The first mountain I climbed alone was Cader Idris, in North Wales. I was 14. That was back in the halcyon days when parents still had licence to allow their children to find their own way in the world, without fear of visits from social services or excoriation in the tabloid press.
That ascent holds two vivid memories: the sighting of my first ring ouzel, and my first experience of nervousness with heights. Climbing steepening scree just below the summit, I ended up scrambling up a face of very rotten rock. Every handhold crumbled, every foothold slid away. I reached that awful no man’s land where both advance and retreat seemed impossible. For a while I froze. I was stuck there, limbs spread with a tenuous hold on the hill, unable to move up or down, totally flummoxed as to what I should do, and somewhat scared. Somehow I edged my way off the bad patch, but the experience shook me up. It still has the power to creep back into the forefront of my mind at exactly the wrong moment.
Then there is the other side of the coin. Nine years later I was an able seaman on a square rigger, working aloft, 80 feet off the deck, in calm and storm, out on the long yards with nothing more than a wire to stand on while using two hands to furl or unfurl sails. I had no problem whatsoever, and the reason was simple: for over a year just prior to shipping aboard I had worked as a carpenter building a high-rise office block in Perth, Western Australia. I joined the site when it was still a big hole in the ground, and when I left we were up something like twelve storeys. The ascent was so gradual, and I became so habituated to the daily work at height, that it made no impression n me whatsoever. I could walk across 4” x 2” joists, roughly nailed in place, with a hundred feet of space below me, without even thinking about it.
That was a long time ago, and in the interim I have lost that facility with heights. From time to time I become the fourteen-year old rather than the twenty-something.
It happened to me on my first try at Sgorr Ruadh, on 18th September. I was within probably ten or twenty vertical metres of the summit, when the demons attacked. I had made the ascent via the Coire Lair, turning off the stalkers’ path at the top lochan, and ascending to the ridge by the steep but easy grassy track. Only three days before that I had watched Wonderwoman and her consort, the two angels, skip up there with bikes on their shoulders. It felt good following in their hallowed tracks. Once on the ridge I found my way along the occasional path and over the boulder patches without any trouble. It was a beautifully clear and windless day, a perfect day, but as I worked up the steepening scree onto the narrowing shoulder of mountain, with the slope falling away to the west and the crags close by to the east, I could feel my calmness dissipating. My legs felt as if they were losing their strength, my heart rate was going up: I felt less and less at ease. The path eventually leads to a tight switch-back pitch up a narrowing and airy pinnacle. Halfway up I had no choice but to stop and turn round. An irrational fear, a strong genetic reflex, had taken over, suppressing my conscious will.
Well, this is a walk report, so I won’t dwell on an analysis of all that. What was clear, though, was that it was something I would have to deal with, quickly and strongly, if I wanted to increase my mountain ability and pleasure. Hell, Liathach is only forty-five minutes up the road from my place!
I thought about it a lot, and came up with a strategy. First thing was to regain confidence. Three days later I climbed Maol Chean-Dearg, making sure that I kept onwards and upwards without reflection, and making sure that it was my conscious will that remained in the ascendancy, that the demons were given no chance to assert themselves.
Then it was straight back to Sgorr Ruadh to face the problem head on.
It was Saturday 26th September, just eight days after my setback. I got to the parking spot early, to give myself plenty of time, and because I am a morning person anyway; I love to be first on the hill, to have it to myself for a while, to feel the freshness of a new day. I left Achnashellach at 0800H and walked up to the Coire Lair junctions at what I felt was an easy pace, conserving energy. I was surprised to find I had done that first section slightly quicker than usual – 55 minutes as opposed to 60. Clearly my fitness was improving. I carried on up to the bealach, again not pushing the pace. There was still some cloud over the tops, but I had no doubt it would lift. The breeze from the south-west was fairly light. I had that whole marvellous landscape to myself and so felt energised and uplifted. I have been spoilt at sea, having often explored some of the wildest places on the planet in compete isolation, and that morning I had the same sense of privilege to be able to absorb the wilderness alone, and in a direct and unmediated way.
