Dawn leaked over the roof of the Rec’, a pale blue canvas, a promise. I was already late but it would do. I crept out of the still sleeping house, hard frosted back garden grass, hard frosted windscreen glass. Newtonmore stirred, turned over and went back to sleep as I passed, Laggan still rested, afloat in a frozen floodplain. To the west, a milky gauze lay softly, poised between out breath and in breath, a stillness I’d forgotten existed recently. Our human world can be so self-involved, I’d not had time to look around me this winter. As the road wound around Loch Laggan and I saw Meagaidh, I swore out loud to myself, grinning widely, my scalp prickling with excitement. Today I had the time. I was checking in.
I was heading back to Beinn a’ Chaorrain, named for the Rowan, the mountain ash. There’s less evidence of the mountain ash at its base and much more Sitka, but I find a way through alongside a steeply side burn with a distinctive wishing-bone-split waterfall. There’s a fire tower, framed between my ash mountain and the rounded shoulders of Creag Meagaidh, still heavily at rest, maybe snoring a little. Then slippery rocks to cross, the burn surprisingly lively for this time of the morning. It’s not quite dawn, I’m in the mountain’s shadow. It’s out in the clearfell that the sun breaks behind me over the Alder hills, calmly stowing away that misty muslin blanket for the day… but nothing is rushed. There is stillness still, only broken momentarily when something heavy and military rumbles past, flying into the gold down the glen.
The forest further up is mixed pine. Sunlight catches still frozen branches as I labour up the track, now down to my baselayer, postholing. I make a turn left, following the source of the burn. Aside from the Pine Martin droppings, fox and deer tracks, I am the first this morning, and maybe for a few mornings, although I find traces of human footprints further up.
The east ridge is supposed to be an easy mountaineering route, but from here it looks beyond my abilities. I check the map; yes, on the north of the coire, leading down from the highest top of three, that was it. I am on top of the snow now, the going easier, and as I approach I scan ways through; up gullies, around bands of rock. Maybe it would go, after all.
The last time I was on the hill of the Mountain Ash, I came with a Mountain Friend – Chris Townsend. If you don’t know of Chris, then seek him out electronically. Break him in half and it says mountain man all the way through, he’s the nearest we’ve got to an Edward Abbey, a hippy from the days when the hippies were punks too. I was checking in then, too – with him, with the hills, with myself. We sweated up the walker’s route, the top part clagged in, wide ranging in our discussion and a little lazy in our navigation. We’d not seen each other for a few years and there was some catching up to do. In the interim I’d suggested him for the board of the John Muir Trust (an obvious choice), and wanted to make sure the sometimes-weighty responsibilities of that kind of role were not too much. They weren’t, of course. Chris is leavened by years in the wilds, and the kinds of judgement calls that will shift your priorities forever. Or at least, that’s how things seemed to me, less secure in my own skin. Then, as now, I’ve been away from the hills, my confidence lost overboard this last year of family, births and deaths.
Back in the present, I prepped my kit at the foot of the route – helmet, harness, a couple of slings in case I need to anchor myself to rest, sharp metalwork, tea and a sandwich – I thought on the local man who’d lost his life in the coire just below me a few weeks before, at that point still unfound. The crescent moon shaped summit plateau of this mountain is a known blackspot. Later, as I climbed, I watched RAF mountain rescue conduct their line search, combing the avalanche debris for clues. I thought on what Heavy Whalley, ex RAF mountain rescue team leader, had said at his talk the previous evening. “Everyone is someone’s son or daughter”. I thought on my own father, whose time with us was now over and is really a story of missed opportunities, and of my own newborn son, who clawed his way fairly desperately into the world… and asked myself again what I was doing here, about to claw my own way up a grade one ridge as a way back to myself.
“There’s a lot of RAF, Mountain Rescue and SARDA here tonight” Heather said after the talk. And yes, the place was heaving, and the feeling of community palpable, a background hum in the room, people for whom the mountains have quite literally changed everything; most often for good, but sometimes for ill. We don’t choose our immediate family and they can’t choose us, but we do choose to hear the call of the mountains, and we do choose to go. It’s not inevitable, though it might feel like it. With freedom of movement and self-expression comes responsibility; to our loved ones, who might not always fully understand the draw, and to our other family; our mountain friends, who always do.
The climb is straightforward and without drama. There’s a couple of brief moments of mild exposure in the middle of the route; first a kink in a gully over some ice, next an airy traverse out to the right. I’m glad of my twin axes, but otherwise, I’m surprised at myself in an off-handed sort of way. I’ve been away, but I am fitter than before from a little more running and a little less drinking – and somehow more relaxed, even… assured? I’ve waited all season to do this right, and this morning is crisp and clear, the easterly has firmed up the slopes and avalanche risk is minimal. I am learning by increments to watch and to wait, to bend and not break. I am not safe, but I am safer.
The hills are many things, but today they are a benchmark by which I track my own brief transit through the world, a measure for measures. I walk down from the top, content to have checked in, before shopping for the family on the way home for tea. Today, the sun shines and I am grateful for clean air, clear skies, a little space beneath my feet and a whole lot more above my head.