Sidetracked into silence

Mon, Sep 18, 2023

Great Gully, Blaven, Isle of Skye

Where to begin? With the first step, as ever.

A cool east wind crossed Loch Slapin, brushing the tops of the autumn trees, ruffling their crowns like old friends who meet but once a year. Cool winds snaking up the burn, the heather and bog myrtle dancing with them as they pushed me up the familiar path towards what my old friend. Blaven.

The light was achingly beautiful, soft, yet revealing harsh detail like a muse asking the land how it had fared this long summer of weary heat and endless lines of people heading to the summit each day. The land opened to the muse-light, revealing scars from rockfall, cones of debris fanning over the path from gullies washed clean of scree by torrential rains. The muses of wind and light caressing the cliffs, lulling the mountain into calm, soothing the trauma of a summer that wasn’t right.

I was headed for the heights, following my mood, route unknown. As I popped up at the mouth of the corrie, the burns happily boisterous and the ling a deep, thoughtful purple, the big boulder, in my imagination, looked back and nodded quietly. I nodded in return and passed on my way.

The dappled light from slow moving clouds made it look as if the muses were using dark cloths to wipe the cliffs clear, leaving them sparkling in the sunshine, sparkling like silver in the rivulets of last night’s rain that stained them with starlight, sparkling and running and dancing in the autumnal wind. It was a day to be alive. As I scanned the familiar face of an old friend my gaze rested on Great Gully, its screes a light red hemmed by black cliffs and grey rock scarred chimneys and I thought, why not?

I’d climbed the gully twice in winter, both ascents in deep unconsolidated snow as the westerly storms dump huge amounts of the white stuff in the gully. They howl up the west face and roar over the knife-edged ridge at the top then scream down the east face like banshees, scraping giant black wings on the cliff tops, bringing down sheets of spindrift, hail and torrents of cold soaking snow that steal the breath and make the world feel completely alive. Today it was calm with the light easterly breeze sighing up the screes as I worked my way up the edge of the unstable slopes, sticking to grass and gabbro, following the bottom edge of the black dripping cliifs before finally contouring round to the big rib of rock that walled in the main gully, its other side kept in place by the vertical walls of the south summit.

It’s strange how you change as you age. I’m not in the first, or second flush of youth but neither am I on the edge of the cliff of decreptitude. A happy flat field of experience that I can choose to stay in or occasionally wander over to the edge to see what’s on offer. What was on offer at that moment was a polished black rib of basalt, still wet from last night’s rains with some mild exposure on its side that dropped straight into the gully. I traversed onto it, inspected its sloping, slippery holds and it didn’t feel right. So I traversed back, to the bottom of a narrow chimney, three big grey chockstones jammed one above the other, all slightly sloping towards the mouth of the chimney and kept in place by friction and outjuttings from the chimney walls. Cold water ran down the sides and the air in the confines was cool and refreshing, out of the autumn sun that still held that tiresome heat. Normally I would have rejoiced at the challenge of climbing straight up, hanging on the overhangs, swinging up, bridging out, grasping at giant holds, the enticement of the blue sky drawing me deeper into the chimney. For some reason, though, those big chockstones looked ominous. No-one ever comes this way except in winter when everything is cemented in place by the snow and ice and I was acutely aware that what seemed solid could well lead to trouble and an uncertain outcome. Given the size and weight of these stone pilgrims, following one another up the chimney towards the light, the outcome would likely be terminal if one of them shrugged just enough to lose its grip on the walls. Little rivulets of stones moved slowly down the rock as I made my first moves on the lowest of the boulders. A full frontal ascent was too full of trepidation and instead I bridged out onto the right wall, on wet slippy sloping holds, my left hand flat against the opposite wall where it found a friendly edge to jam against and I pushed up gingerly and slowly, ever so slowly, stood up on the flat top of the first block. Nothing moved. There was no sound in the deep of the chimney other than my steady breathing. I stopped and there was complete silence. An oiteag, a puff of cold breeze came up the chimmey and I wriggled past the next block, looking down on its top as I bridged across, gently resting a knee on its gravelly top while pushing hard on both walls to take most of my weight. A quick step to the right and I was at the last of the blocks, sloping stones and weary grass above. The same moves, bridging and pushing, rainwater running over my hands as I passed the last of the stone pilgrims, feelling like Norman MacCaig in his poem Climbing Suilven as I laboured up the unstable ground above and:

I nod and nod to my own shadow and thrust
A mountain down and down.

At this point I had two options, follow a rough craggy loose looking chimney up to the right, hard against the black dripping walls of the main summit block and hope it came out near the ridge. Or balance over the edge of my chimney and see if I could drop into the main gully as it was by now getting very crowded with overhanging crags, spikes and soaking wet cliifs. I decided on the latter and the moves led onto a narrow ledge above the scree runnels of Great Gully which led round the top of the black dripping rib and onto highly unstable, steep and awkward ground. The difficulties were petering out though and the last of them was a short little wall of gabbro, only about four feet high, which, given how steep the slope up to it was, came up to my shoulders. It was riven and cracked into large scales and blocks like a crocodile’s skin and water ran quietly over the edge and dripped from the bulging middle. It looked like it would go. Down. A little dark insect ran to and fro along the edge, passing between the stones balanced on the edge and the insect-sized waterfalls cascading over. It seemed to be in a panic, perhaps aware of what was about to happen if I tackled its world head on. So I shuffled right, onto near vertical, stony grass and heaved up beyond the wall, balanced on steep scree, working out my next moves. Six ravens cronked as they flew between the two summits.

It’s strange how light can access memories. Usually it’s smells that reach deep into our minds and pull up experiences long forgotten but as I finally reached the solid sidewall of the gully, the light filtering through the tendrils of cold mist felt distinctly halloween. It felt like ghosts were moving along the sharp ridge edge only a few feet above me. A vivid memory of a young me suddenly appeared, standing on the platform of Tyndrum Upper station in the early eighties, waiting for the last train home after a claggy cold invisible day on the hill. Below, Tyndrum was almost invisible in the evening murk and coal smoke from houses and thick fog came down from the heights while behind me the warm welcoming lights of the ticket office and waiting room glowed, womb-like, enticing. It was a few days before halloween. Were the ghosts on the ridge echoes of the past times I’ve walked along there? Were those ghosts, me?

I crested as the cloud lifted and looked down the long gash of the gully that cracked open the west face, all the way down to the strath. My eyes crossed the loch and climbed to the Cuillin, the home of the uraisg. I had come home.