You shouldn’t do it!” warns ‘Safetyman’; “aren’t you being silly...irresponsible, walking alone in the hills?”
Is there not the risk of a trip and a twisted ankle, a slip into some remote and icy burn and no one around to help for miles and possibly hours? Yes! What about the snow that suddenly envelopes you or the unexpected cloud that hadn’t been forecast, will you not be in more danger if that happens? Yes! Is there not more chance of getting lost? Yes! Suppose you’re coming down by torchlight and your batteries die, are you not in lots of bother then? Well, yes again!
Of course there are risks to walking in the mountains on your own, just as there are risks when walking in the hills with others. (In fact the only problems I’ve ever encounted in almost forty years of walking Britain’s hills, have been caused by others walking in the parties I’ve been with).
The confident and competent hillgoer does not stay at home in fear of what could possibly happen should the weather or other conditions change whilst he’s up there; given the vagueries of Scotland’s weather, if he waited for the sunshine he’d get out only rarely. And what wonders he would miss!
Assessing the risks, planning for the unexpected and being prepared to deal with them calmly when such adversities confront him, is what keeps the hillman safe in all conditions. It all comes down to ‘hillcraft’ or, as some prefer to call it, ‘mountaincraft’. And such can only be developed with experience-the more time spent out in the hills and especially in the varying conditions found in the Scottish Highlands, the more problems one is called upon to solve, the deeper runs the experience gained.
In any field of endovour practice, over time, makes perfect-and just as true in the wilds-practice makes hillcraft second nature.
Regular readers of this column will know that I enjoy walking with other like minded stravaigers, there’s great joy in sharing hill day experiences with friends; there’s satisfaction too in introducing others to the joys of hillwalking. But readers will also be aware that I often enjoy a day or so on the hill alone. To those who have gained experience enough to feel confident to do the same, I thoroughly recommend it.
And don’t be afraid to occassionally walk out in the dark. The accompanying photo of Suilven, is one that can only have been taken at sundown. On this occasion I was not alone. We’d spent seven or eight hours up on Quineag on a short, frosty winters day. The walking had been marvelous but unfortunately the views all around had been at best ‘smoky’. Suilven and her neighbours had been there to see all day long, yet only dully, thanks to the strangely thick atmosphere.
We’d made our way off Quinag’s Sail Gharbh at the fag end of the day. As we’d descended into the corrie, long shadows began to bleed from the big sandstone boulders below. Down there Lochan Bealach Cornaidh, caught fire, became as molten copper, as stray rays of sunlight lit up its calm surface.
And then we saw Suilven again, a velvety black silhouette against the bloodiest sky I’ve ever seen. Had we been worried about coming down in the gloaming we’d have missed this wonderful vision.
Many times I’ve descended by torchlight; each time has brought its own rewards. For instance Lochnagar, black against a starlit sky, both Jupiter and Venus riding on its shoulders. I’ve stopped to watch voles scurrying in and out of their holes, undreamed of during daylight hours. Stand still and silent for a few minutes and they’ll scamper over your muddy boots!
I’ve watched the full moon rise over the shoulder of An Stuc to cast its perfect reflection in the still waters of Lochan nan Cat, a magical experience and a memory that will never fade.
There was the mid December walk through the depths of Upper Glen Roy beneath a sky so thick with stars I felt I could just reach up and scoop them in my hands. That walk showed me just how rapidly the weather can change in the Scottish Highlands. I’d been heading for the Luibeg bothy, to meet friends already there. Had they not been there already I’d quite likely have walked straight past the howff, so quickly and thoroughly had the cloud and rain come in to leave me in a strange blind world; only the thick column of sparks leaping from the chimney of the bothy’s over zealously stoked fireplace guided me to safety. The storm that raged that night and all the following day, ensured that no one ventured on the hills that trip.
The classic question asked of hillwalkers and mountaineers is: “Why do you do it, what’s the point?” Some will tell you it’s the physical challenge; others will tell you it’s the views. And of course these are valid reasons; but there’s more. I don’t make a habit of going onto the hills when I know the weather is going to be bad, I’m not perverse. But on the many ocassions that I’ve been aloft and the weather has closed in on me, I’ve learned to make the most of it. If the rain is falling and the clag is down even the best wateproof gear will struggle to keep you dry for long, especially in Scotland’s humid atmosphere. Part of the secret is keeping warm (though not overheated). Enjoy the walk, it can be rewarding.
A recent walk on the Tarmachan Ridge might illustrate what I mean. The forecast had been for rain clearing in the early afternoon. With that in mind we’d opted for a late and leisurely drive out to Perthshire with the intention of a post midday start.
All looked well at the Tarmachan car park. The rain had stopped and the cloud appeared to be thinning. But that was wishful thinking. We were soon in the cloud and, don’t you just know it, the rain started up again. But the atmosphere invoked was something else. No views! But at our feet deep blue milkworts, the white stars of snowberry flowers, the pastel greens of nascent butterworts and many more besides, made up for any lack of panorama.
Higher on the ridge small crags loomed out of the mist like vast rock cathedrals. Meall Garbh’s little lochcan materialised so suddenly before us we could have easily gotten our boots wet! At one point, just below the summit of Meall nan Tarmachan, a short side path took off to end abruptly at the top of what appeared to be a cliff. Just as we arrived at the brink the cloud shredded for no more than a few seconds, revealing the drop into the mountains northwest corrie, hundreds of feet below. The cloud and rain is full of its own surprises!
Moving onto Meall Garbh, had I not been on the mountain many times already, we’d never have known we’d reached the summit crag. The rocky arete ahead loomed forbidding and forboding; just a trick though, of the swirling fog. And just below the summit cairn, with rain drumming on our supposedly waterproof coats, we sat for lunch amid mats of purple saxifrage.
No doubt about it, an occassional walk in the clouds and rain, in winter conditions close to white, in winds that at times threaten and manage to bowl you over, can, with confidence gained from experience, be as rewarding as a day spent beneath a cloudless sky.