I drank some water and ate half a flapjack at the lochan, and started once more up the grassy track. My strategy was this: firstly to maintain a slow but regular rhythm, without breaks; secondly to concentrate on nothing but my feet and the few yards of track ahead; thirdly to resist any temptation to let my eyes wander away from the track; lastly, and perhaps most importantly, to keep my mind and my conscious will constantly at work as I made the ascent. All I had to do in essence was to keep putting one foot in front of the other: left, right, left, right. I calmed into a steady rhythm and kept on up. I ignored the slope falling away to the west. I never noticed the crags to the east. All that mattered was the track and keeping moving steadily on. I came to the switch-back pinnacle and kept on up without hesitation. It was so much easier, anyway, than the steep scree of Maol Chean-Dearg. Always up ahead, too, in my mind’s eye, was the pert derrière of Wonderwoman, both an enticement and a reproach for being such a big girl’s blouse. On I went and turned a corner, to find I had to scramble. I had not expected this, but again, did not stop to consider it; I just kept on at the same relaxed rhythm, left, right, left, right. Every turn now required some easy scrambling. Along the short pieces of track between the bends I had the impression that to my left there was nothing, that the next stop down was the bottom of the Coire Lair. I did not look to check, just kept on up. I was now in the zone, in an almost transcendental state, totally absorbed by the next move, oblivious of the wider surroundings. A few more turns, a few more scrambles, and I was pulling myself onto the brow of the hill. I had expected a tight, narrow pinnacle, but not a bit of it. Here was a wide top, with a broad grassy slope easing down to the south-south-east. You could play a game of shinty up here. The tumbledown cairn crowded the little knoll on which it stood.
Now, for the first time since leaving the lochan, I allowed my vision to expand and take in the whole glorious circle of pinnacles, now devoid of mist, huge waves of rock throwing themselves skywards whichever way I looked. I took photos, and even broke the habit of a lifetime to take a selfie, such was my elation. I drank some water, ate an energy bar, and enjoyed the moment. On each side stood the two Munros already under my belt, Beinn Liath Mhor and Maol Chean-Dearg. I was now at the centre of my meagre but satisfying Munro trinity.
My original intention had been to descend by the same route. Two things caused me to change my mind. Firstly, I did not want to threaten the positive progress I had made by risking a wobble on the way down the scramble. It is harder, on the descent, to ignore whatever is or isn’t below. Secondly, the walk down to Bealach Mor looked like a relaxing way to finish off the Munro. This turned out to be the case. I had read warnings of tricky navigation and bogginess, but encountered neither. I simply aimed for Creag Mainrichean, the west shoulder of Fuar Tholl. There is the occasional trace of a path, but the way down the ridge is fairly intuitive. In mist I would just keep to a compass bearing of 150˚.
Halfway down, ptarmigan started exploding out of the rocks, whirring white in every direction. I wondered what had put them up; it was a golden eagle, which glided through the pass below on unmoving wings. It was an adult, dark-tailed, the first I had seen from above, and even without my binoculars, left at home to save weight, I could make out the surprisingly light patches on its greater coverts.
I crossed the lochans at the bottom and found a rock by the stalkers’ track to sit on and eat my lunch. I had been on the hill for four hours, and not seen another person. That was to change: as I ate my sandwich I looked up to the Bein Liath Mhor ridge. There was such a line of people along the top that I wondered whether Primark had just opened a new store up there. Then two guys came along the track, on their way up Sgorr Ruadh via the clockwise route.
I decided, while I was there, to have a look at the approaches to Fuar Tholl. I climbed a little way up the quartzite scree, getting the lay of the land, but I needed a new day and fresher legs to attack it with intent. I made sure, though, that while up there, and now fully relaxed, I spent a lot of time looking down into the Coire Fionnaraich, feeling calm and centred, untroubled by the height.
Then it was back down the track, boots and socks off to cross the Lair, and back to the truck by three fifteen. It was a good day. Progress had been made. I knew that there was still a long way to go, but now felt fairly confident that a combination of mental discipline and gradual habituation could in time banish the demons forever.
Share your personal walking route experiences in Scotland, and comment on other peoples' reports.
Warning Please note that hillwalking when there is snow lying requires an ice-axe, crampons and the knowledge, experience and skill to use them correctly. Summer routes may not be viable or appropriate in winter. See winter information on our skills and safety pages for more information.