Cause & effect – five walks that changed my life

Ben Dolphin

Many of us who love the hills and wild places are finding solace or keeping sane at the moment by reflecting on our most treasured outdoors memories. Here Ben Dolphin reflects on five walks that changed the course of his life.

Every walk you take contributes to your knowledge and experience, whether you’re aware of it or not. Most of the time the learning is subtle but it’s there nonetheless, happening quietly in the background. But there are also walks that go way beyond mere enrichment of your walking experience and, although it might not be apparent at the time, can change your life.

Vanishingly rare, I can only identify five such walks in my life. And while they by no means occurred in isolation of everything else that was going on in my life at the time, the walks themselves nonetheless had a disproportionately huge impact.

Pen y Fan – Brecon Beacons – August 1999

I’d always craved wild places but I’ve no idea why. We were an outdoorsy family in so much as we left the house and went to visit places, but my parents didn’t own hiking boots and didn’t introduce me to walking. Mum did introduce me to the concept of bagging though (National Trust properties!), and as we toured the country in the 1980s I’d pore over the well-thumbed Road Atlas in the car, fixated by the different shades that indicated high land, and particularly by the wee black triangles that marked summits. What were those mysterious far off places like?

I never found out, because adolescence hit and I lost myself in wild places of a different kind. I didn’t give hills or mountains any thought whatsoever for over a decade, not until I did a BUNAC work exchange in Canada in 1997 and had to choose where to base myself. I could have chosen Toronto, Winnipeg, Montreal, but I opted for Vancouver because…well….it had mountains!

It seems incredible to me now, but in 12 months of BC-based exploration, during which time I visited Vancouver Island, the Rockies, the Yukon and Alaska, I didn’t go hiking at all. Sure, I wanted to feel the majesty of those wild places but I achieved that via cars, ferries and gondolas. I just wasn’t a hillwalker.

I came home in autumn 1998, just in time for my first Edinburgh Hogmanay. Auld Reekie, with its grey winter garb and reassuringly malty aroma, cast a spell over me that would hold for over a decade, but it was an additional two-night road trip via Pitlochry and Fort William that really captured my imagination. Again, no hillwalking, but it was my first time north of Edinburgh and I’ll never forget pulling over in a layby on a freezing cold Rannoch Moor, and seeing THAT hill for the first time. I took a photo, framed it, and thereafter it became an exotic source of inspiration on my wall at home in the West Midlands.

THAT view. THAT mountain.

Something had changed on that trip, because I now wanted to experience the high places for myself. I persuaded my brother to drive us 2hrs down the road to the Brecon Beacons, where we whizzed around the airy mountain roads and made the briefest of brief walks up a soggy sponge called Fan Fawr. It wasn’t a proper walk, not really, and so the bug didn’t bite, but it did give me a tantalising view of Pen y Fan, at 886m the highest point in the UK south of Snowdonia.

Five months later I persuaded Mum to drive us down, and together we climbed Pen y Fan. I’d done long distance walks with the scouts a decade earlier, in Northumberland and Shropshire, but this was the first ‘big’ summit I had climbed. Anywhere. Ever. And as soon as we got home I was desperate to climb it again. I returned twice in the next month or so, first with my best mate, and then again with my sister. The bug had bitten, and bitten hard.

Me and Mum on our first big hill, Pen y Fan

I’m quite sure I’d still be climbing Pen y Fan week-in-week-out had mum not bought me ‘The High Summits of Wales’ by Graham Uney, which listed all the Welsh Hewitts (hills over 2000ft). Imagine my delight at finding there were 136 other hills to climb instead of the same hill 137 times! So off I went…..and I never looked back.

Beinn Alligin – Torridon – September 2002

Ever since that first Hogmanay in 1998 I’d been primed for a move north at some point but it needed a catalyst. That came in 2002 when my best mate moved up to Edinburgh from Portsmouth. My sister and I helped him drive his stuff up, and then we all went to Kinlochewe for a week, where we climbed Beinn Alligin. It was my first time north of Fort William, my first hillwalk in Scotland and….my first two Munros.

By that stage of my life I’d lived in both Canada and New Zealand for a year apiece. I’d spent six weeks in Nepal, walked in the Alps and had bagged my way across Wales, but in all my travels I had never seen anything quite like Torridon. It was rugged, rocky and weird, with a stark grandeur and a sense of scale unlike anything I’d experienced.

I was captivated, and that walk was undoubtedly the moment when I decided to move north of the border. Even so, as much as Scotland was now pulling, the move probably wouldn’t have happened had events at home not pushed with equal intensity.

At the start of that year Mum fell ill with an asbestos related illness, and she died six months later. By the time I went to Torridon I’d had three horrible months dealing with HMRC in relation to probate and I was spiralling into depression. I didn’t realise this until, over the following weeks, my hillwalking in Wales fizzled out and I instead found myself sitting indoors, alone, in tearful silence. Come November, it was utter desolation and I couldn’t even bring myself to leave the house.

