THE fact I was buying my first pair of walking shoes the day before we set off to climb Ben Nevis sums up just how well prepared I was.

"Make sure you break them in first," said the man in the shoe shop. Well, I broke them in all right, a few hours later tramping up the steep path rising 4,418ft to the highest summit in the British Isles.

Since my husband was unexpectedly laid low with a tummy bug, it was just my older brother and I taking three of my sons, aged eight, 11 and 12, along with his 12-year-old grandson, to the top.

It wasn't like a walk in the park. Although there is a fairly well-trodden path, weather conditions at the top, even in summer, can be treacherous, ranging from snow to blinding storms and thick, impenetrable cloud. And there are deaths and many casualties every year.

Before we set off, I spoke to a few people who had done the climb. Everyone had a story to tell, even the man in the shoe shop. Most said it was a long, hard slog, and for much of it they couldn't see more than a few feet in front of them.

For nine days out of ten, the Ben, as it is known locally, is shrouded in cloud. The man in the shoe shop was lucky. When he got to the peak, the sky cleared. His friend following behind had climbed it (and I am not exaggerating here) 36 times before without seeing a thing.

Half an hour later, the poor man made it for the 37th time, too late, for the clouds had descended again.

Although our forecast was good, we weren't taking any chances. Equipped with compass, maps, whistles, waterproofs, layers of warm clothing, gloves, plenty of water and high energy food, we may as well have been heading off on an Arctic expedition.

But it was an exceptionally clear day. And we were soon joined by many others, including couples with young children, several people with dogs and a one-armed Glaswegian who assured us he was only sweating because he had drunk so much the night before.

Some turned back before the top. But for those of us who made it, the reward was immense. As we wandered along the plateau towards the summit, half of Scotland seemed to spread out beneath us, with the Isle of Skye clearly in view across the sea.

There was thick snow in some parts - even though this was July 31. And we could now see, just a few feet from the path we had followed, the dramatic, sheer cliffs falling sharply down to the valley below.

For a few moments, we all shared the thrill of being the highest in Britain. People were taking photographs for each other. The one-armed Glaswegian opened a celebratory bottle of whisky.

The boys - who have already scaled the highest mountains in Wales and England, Snowdon and Scafell Pike, with their dad - discovered a memorial pile, with tributes to loved ones written on stones, the theory being, I suppose, that this is the nearest place to Heaven you can get.

The twelve-year-old even found one with the same name as his grandpa, a keen hill walker himself, who died four years ago "He would be so proud of you all now," I said.

By the time I got to the bottom, a whole hour after the boys, my boots were killing me and I badly needed a drink. They were bouncing about, full of energy.

"So, what are we tackling next?" they asked.