“…one never quite knows the mountain, nor oneself in relation to it.”
“One walks among elementals, and elementals are not governable. There are awakened also in oneself by the contact elementals that are as unpredictable as wind or snow.”
Nan Shepherd, The Living Mountain
The excitement I had felt at the prospect of our climb had abandoned me step by step as Kirsty and I walked the length of the glen. By the time we stood underneath the route – acres of immaculate granite slab rising above – a cold sensation gripped me that stood in pointed contrast to the sweat I had worked up.
I looked at her and said:
‘I can’t do this.’
I stood at the lip of the plunge pool, looking down into the foaming roar of the river. Beside me the boiling rapid became suddenly smooth as it extended a black tongue over the edge, that then fell apart in flying white spray, falling 30 feet. My hand gripped my paddle a little tighter, my heart quickening as I visualised the line. A tight turn right above the drop – that’s where it’s most likely to all go wrong -seconds to line up agin, then commit everything to the drop.
I looked at my mates, we nodded to one another and walked back to our kayaks, pulled up on the rocks above the waterfall. I slid in, stretched the spraydeck around the cockpit, and splashed cold water on my face. I could feel the tightness of anticipation in my chest – pressing against the tightness of my bouyancy aid.
With a push I slid into the river again with a splash. A few strokes to align myself in the flow and loosen up, and time for one more breath. I accelerated with the water, dug in a paddle and pulled myself into the corner. I let the nose of the boat hit the foaming pillow wave as the water struck the wall of the tight ninety degree bend. Like a fighter jet I banked into it, letting the water fling me around. As the boat surged forward I rolled back the other way, sliced the opposite end of the paddle into the black water, and nailed the turn.
The horizon line was right in front of me. No time to think, no time to doubt. Sudden silence as I approach and realise exactly how far away the river suddenly looks. Just one more steering stroke to make sure I’m straight, then empty space.
Everyone was big smiles as we gained the start of the ridge proper. The north face of Ben Nevis was basking in morning midsummer sun. The rock was dry and we had Tower Ridge to ourselves. A perfect day lay ahead. Everyone was thrilled. Everyone but me.
As the others grinned for photos I could not raise a smile. My limbs were wooden, my brain full of clay. With great effort I tried a few steps forward, but it was like walking through treacle.
Finally I turned to Jack and Emily and admitted something was wrong, and asked for them to rope me off back to the foot of the climb. With concern they asked what was wrong; was I ok?
I shook my head.
‘I just… can’t do this.’
The fingers of my left hand crimped on a sharp edge, keeping my weight close to the rock, while my other hand dextrously unclipped a ‘nut’ from my harness. With a fluid motion I slotted it into a crack, attached a quickdraw, and clipped the rope in.
I placed my hand back to the rock, released the other one and gave it a little shake as I eyed up the next hold. I placed my hand on it, gripped, and pulled up.
Delicately my feet danced from one tiny hold to another in their pointed climbing shoes. Not just finding holds, but also points of balance.
I placed another nut and continued to climb higher. I tried not to notice how well I was moving; flowing up the rock in a continuous motion. If I think about it then I’ll lose it. Let the attention flit from hold to hold, from finger to foot. Move. Trust yourself. Don’t think. I climb; therefore I am.
I reached the crux. The knobbly holds that had brought me this far disappeared and the rock turned smooth, blank and vertical. I climbed eight feet and found no place for another nut or any other type of protection. But I was not concerned. I knew I had this. Better to climb on and reach easy ground than waste energy fretting about it here. I climb higher and higher, running out the rope further and further as the wind breezed between my body and the dark red stone. I no longer noticed or cared. The only thing that matters is the rock in front of my face.
I could see nothing above, but I moved up anyway. I raised a foot high, found a hold and stood on it. As I did so my arm reached out as if it knew where it was going, and there behind a little bulge of rock my hand found a hidden hold into which my fingers slotted perfectly. I smiled at the boldness of the move.
I paused to place one more nut before galloping up to the top. I quickly built a belay and sat on the edge. I took in the rope and called down to Johnny who started climbing. After fifteen minutes or so I realise that as skilled as Johnny was, he was taking much longer to second the climb than I took to lead it. Finally he arrived at the top, smiling and full of compliments for such a good lead.
‘How did you do that so well then?’
I shrugged in return.
Behind a shed at the top of the Glencoe ski area I sheltered from the wind and rain. An internal dialogue spit back and forth across my mind like black and white lightning in the darkness.
“I don’t want to be here.’
‘I have to be here.’
‘To prove I can be.’
‘I can’t do this.’
I tried to address the fear, tried to rationalise it. What was I afraid of? But the fear had no apparent cause. It had no centre. It just was.
I was profoundly confused about the depth of my reaction to the mountain. Although I had come to realise, in the months after Skye, that I wasn’t ok with what had happened there, I thought I had found a way forward. Baby steps. Easy routes. Gradual exposure.
I threw on another layer and zipped up my waterproof jacket all the way. I stepped from behind the shed and started walking back the way I had come.
Then quite suddenly, before I had gone a hundred yards, I came to a halt as a new weight came to rest across me. I did not want another failure. To walk back down this hill would be an utterly despondent act. In the months since Skye I had not had a single day on a hill that had not ended in confidence shattering retreat before even getting started.
I groaned inwardly as I knew that I had to continue. To make this day be worth anything at all I had to complete the entire route as I had planned it. That meant there was another summit out there with my name on it. I just didn’t want to have to fight myself in order to win it.
But, once the decision was made, there was also a tiny flame of determination. In a small, explosive outburst of willpower I smacked the points of my walking poles in the stony ground, then turned and began walking the other way. The anger I felt at myself turned to motion.
