The greatest joy of hill-walking


The joys of hill walking are many and varied.

They come through stunning views from hard won summits, or vivid red sunsets at the end of tiring days. The satisfaction of a climb on rock or the peace in the shade of a summer corrie, can foster bliss. Sometimes it’s the camaraderie, sometimes it’s the solitude. Once in a while, as I will show you now, it can be the look in a lassie’s eyes.

It was late and the ceilidh was winding down. Heidi, a young visitor from East Germany, had already told me there were no hills near Leipzig, her hometown; she longed to walk in the Cuillin of Skye. But there were no buses in the morning, could I take her to Sligachan? In spite of a late night she was beaming over breakfast; “I am so happy for this opportunity”, she bubbled; I could see she meant it.

Though the weathermen had forecast better things for lunch time, thick cloud hid all but the lower slopes of the Cuillins, both Red and Black. We said our silent prayers and headed for the hills. Heidi’s chosen mountain was Bheinn Dearg Mhor, to reach its summit we must first climb its smaller sibling, Beinn Dearg Mheadhonach.

To get onto the ridges you must leave the main Sligachan path, through a little gate not very far beyond the famously photographed old bridge. I had told Heidi to look out for the fine tree festooned gorge that channels the creamy waters of the fully grown Allt Daraich, down to the River Sligachan; we heard the rush of its waters long before we saw them.

It had been a number of years since I’d set foot on Beinn Dearg Mheadhonach’s grassy north-west ridge, I had forgotten much. Heidi won’t forget...Splodge!

The ridge’s feet wallow in as soggy a meadow as you could imagine and though the path improves considerably with height, its first few hundred metres are a nightmare!

Welcome to the world of Scottish peat and bog, Heidi! Extricating a leg blackened to the knee with slimy ooze, she looked at me accusingly, then burst out laughing. I let her lead the way.

A dominant feature of this first leg is the view of mighty Marsco further up the glen; the vast rock walled cone completely fills the southern view . Across the glen the dark rocky buttresses of Sgurr nan Gilean probed skywards only to be smothered by a thick shifting blanket of gloom; of its peaks and pinnacles, nor any others of the Black Cuillin, nothing could be seen.

Yet even as she slowly gained height, Heidi watched Marsco throw off its shroud; across the entrance to Harta Corrie, The Druim Hain cast off its shawl of mist while beneath her the skipping waters of The River Sligachan glinted briefly in a fleeting promise of sunshine.

Slowly, with many a halt for sips of energizing water, our fraulein ascended the gentle slopes of the Druim Ruaige; soon, and for the first time in her life, she found herself enveloped in that most famous of all the world’s clouds, ‘Scotch mist’. There was someone up ahead. Another female walker, all alone. And here’s the thing: Heidi’s new found friend was from Germany too! The ‘mother tongue’ took over. At one point higher up, espying yet another walker on the ridge, Heidi shouted her friendly greeting. All she got in return was a blank expression. ‘Speak English, fraulein, English!’ The Red Cuillin is actually pink. Well seen from anywhere along the A87 between Broadford and Sligachan, these hills rise from their grass and heather plinths as great pink cones. While unable to compete with their Blacker neighbours for sheer ruggedness and primordial brutality, they are in their own way every bit as spectacular.

Their high shoulders have been ground by eons of ice and rainfall; ferocious winds have all but stripped them naked. On many of their upper slopes the walker is faced with vast fields of unstable scree.

These hills might look much gentler than their gabbro kin across the glen, they are none the less steep and call for much exertion. It was time for Heidi to taste firsthand the frustrations of ascending on their ever shifting surface. Neither fraulein flinched! Soon both stood, albeit still cocooned in a soft lapping mist, proud baggers of their first Cuillin summit.

Above, blue holes punctured the white glare; the promised change was on its way. Backtracking on grass and pink granite the well defined route from Beinn Dearg Mheadhonach, led down into the smooth notch of Bealach Mosgaraidh.

A punishing re-ascent, this time virtually all on scree, saw our two ladies standing on the 731 metre summit of Beinn Dearg Mhor; and now, at last, they stood in brilliant sunshine.

Heidi’s eyes radiated wonder. She looked seaward to The Inner Sound, a body of sky reflecting water clogged with islands which seem to float. The largest two of these, Scalpay and Raasay, looked serene in the late winter sunshine while the white wakes from tiny fishing boats flecked the blue-green waters around them. She stared longingly across the intervening gap that separated her from Glamaig’s Sgurr Mhairi, for her today, just a mile or so too far and strenuous.

West she gazed to drink in the whole Black Cuillin range, free now of all but a few vestiges of cloud, like wisps of smoke lazily drifting from the embers of a dying fire. For many minutes Heidi couldn’t speak, not in English nor in Deutch. The previous day she had climbed Ben Nevis by its ‘tourist route.’

I asked her which mountain had been best for her. “On Ben Nevis”, she told me, “it rained much and I got wet through and through. Still it was good. But this today is better”.

The sun hadn’t come to stay. Soon it would disappear, swallowed again by threatening clouds rolling in from the Atlantic; even as she walked slowly and contentedly back towards Beinn Dearg Mheadhonach, Heidi watched the Black Cuillin shyly withdrawing behind a thickening veil. But those Skye mountains, so often sullen and forbidding, had been kind to her. For a short while those reclusive hills had opened their hearts to her, allowing her views she could never forget.

Mercifully the cloud didn’t return to the Red Hills until well after we were down and on the path for Sligachan. When those clouds did finally wrap the hills in gloom they did so with every intention of hiding them for many days to come; typical Skye weather had come to stay awhile.

We sat in the bar at Carbost, replenishing spent liquids with beer and cider. After a hearty meal Heidi tasted her first Highland Malt. As she swirled the golden liquid in her little glass I watched a look of deep contentment creep into her beaming eyes. She fixed me with her honest smile “You know”, she said, “and I know you’ll think I’m crazy for saying so, but this has been one of the happiest day of my life!”

I don’t think Heidi is crazy; it is sentiments like hers, sprung from a heart of deep appreciation, that sum up for me, the greatest joy of hill-walking.