Fri, Jul 19, 2013

Normally I write up a walk on the day or a day or two later but since doing this one, I’ve walked St. Cuthbert’s Way and like a fine wine, its memory has matured over the last few weeks. In fact there’s been a fair bit of maturing going on in my reading material. Sometimes, when a book is published, its true value isn’t apparent at the time.
‘Ach, I do that all the time’ is an oft heard ripost, especially from the ranks of walking and climbing clubs. Such was the general reception in my old mountaineering club when Mike Cawthorne’s “Hell of a Journey” came out in 1997. Climbing the 1000m peaks in winter? ‘ach, we do that all the time!’.

But I’ve been revisiting it on Kindle and like a fine wine it too has matured. Technology, an explosion in ‘social hiking’ and instant access to information even in the wilds has turned this book into a suprising gem of a bygone age. 1997, a bygone age! I remember hearing about the chap who broke his ankle on the summit of Slioch and Mike recounts the tale in the book. He stayed on the summit for days expecting someone to turn up but no-one did, so he ended up crawling down the mountain, deliberately falling over small cliffs to get down before he expired, eventually being spotted by a local on the edge of Kinlochewe. Two things struck me about this. No mobile phone and walking in remote places alone. These days everyone carries a mobile phone and it seems that no-one walks alone any more in such places. How times change.

Fuar Tholl from the path

Anyway, back in the middle of June I went for a walk up Beinn Liath Mhor above Achnashellach. A land of greys and bare rock. Beinn Liath Mhor, The Big Grey Mountain; Liathach, The Grey One; Maol Cheann Dearg, Bald Red Head; Sgorr Ruadh, Red Peak. Bare, grey rock and red screes of Torridonian sandstone.

These hills are remote but I’ve never really thought about it as they’re more or less in my backyard. I’m used to their situation but Mike’s book has since put them in perspective. The area directly south, just across the river Carron that stretches towards Kintail is the same size as the Lake District. It’s chock full of mountains twice the size of most of the Lake District hills and has probably 1 percent of the population. It has no public roads and few paths. It’s a sobering thought.

But today I wasn’t thinking about remoteness, I was just thinking how on earth was it so hot on such a sunless day. I was sweating profusely as I topped out on the path at the big cairn at the mouth of Coire Lair with no cooling breeze to ease the rivulets running into my eyes.

Looking over to Fuar Tholl from Beinn Liath Mhor

I rested beside ‘old faithful’ and the first of the day’s reflections bubbled up from the depths of memory. I realised I’d first climbed Beinn Liath Mhor in 1987. A young scragbag in tweed breeches, enormous leather boots, oilskin jacket and sideburns you could hide a rabbit in.
It was a day of low scudding clouds scouring the ridge of new snow and iced up rocky flanks. I didn’t read guidebooks so I ended up walking half way up Coire Lair, turning right and climbing directly up the face. On loose teetering blocks as a blizzard blew in and fluffed out the world. All I could see was black rocks disappearing into the white void above. I made the summit and traversed the ridge and came back to the tent in the forest down by the river and cooked up some no longer frozen bhajees or something. Something rank that stuck to the pan but very tasty after a wild day on the tops.

It got me thinking about how youngsters get into the hills these days. There seems to be a plethora of advice, mostly along the lines of ‘here be dragons’, ‘get skilled up’ and endless lines of safety advisors queuing up to dispense the latest and greatest theories on how to manage your ‘adventure’. For there are now things called ‘microadventures’, whatever they are.

I’ve always thought adventure was absolute, unable to be categorised. Subjective, exciting (though perhaps not at the time!), stimulating, memorable. If you have an adventure, you have, well, an adventure. It’s your adventure and there’s no need to categorise it to fit in with today’s social spectrum. To rank it in accordance with the Adventure Scale to be found on things like Twitter.
‘You did what? Five miles?’.
‘Yes but it was only a microadventure’.
‘Well that’s alright then. For a moment I thought you’d had a real adventure!’.
Well you did. A real adventure for you and damn the micro!

Back in the 80s youngsters joined mountaineering clubs and learned the ropes from a spectrum of real people. People who’d had real adventures. Adventures in the mountains and adventures where their lives depended on fighting their way across inhospitable terrain, literally. That’s a generation that no longer exists on the hills. The mountaineers of the Black’s tents and canvas cagoules, paraffin stove and alpenstock. Who fought in the war and could spend the night in a hole in the ground at 4000 feet in the depths of winter, shake the snow from their beard in the morning and continue on their adventure.

I learned from these men in the 1980s in a Dundee mountaineering club. They never looked down on anyone and the thought of having anything with ‘micro’ in its name would have been met with roaring laughter round the bothy fire. Flickering flames lighting up their ruddy faces, red from a wild day on the tops, they would listen intently to everyone’s account of their adventure and nod approvingly. Another log would be thrown on the fire, sparks would explode onto the wooden floor to be stamped out by hobnailed boots and the whisky bottle would do another round. At the back of the room the singing would start.

