who has authored many of the finest climbs on Ben Nevis (and the British Isles).”

The other oddity yesterday concerned how the torch was taken to the summit of Snowdon. There isn’t exactly a shortage of people capable of carrying it up the hill – Sir Chris himself, although aged 77, still looks fit enough for the job. And surely a couple of hours of TV coverage of the progress of the torch, held aloft from Llanberis to summit, passed from hand to hand every 100 metres or so, would have served as a fine advert for the Games, in an inspiring, Chariots of Fire style.

But that isn’t what happened. Instead, like the hordes of summer tourists and shoppers, it went up on the train, only being physically carried the last minute or so to the top. There was something disappointing, even vaguely pathetic, about this. Surely the Olympic Games – the main event on the planet in terms of athletic ability and physical effort – could benefit from being symbolised by the carrying of a torch up an impressive and spectacular (the PR people would say “iconic”) hill? Surely the logistics wouldn’t have been that hard, especially on a fine sunny day such as yesterday? Instead, however, the organisers preferred the commercial, touristy, near-sedentary option, one which scarcely differentiated Snowdon from other more humdrum torch-relay venues such as Swindon and Stockport.

And what’s with the carrying of the flame in a miner’s Davy lamp, as again happened yesterday? This served a practical purpose and provided a neat-enough piece of publicity and branding when the usual suspects of Becks, Seb, Boris et al brought it into the country on the initial flight. But we’ve got that idea now, thanks, and something new and more stirring is in order for the remaining weeks of the relay. There must be other practical alternatives for cradling the flame when indoors, and already the miner’s lamp idea risks being seen as tired, in a backward-looking, post-industrial kind of way.

The flame needs to get out more, and the actual long metal torches, in their tapering elegance, are much more striking and impressive. How much better would it have been had one of those been used all the way up Snowdon, rather than just for the last few strides from the UK’s second-highest retail outlet?

Which prompts a thought as to why no big Scottish hill is on the schedule. The highest shop-and-café complex in the UK is the Ptarmigan restaurant on Cairn Gorm, standing slightly higher than the summit of Snowdon, at 1,097m. Was there any official discussion as to the suitability of this for a Scottish equivalent of the Snowdon ascent, with the flame being taken up on the funicular railway and then carried the remaining 147m to the top of Cairn Gorm? It wouldn’t quite be Ben Nevis, but it would be pretty impressive, and similar to Snowdon in organisational terms – lamp, train, easy media coverage etc.

The trouble with that, however, is that the funicular/Ptarmigan project remains controversial, both in terms of funding and access. Taking the Olympic torch up there might be seen as problematic – and, given the ongoing restrictions on walkers exiting the funicular top station to walk to Cairn Gorm and beyond, any parading of the torch along the same route might be seen as provocative and setting a precedent.

So unless there is a sudden dramatic change of plan, the Olympic torch will visit neither Ben Nevis nor the Cairn Gorm funicular. The first seems disappointing, an opportunity missed – while the latter is perhaps a wise move, with too much risk of seeing the flame setting off political and economic sparks.

One final thought about the torch’s visit to Snowdon, however. Could it not have been brought back down on the mountain railway, having been driven up to the summit in a Vauxhall Frontera?