The overwhelming and debilitating senses of sadness and apathy were unreal. I knew walking could make me feel better, if even for a day, but I just couldn’t make myself do it. That frightened me, but not as much as the thoughts of suicide that began to surface. Weeks of bereavement counselling arrested the slide, as did opening up to my friends, and without hesitation my mate in Edinburgh offered me his spare room and suggested I come up to stay. My family begged me to go, saying a change of environment was what I needed.

Our inspirational trip to Torridon, and my first Munros courtesy of Beinn Alligin.

So, on a cold February morning I packed my worldly goods into my tiny car and drove up the M6. I can still remember watching the Birmingham skyline disappear in my rear view mirror and instantly feeling the load lighten. I temped, moving from one office job to the next, and though I wasn’t making any money I had a roof over my head, a great friend……and I had 284 Munros to bag!

I climbed them with dogged determination, to the point where I started to refer to Munro-bagging as ‘my weekly fix’. It certainly felt very much like a drug at the time, but it’s only in retrospect that I’ve realised just how therapeutic it was and how important that walk up Beinn Alligin would ultimately turn out to be. It’s hard to overstate the mental benefits that time in the outdoors can bring, but I do now wonder if I perhaps climbed out of that hole one Munro at a time, because by 2004, with over 100 Munros on the tally, I don’t think I had ever been happier.

Binnein Mor – Mamores – April 2006

I had years of incident-free hillwalking before Binnein Mor, but until something actually goes wrong, complacency and/or absent-mindedness can insidiously creep up on you. As a solo walker I was always careful. I left my route with a pal, I carried a phone, and I took my ice axe and crampons with me when there was snow. But for reasons I’ll never fully understand, on that fateful day I did none of those things and thus set myself up to fail in the most spectacular way.

It was frosty in the shadows but otherwise it was as benign a day as you could hope for, but on reaching the summit of Binnein Mor from Na Gruagaichean, I was surprised to find both its main ridges plastered with spring snow. I hadn’t seen any snow when I was down by Loch Leven, so I’d left my spiky gear in the car. A schoolboy mistake. The snow was hard and icy, which meant both ridge routes down to Binnein Beag were blocked. At that point I should have just abandoned my plans and turned around, but instead I decided to descend straight down the nobbly spur between Binnein Mor’s two big ridges, as that was snow-free.

It was very steep of course, but that wasn’t out of my comfort zone so long as I took my time. It was fine at first, but just as I’d committed my left leg to a stable rocky outcrop from a crouching position, the outcrop gave way and tumbled down the hillside. Left leg outstretched and right leg under my bum, I instantly slid downwards, desperately clawing at either side of a rocky chute to stop myself.

Binnein Mor with its nobbly spur between two snowy ridges, seen from Binnein Beag

I succeeded…..at first. But my arms quickly tired, and with no firm ground for my left leg to push against, gravity again started pulling me slowly but inexorably downwards. My right foot, which I was still sitting on, had now snagged on something and, as I inched downhill, my right leg was first pulled behind me and then, when it had nowhere else to go, outwards. I heard and felt something in my leg snap.

Weirdly, I didn’t feel panic. I just felt massive disappointment in myself because I knew I’d been stupid. I couldn’t get my right leg from underneath me unless I rolled over, and I couldn’t roll over without letting go of the chute walls.

I had no phone, nobody knew where I was, and so I just remember thinking in a very calm way…..”nobody will ever find me”. I’m here writing this now, so obviously I got out of the situation and survived, but at the time I honestly thought it might be (and it could so easily have been) the end.

Initially, the accident had the kind of consequences you’d expect. Humility. Shame. Regret. Embarrassment. Many of us have done stupid things in the hills, made mistakes, and to an extent that’s okay….so long as you survive and are able to learn from the experience. I’d clearly become complacent, so I did wonder if something like this needed to happen to put me back in my place. I was certainly much more careful after that, not taking silly risks, and had learned the hard way that it was perfectly okay to turn around if need be and return another day.

Longer term, the accident unexpectedly slowed my whole life down. Surprisingly I only had ligament damage, cuts and bruises, but I was nonetheless off the hills for months. With a knackered knee I couldn’t race along Princes Street like I used to, getting het up and impatient at pedestrians who were slower than me. Instead, I found I was now the slow one, the obstacle to other people’s progress, which was wonderfully liberating and so much less stressful.

When I finally returned to the hills, fully healed, I slowed down out of choice rather than necessity, and reined in my ambitions. Pre-Binnein Mor I couldn’t stay still because I was always in a rush to bag the next hill, so while I’d always been friendly to passers by, I’d never managed anything more than a passing hello. Now though, I was lingering on summits for an hour or more, which meant I actually started talking to people.

One long summit chat was on Harbour Hill in the Pentlands, with a guy who it turned out was on patrol for the Pentland Hills Voluntary Ranger Service. Perhaps close encounters with disaster prompt a bit of introspection, but by that point I’d been thinking that I’d been taking from the hills and not giving anything back, and the guy inspired me so much that I applied to join. Mingling with the rangers changed everything. I started to take notice of nature and the world at my feet, and as a result my hillwalking experience changed beyond recognition. Further inspired, I went back to college to try and become a ranger myself and the rest, as they say, is history.