I crossed the rocky plateau and began descending once more, letting the hill channel me onto a bouldery ridge that strung like a wire between two peaks. All at once I dropped beneath the level of the cloud, and suddenly everything was brighter. Everything, in both literal and metaphorical meaning. My view of the gorgeous hills was restored, the rain no longer flaying my cheeks. But even better, the intensity of my fears and anger evaporated.
With tentative enthusiasm, and then thunderous raging joy I charged along the ridge. It rose steeply again as it neared the bealach, and I scrambled up like a man possessed, as if my legs would consume the hill in their appetite for power and speed.
I entered the cloud once again, but found my good mood did not dispel. Following the gentle curve of the ridgeline I soon found the second cairn, and planted my ass on it, breathing heavily.
My energy had begun to ease once more, my humours finding balance again. I felt a deep question mark over what had just happened. How fear and turned to fey in the space of a few heartbeats. But also relief. I had felt that fear again; its fingers reaching around my heart and clenching tight, but I had gone through it and reached the other side. I had learned a lesson. This thing could be beaten. It could.
‘I can do this.’
I bitterly cursed the soaking mud of the ridge I was ascending. Actually, ridge is too good a word. It was a horrible inclined bog. Steep and soggy, devoid of aesthetic. It oozed under my feet and hands, while absorbing every footstep like snow, doubling the effort required.
Well, at least it offered a pretty good view, when I paused to rest. To the north rose the great peaks of Glen Etive and Glencoe. To the east the tops of the Blackmount were appearing, and directly beneath me was a glen as beautiful and green as any in the west of Scotland.
Finally, after some 500 vertical metres of absolute hell, I gained the top, and walked more easily among the open views with great relief. I boulder hopped across grey rock, lichen dappled and coarse. It was another hour before I reached the summit, and sagged in a heap. Four long hours since starting.
This mountain was Stob Coir’an Albannaich – Peak of the Coire of the Scotsmen. You can’t help but wonder what the story is behind such a name. What event? What tradition? So many tales, so many moments of transfer between people and place. Who were they? What did the mountain make them feel?
Off to the north the green hills were turning blue under the shroud of thick rainclouds brushing their summits. I could feel the mountain beneath me, extending for miles and miles around, vast and cold and indifferent. I suddenly felt exposed, and very alone.
All at once I felt a seething tension build within me. That unfocused, pervasive sense of worry again. Whatever rational voice I had in my head was little help. Confused, it wondered aloud what was happening to me? Frustrated by the sudden onrush of emotion – of pervasive self doubt – it tried to press back against the pressure building inside me. To deny it, and quell it. I did not feel like this. I was fine. I am fine.
Inwardly angry, I tried to get a grip of myself. I tried to turn my mind toward useful axioms of behaviour. I put on layers for warmth. I ate food to replenish my energy and blood sugar. I drank water to hydrate and clear my head. That done, I readied my bag again and looked to the map. The quickest line of retreat was beckoning. I forced that from my mind and looked at the way forward that would continue my day across the next peak.
There was a spot on the map that bothered me, where contours fused together under grey lines. Rocky and steep. Could I get down that? I dreaded it be anything like my miserable ascent. Only one way to find out. I began walking once again, in search of resolution and confidence, focusing on the things that I could do. I could move, I could walk. I could go and see.
The way down was hidden by the slope of the mountain; it would not be until I reached the horizon and looked down to the horseback of the bealach between Stob Coir’an Albannaich and Glas Bheinn Mhor that I could actually get a look at it. But when I did reassurance was immediate. There was no particular difficulty that I could see, looking at it for real.
The anxious and acrimonious weight that had settled inside my gut lifted as suddenly and unexpectedly as it had arrived. Ahead of me I had a superb view of the ridge that connected the next three summits, culminating in the imposing and massive form of Ben Starav. Once again I looked on the view with longing and enthusiasm, feeling free in the mountain, and not trapped in it.
I felt stupid. What had all that been about? Feeling myself once more I resolved to put it behind me and enjoy the rest of my day.
I sat at the kitchen table, my diary in front of me, writing down my ‘adventures’. At first I enjoyed the simple tactile feeling of the pen on the paper, my attention on the page and my handwriting elegant and tidy. But as I got into the details, and I drifted deeper into each memory to tease out the narrative, each word became tighter and scratchier. I always looked for the positive note – the best interpretation of events, and hurried through the darker moments by writing quickly, trying to offer them the least attention possible while still acknowledging they existed.
I reached the end and set down my pen, staring into open space. For minutes on end I just sat there, letting silence envelop me as my thoughts drifted. For a while I mused over the sense of exposure and worry that had risen up from nowhere on my recent mountain experiences. It contrasted with the skilful confidence I could still summon on rock and river, but I believed I had begun to understand it, and prove I could master it. After a while my thoughts wandered on to another question:
I wondered ‘what next?’
What would the next page contain? University was done. The mountaineering club, the canoe club, study and all that. In its place a kind of emptiness. On my desk upstairs a rolled piece of paper that was my degree, which I knew did not matter to me nearly as much as the people who I would never again see around one table, and the adventures we had shared together.
My recycling bin was full of glossy flyers picked up at career fairs which had become ubiquitous toward the end. Nothing sounded in the least bit fulfilling or interesting. Be this, be that. Come to London and work in insurance… or else do this other thing you know nothing about. Give me strength. Instead, I kept reopening the webpage of an outdoor centre in the Highlands, looking at their training scheme for apprentice instructors.
I knew mountains and rivers. And, although my confidence had taken a knock in the last year, I also knew that forward was the only way through.
The diary still lay open on the table. I closed it and put it aside, then reached for a small white folder that had just arrived in the post. Turning the cover toward myself I looked at the drawings of map and compass, rope, crampons, and tent.
Above them was written:
‘Mountain Training Logbook. For leaders, supervisors and instructors.’