In the morning gloom of another tiny hut somewhere in the Highlands, I blearily pulled on my clothes, then fumbled my way to the door. I pulled back the heavy cast-iron bolt, and the door swung wide. Its bright blue paint, surmounted by a huge white saltire cross, shone brilliantly in the buttery morning air that flooded in.
Someone cried out: ‘Natural light! Get it off me!’
Once again we had arrived by night, so until this moment all I knew of the place was the warm stony interior of the hut, lit by the soft glow of firelight which also warmed the snoozing sausages of people in their sleeping bags.
I ducked beneath the lintel and stood in the light of the sun, breathing in cold and crisp Highland air, taking in my first sights of a place named Dundonnell.
Immediately outside the hut ran the narrow road, bordered by a stone wall with a field of grazing sheep beyond. The sun shone on the grass, making it golden in the light of spring, though icy frost hid beneath the shadow of every tussock. In the distance the horizon followed a line of low but rugged hills, finishing in a grand and craggy looking peak.
In the opposite direction, behind the hut, lay some small crags, a similarly rocky outcrop, and a tantalising horizon.
After a few minutes of stretching and groaning out the stiffness of a short and poor night’s sleep I felt at least slightly awake, excited by the surrounding hills, and eager for the possibilities of what was obviously going to be a gloriously sunny spring day.
I returned inside to find people stirring; breakfasts being thrown together and bags already being packed. Some familiar faces and some less familiar ones. As usual different parties quickly formed, plans being shouted back and forth across the tiny interior of the hut while the great faff of preparation went on. Five or six conversations crossed each other like motorway flyovers above the scarred surface of the table in the middle of the tiny room.
‘Where are you guys heading?’
‘Bacon, yes please!’
‘No, that’s not my sock… where’s it gone?’
‘Stac Pollaidh I think.’
‘There you go lad.’
‘The green smelly one.’
‘How do you pronounce that?’
‘Nice and crispy.’
I found myself quickly and easily roped in to a group with plans to climb a hill that I was assured was one of the best in Scotland.
‘Bring your camera Dave, you’ll love it!’
They had me at camera.
In a short while, booted, gaitered, camera-d and cheese sandwiched we were ready for the off. And it turned out that the peak in question lay directly behind the hut; we’d be walking from the door. I examined the map, studying the many, many contour lines and peaks of the mountain named ‘An Teallach.’ The name meant ‘The Forge’.
There was a sudden rush for the door as everyone finished their preparations for the day. Our coil of climbers was spreading out across the northwest of Scotland. Some by car, some by foot. Alone; in pairs, or small groups like ours. We locked the door behind us and began the day.
At once the going was physical. The mountain began immediately. Steep, rocky, tussocky, heathery, hard. I wondered if it would be like this all the way. But we quickly gained in height, and looking behind us the view only grew better. Little Loch Broom was a blue sheet fringed by a sandy white shore. Distant hills rose about the horizon. We were in mountain country, that was for sure.
We pushed without a break for the first thirty minutes or so, quickly peeling off excess layers when we got hot. The mountain grass was brown and quite dry, save for where the frost still clung to bladetips with a brilliant sparkle. After some time we came to the top of the first rise and the terrain levelled off a bit, giving us an extraordinary sight of what lay in store. A huge peak, its flank truncated by a vast cliff, in which there still lay several large patches of snow and ice, gleaming in the white sun. As we stood and watched we heard a huge boom, and watched several pieces of ice fall from a gully and turn to dust as they broke apart on the rocks beneath.
Under our feet the rugged grass and heather had given way to bare rock. I walked across it spellbound by its deep red colour, its weathered and worn exterior, and the fascinating patterns of striated lines that streaked through it. It seemed very ancient, and yet full of life in a way that rock normally wasn’t. Hard and granular sandstone of a kind I had never seen before.
We had good company in our group. Chatting to each other made the metres go by easily as we continued up a long gradual slope, following the course of a white flowing burn into the flank of the mountain.
The unofficial head of our little group was Jack. He was a brilliant physics student with bags and bags of mountain experience; despite his youth he was already well on his way to completing the Munros. He had the lean frame of a mountain goat, and when he stood up out of a chair he looked like a paperclip being unfolded. He was topped off with a big pair of specs and shaggy black hair, a bit like Harry Potter. He could walk all day over Ben and Glen, and Jack was largely responsible for instigating my high opinion of people from Yorkshire.