At first it would be quiet humming to accompany someone singing the words of a folk song. The boots would then join in, quietly tapping out the rythmn so as not to drown out the singer. The chorus would come and everyone would join in, subsiding back to humming as the next verse came and went. A late arrival cooking his dinner turned the primus down low, a slow column of steam condensing against the cold window as he stirred his dinner. His head torch reflecting in the steamed up glass. Many a night I’ve passed in a remote bothy amid this scene.

By now I was almost at the top of the grinding ascent from Drochaid Coire Lair, anticipating the levelling off and the views opening out. Steep slopes lost in a reverie of reflections.

The day was a strange one. The light was flat, almost autumnal but the temperature was just right. Not too cold and not too hot and the complete lack of wind gave an effect as if being in a total immersion tank. I stood, eyes closed and listened. I could hear nothing, feel nothing and when I opened my eyes, I stretched to the grey horizon. It was a most uplifting experience. The conditions leant themselves to reverie.

Looking north along the ridge of Beinn Liath Mhor from the first summit

Just below the summit I found that most wonderful of places. A place I truly love. The high, wind blasted bealach, or col. What little vegetation there was on the ridge was eroded away by wind borne scree and snow. On my right, steep slopes fell towards Lochan Uaine while on the other side, even steeper slopes fell straight into Core Lair. My eye followed them down and bounced straight back up the other side to the cliffs and crags of Sgorr Ruadh. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed the steep face to my left as I looked into the coire and for a fleeting moment was transported back to that day of wild winter weather, scrambling through the blizzard on those very rocks. I smiled and made my way to the summit.

Looking south down the ridge of Beinn Liath Mhor from the summit

I spent a happy hour on top, watching as the wind picked up and began blowing ragged drifting vapours across Sgorr Ruadh and Maol Cheann Dearg. That superlative backpacking country at my feet disappeared as spits of rain brought me back to the present moment. I took a picture of my happy feet as I lay behind the cairn peering at Liathach through the clouds then picked a way down through the jumble of quartzite boulders that led to the bealach above Coire Grannda, the Ugly Coire. How can anyone call something ugly? I sat on blocks that sheltered green and yellow plants next to a fine area of slabs, looking out over Coire Grannda and just couldn’t understand how it could ever be called thus.

Sgorr Ruadh from Beinn Liath Mhor

I stopped for a while on some more pink slabs at the head of the coire and with the wind abating and the temperature rising I fell to more reverie. I was a Flaneur of the wilds. Rousseau would have been proud of me. Such specks of insignificance we are and yet such damage we do. And yet, with one fell swoop we are removed. Imagine if these hills came alive again. Imagine if they put on their volcano hats once more and got down to the business of reshaping the landscape, not satisfied with the millennia of resculpting by wind and water. Millennia to us but the blink of an eye to a mountain. These slabs I sat on would be, to a mountain, still warm. If I could see them as they see their landscape I would be hopping around on this volcanic shelf shouting ‘hot hot hot!’.

Looking down Coire Lair from Beinn Liath Mhor

A steep descent to the lochan then a marvellous green corridor down through the crags to the path and a romp back through Coire Lair to ‘old faithful’.

I sat with my back against the tall cairn, munching on my last roll, the familiar aroma of olive oil and fish mingling with that of sweat and earth. My fingers smoothed as the warm oil oozed from the roll and I looked up towards the big cliffs on Sgorr Ruadh. Chewing contentedly.

Last winter I’d gone up there with a friend and we’d caught the last of the light on the way down. A fantastic day of clear light and bright snow that faded to soft pink afterglow as the first stars appeared in the darkening sky. And that got me thinking again.

We are of the stars. Every atom in our bodies has been fashioned in a dying star. A star that’s resisted its inevitable collapse again and again as it’s burned the last of its fuel. First hydrogen then helium and as each runs out so it’s compressed further by gravity until nuclear forces create the chemical elements we are so familiar with. Carbon, zinc, iron, sodium, potassium. The building blocks of life. These are all created as the star crunches to almost nothing, reaches the irresistable pressure of quantum degeneracy and destroys itself in a supernova, blasting these elements across the universe.
They join with elements from other dying stars and travel the cosmos until, one day, they meet, in me. In you. In all of us. We are all the children of dying stars.

I’ve often looked at the winter sky and wondered where my star is. Where did the other elements go? What a wonderful journey, crossing immeasurable distances across the void to temporarily stop, just for a little while, to give me life. Then move on. To give life elsewhere? To be trapped by another star’s gravity? To build another mountain? Where have mine been? Have they given life already to a mountaineer on a distant planet?

An oiteag woke me. That lovely Gaelic word for the slightest of breezes. Say it quietly, ‘otch-ak’. Feel it come and go on your lips. ‘otch-ak’.

My fingers were a bit messy with olive oil now and I stuffed the last of my roll into my masticating mouth and sauntered off down the rocky path. It had felt like a long day. A long wonderful day of reverie, mountains and memory.

Next time you’re out on the winter hills at night. Clear the snow from a rock, sit down and see if you can spot your star in that vast sparkling immensity. It might just be that one hovering over the summit.

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