I’m a keen hill walker and I’ve walked my fair share of mountains, too. It all started on a mountain called Craig y Fan Ddu (Rock of the Black Top) in the Brecon Beacons many years ago which I climbed carrying a backpack full of camera equipment. I was so tired at the top that I wasn’t able to take many photos – the purpose of my ascent – and so technically the climb was a failure. I continued hill walking on more accessible slopes and slowly it went from being something I did to get to photogenic locations to something I did because I enjoyed the experience of being on top of hills and mountains. It also helped me get fit.
In 2006, I went on one of my regular breaks to Scotland and one grey morning I decided to take a stroll along an old deer stalker’s path to the foot of a mountain called Maol Chean Dearg. I hadn’t really through about climbing it as the weather wasn’t brilliant. The route, suggested by the landlady of the B&B I was staying in, skirted around the foot of the mountain. I could go as far as the weather allowed and always turn back if it got too bad. Not long after starting off, I reached a bothy – an old cottage now available for anyone to use for shelter or an overnight stay. The path was good and although the mist was low, I was enjoying the walk. Beyond the bothy, a peculiar rock formation appeared to be giving me the finger, and I wondered if it was an omen not to continue.
I reached to fork in the path at about the same time as the drizzle started. I was already wet, so I wasn’t too put off by this. As I sat to rest and decided which way to go next, another walker passed by. We chatted for a bit and it turned out that he was heading off to the summit. He asked if I was too and something made me say yes. I told him not to wait for me and he headed off at a better pace than me.
Climbing steadily, I passed into the mist layer and was beginning to doubt the wisdom of my decision but just as I was ready tot urn back, I heard the walker shouting from above. Through the mist I saw a vague figure waving and I followed him up the side of the mountain. This part was very steep, and consisted of gravel and loose rock. It was like climbing a sand dune and there were points on the climb where I had to use my hands as well as my feet. It was sapping my energy and there seemed to be no end to the climb. Suddenly, the path flattened and I was on a boulder strewn plateau. It was a chance to get my breath back but before long we set off again and after a few minutes we were scrambling over rocks football sized and larger. They were loose, too, posing a risk for anyone below and I was below my companion. I decided to climb on an offset path to him. It was easier to find my own way over the boulders than to try and follow his.
It was tough going; there was no chance to set a rhythm as every boulder was a different size and some gave way, rolling and scattering their way down the slope. Eventually, just when I thought my energy had gone, there was an end to the climb. I felt fantastic and bent over to gather my breath. When I looked up again, my guide was pointing above, and where the mist had cleared momentarily, I could see another steep climb. I was devastated.
As he began to disappear into the cloud, I got to my feet and started the final haul. I was struggling now. Every step was leaden, every breath was a battle but worst of all my mind was telling me I couldn’t do it and offering me an opportunity to turn back. I’m not sure why I didn’t. The mist began to clear but I didn’t notice at first as my head was down and I was concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other. I Started to notice that it was getting a little easier to take the next step. Looking up, I saw the slope was flattening out. Then, fading in through the mist I saw the summit cairn about 50 yards ahead. Between it and me were my companion and another guy, who was sat on a rock eating a large corned beef sandwich. They were both talking and laughing. Almost within touching distance was my first Munro, but I felt I had to stop and be friendly, so I chatted with both about slopes and visibility and Munros ‘compleated’.
Then we took the last few steps the cairn. I was so exhausted I wasn’t sure what to do. It was my companion’s 219th Munro and my first. I just grinned like a fool. It felt fantastic. I looked around for the view – it was misty grey. Different shades of grey, admittedly, but grey none the less. But the grey, the mist, the cold, the wind and the rain didn’t matter. I was above 3,000 feet on my first Scottish mountain. I wanted to tell everyone about it. I didn’t care that I had to make my way back across all those boulders, and hopefully hit the proper path down.
The cloud began to clear a little as we headed down and the peaks of nearby mountains poked above the cloud. I quickly took some photos but I was more interested in getting down safely. The mist had cleared on our mountain, too, and now we could see small cairns made by previous walkers and they indicated a safer route. Still the going was tough. Boulders and rocks threatened to twist the unwary ankle and that would have been a serious prospect at this altitude. The loose scree gave underfoot, causing me to slip and slide much of the way down the final steep section. I could see in the slightly improved visibility the false paths that would have led me over steep drops. Wary, I zig zagged back down until I finally reached the path that circled the mountain.
With a wave, my companion continued on his way as I stopped to catch my breath. I headed off, back the way I had come. My feet were aching, my ankles were stiffening, my knees were hurting and my shoulders hurt from the weight of the backpack. I was tired, hot and sweaty but I was full of the buzz of having climbed a Munro, so none of this mattered. It seemed like forever before I reached the finger of rock. I laughed at it now, still hyped up with my achievement. The Bothy came and went. Each step was an ordeal but I managed it, and finally reached the car worn out completely.
A good hot shower helped my recovery, but I could only manage an old person’s shuffle down to the village to get my dinner that evening.
(Munros are Scottish mountains over 3000 feet. There is a list of 283 of them, and keen walkers and climbers seek to ‘compleat’ all of them. Ben Nevis is the most famous Munro.)