We also had one Doug Munroe in our group. Despite his name Doug was from much further afield than even Yorkshire; he was Canadian. But it turned out that his extremely Scottish name and his presence here were no coincidence. As we looked back to the waters of Little Loch Broom he told me that by some incredible chance, it was 300 years to the day since his direct ancestors had emigrated from Scotland from that very loch.
I’d never met Doug before, but he was instantly likeable. He had a very rare quality of charisma about him; easy going, charming and confident. The kind of person who straight away made you feel like you were old pals. Throughout the day he would amuse us by breaking into passionate political tirades about how the mountaineering club was destined for glory. But he did so in perfect French; and I’m sure that at moments he was assuring his audience that the dog was no longer under the table, no. The dog was sur la montagne! Vive la président du club! Rise up Alpinistes!
Jack, meanwhile was doing his best to educate we ignoranti in the use of a walking axe. When we found a large patch of snow he demonstrated how to throw himself down it and then use the axe to bring himself safely to a stop by rolling onto it and pressing the pick into the snow. We of course encouraged him to repeat his demonstration.
‘Sorry! Wasn’t looking!’
‘Could you go again?’
‘What if you go faster?’
‘Faster than that you big wimp!’
For the next twenty minutes body sledging and axe-arresting was all the rage, with axes and bodies hurtling all over the place in various degrees of alarm, control and hysteria. We just might have taken it less than seriously.
The sun was well up in the sky, and the day growing warm, as we reached the shoulder of the mountain. The long ridge we had been following gradually tapered off, and the ground beneath our feet became a bare pavement of round stones, as neatly fitted and easy to walk on as any pavement. A deep thunk sounded every time my feet made contact; enough motivation to keep walking then, just to hear the noise.
We had already put around 800 metres of mountain underneath us, and the view from that place was extraordinary. Our immediate surroundings were lunar-like, with not as much of a blade of grass to be seen in vast rolling acres of rock and pebble. Snow patches clung in the scrapes and slants of every hollow, or lay shrinking in the sun, but further off the mountains were snow free. Their colour was faded brown in the March sun, not yet having the green glow of spring. They faded into the distance in every direction. Out to sea the Summer Isles were plainly visible to our north.
But the attention could not stray for long from our objective, now obvious above the shoulder of the hill. The whole side of the mountain sloped up to it in an elegant line, forming a perfect pyramid on the skyline. That was Bidean a Glas Thuill – the Peak of the Grey Hollow. But beyond that were even more summits, with ridges striking out both left and right of us. An Teallach was evidently a massive mountain, with more peaks, coires and ridges than I could have imagined. It had something of the Cuillin about it, but its grandeur was a little softer, more shapely and sculpted. It was a superbly elegant mountain.
We continued on to a bealach that provided us our first tantalising glimpses of the views on the other side. A steep sided coire held a meandering burn that wiggled through brown bogs and melting snow. From up here it seemed almost as if we were looking vertically down upon it, and it glittered in the sun like a river of fire, leading on to the horizon.
The final ascent was steep and rocky, skirting an elegant cornice line of snow that sharpened the edge of the mountain just to our left. The air was never far away. It felt like we were clambering up onto the tip of a pencil. Then at last the final satisfying moment; the release of effort, the satisfaction of feeling the mountain move from in front of us to beneath us, and the sudden expansion of infinite distant views.
And what a view. What a view. Imagination might guess at the awesome yet intricate wonder of it, but it would always fall short. For the first time in my life I looked upon Sgurr Fiona. A king of kings among mountains – a peak of peaks. A perfection of ridge lines and summits, crag and coire. Beauty embodied as mountain. No photo could ever compare to seeing it in the real.
Even after the days I had spent exploring Scotland’s mountains elsewhere, I had never anticipated seeing a mountain such as this. It looked like something from the Alps, or maybe the Andes. Machu Picchu would not have looked out of place.
The babble of our voices filled the quiet mountain air as we reached the top and exclaimed our wonder at the view. On a literal high we posed for a group photo with Sgurr Fiona as our backdrop. White clouds drifted overhead, the sun shone, and mountains stood in silent beauty as far as the eye could see. We slapped each other on the back, posed some more and laughed as if we’d known each other all our lives. What a day, what a mountain, what a view.
The side of the mountain that faced us looked as if it had been carved by the great sweeping blows of a mighty giant’s blade. Huge slanting strikes had struck out a gully here, truncated a crag just there, cut down in the ridge at the last. Then an army of dwarves must have set to it with chisels, hammering and breaking away at ledges and gaps and hollows, filling the whole thing with detail. My eyes followed the line of one vast gully, still packed out with snow, and picked out 3 tiny dots moving upwards. Climbers, and obviously having the time of their lives, even from this far away.
Our little group split up after that; some going on to ‘tick off’ Sgurr Fiona itself and have a look at the ridge that continued on from there. From this point it looked startlingly knife-edged, and I chose to listen to my own judgement this time and leave it for another day. So, I turned with the rest of the team and we returned to the bealach.
In our reduced group were Doug, myself and 2 others. Emily was a new face to the club, and although she had been fairly quiet so far she also had a constant smile, and an enthusiasm that you only find in mountain people on mountains. And there was Long, whose name meant ‘dragon’. He too was on the quiet side, but having English as a second language may not have been easy, and in truth it was probably me who wasn’t making much of an effort. I was enjoying my banter with Doug too much to remember my manners. But then, I’ve always been a bit like that, waiting for others to come to me and see if we ‘click.’
But, we did have the companionship of our company, and we hadn’t had nearly enough mountain yet. So, instead of continuing to descend we started uphill again on the neighbouring peak of Glas Mheall Mor. The architecture of the rocks was astounding. The Torridonian Sandstone (as I later discovered it was named) was a deep pinkish red. As coarse as a badger’s beard, but unlike most sandstone I knew it was hard as granite. Most remarkable was the way it had weathered, with rounded edges and numerous horizontal breaks – the rocks looked like enormous stacks of fossilised pancakes. A dinosaur’s breakfast.
Scrambling across those rocks was superb fun. They provided as much friction as you could ever want, with huge and plentiful hand and foot holds. We tackled them straight on, and I relished the simple mechanical pleasure of movement using the whole body, of skin touching rock, of effort and reward. Before long we found ourselves on our second summit of the day, overlooking Little Loch Broom and the endless brown hills of the north. We had lunch, lounged in the sun, and Doug entertained us with another passionate and rabble rousing speech in French. He would have done well during La Révolution.
Once again we descended the way we had come, but having still not had enough, and feeling strong, we decided to tick off one more summit on our way back. Not much compared to the lofty heights we had earlier ascended, but still worth it without question. We crossed the shoulder of the mountain once more, striding out across the stony lunarscape in the direction of the distant Summer Isles. With the ‘little’ top marked by a spot height at 818m, we finally turned for home.
Descent still offered plenty of opportunity for hilarity, as we discovered plentiful snowfields to cross. Competition broke out to see who could slide most stylishly while retaining their balance. Doug demonstrated a serious degree of style, which came to an abrupt and amusing end as he plunged onto his face, briefly going ‘full scorpion’ and leaving a perfect imprint of his face in the snow. Spluttering, he brushed himself off, then raised his arms to the sky like Willem Dafoe in Platoon – the noble hero tragically brought low. Our laughter echoed from the coire walls.
This, surely, was what mountaineering was all about. Good times with friends among glorious mountains; making memories that would last a lifetime. More than that, even. I felt am immense wide world truly open around me. A world in which I could go anywhere, and see anything I wanted to. Be anything I wanted to. The hills and mountains of Scotland offered more beauty and freedom than I could ever have imagined.
The shadows were lengthening ahead of us as we finally reached the last slope and saw the Smiddy waiting for us, a curl of smoke beginning to rise from the chimney. Our bones were aching, our muscles weary as we plodded down together from the mountain, and by the time we reached the door the sun had set, leaving a vast orange glow on the edge of an indigo sky. I for one was knackered, but I had a deep satisfaction that only a wonderful day in the hills can bring. Nothing else is like it; the reward of an entire day dedicated to a single task. The pure and honest tiredness of hard exercise in rarified mountain air. The soreness of laughing too much. The pleasure of new memories already being savoured. The knowledge that life gets bigger by passing such a day, and not less.