Coireach a’ Ba – Black Mount – May 2008

Jason and I had chatted online for a month or so. We’d never met (he was in York, I was in Edinburgh) but we’d never spoken over the phone either. I don’t know how much you can ever know about someone from online profiles, but a lot of his photos were of the Canadian Rockies and there was a clear mountain vibe, so when it finally came to meeting up for the first time, we opted for an overnight hike.

Going camping with someone I’d neither met nor spoken to didn’t strike me as remotely odd, and maybe my pals were all hippy liberals but none of them bat an eyelid either. Only my sister was moderately alarmed, but later I’d discover that Jason was under strict instructions from his sister to put all my details on his fridge before he left home, and to surreptitiously text her my car reg once we’d met up, otherwise she’d have barricaded him into his home to stop him from going. Either of us could have been a psychopathic axe murderer I suppose. I knew I wasn’t, and thankfully he was willing to take that risk.

Not quite the First Dates Restaurant

Glen Etive was always my ‘go to’ showcase location for folk who’d never visited the Highlands before, so I planned a walk from Alltchaorunn, up Coire Ghiubhasan, over Bealach Fuar-chathaidh, and down into the massive pathless spongy amphitheatre of Coireach a’ Ba for an overnight camp. It could so easily have been a disaster, miles from anywhere, stuck in the company of someone you find you can’t stand. That’s probably why we had two of everything! Two tents, two stoves, two lots of food, just in case one (or both) of us had to make excuses and bail.

If you ask him his recollections, he’ll say that because I was leading the way and therefore a few metres in front, I farted in his face. He’ll say that he lived in blissful ignorance of ticks until that weekend. And he’ll likely say that I abandoned him on a high bealach after I dumped my bag and scurried up to a small summit because “I just want to see what’s over the rise”. For most folk that probably means they’ll be gone five minutes, but I admit I was gone longer than that. Ask him how long, he’ll say half an hour. Ask me, I’ll say ten minutes. The truth is probably somewhere in between.

Ask me my recollections and I’ll tell you how, when he slung his rucksack into the back of my car at Waverley Station, he inadvertently squished the bunch of bananas that was clipped onto the exterior of his bag and consequently smeared gooey banana horribleness on my seats. There are few foods I dislike more intensely than bananas. The smell, the taste, the texture, eurgh, I can’t stand them. And so it’s testament to how well we got on and how comfortable we were in one another’s company, that we were both able to see past our individual quirks, faux pas and bananadrama to meet up again a few weeks later in Dalbeattie. A couple of weeks after that, we upped the ante with a three day camping trip in Fisherfield, and I still think it’s just the most awesome thing ever that Jason’s first Munro was A’ Mhaighdean. That was 2008, and we’re still together 12 years later.

Carn Odhar – Monadhliath – May 2011

On 17th May 2011 I found myself helping around 30 other people to carry a heavy wooden coffin 12km from Loch Farraline, past Dunmaglass Lodge and up through Dunmaglass Estate to the tussocky windswept slopes of Carn Odhar. There, a eulogy was read and we all raised a glass to The Wilderness.

This was the ‘Wake for the Wild’, a peaceful protest organised by Alan Sloman (neatly fitted into his TGO Challenge route that year) to mourn the loss of Scotland’s wild places to massive energy infrastructure projects. In the early 2010s the Monadhliath were on the cusp of being industrialised on a huge scale and the Dunmaglass windfarm, just one of many, had already received planning consent.

I had mixed feelings about the influx of huge windfarms into the uplands at that time, on the one hand acknowledging that renewables were needed but on the other, lamenting the industrialisation of our remaining wild places. We all knew that it was a done deal in this part of the Monadhliath, so the point of the protest wasn’t to overturn the decision, rather it was to simply draw attention to what was being lost. Personally, I wanted to somehow acknowledge the sacrifice that Scotland’s uplands were being asked to make.

The Wake for the Wild. Course, we had to walk it all the way back down again!

Afterwards, I felt an odd need to write something about it. I’d never felt compelled to write anything about anything before then, and I certainly never intended to start posting stuff online long term. I just needed somewhere to host a single piece of writing. But once it was up there, well…..I kept adding to it and before I knew it , I was ‘blogging’.

I fully expected my enthusiasm to dry up and for Benvironment to go the same way as every other blog around that time. I gave it three months, but because it became my way of sharing the natural wonders I encountered more widely, and hopefully inspiring more people to get out & about and take notice of the amazing things around them, the enthusiasm never waned.

Nine years and 4,000 posts later, it’s now so absorbed into my daily routine that I can barely conceive of a time before it. What on earth did I do before outdoors writing and photography so consumed my life? I have absolutely no idea, and while I do sometimes think I’ve got the balance wrong and that I need to rein it in, it’s nonetheless become a vital part of who I am.

Had I not attended the Wake for the Wild, it is of course possible that another event would have surfaced that I’d have wanted to document and thus start a blog, or perhaps I’d have started one without any specific catalyst. I’ll never know, so I can only look back upon that walk with an immense sense of gratitude and fortuitousness, and be glad that it happened, because it undeniably opened up a new chapter in my life. Without the blog I would never have been asked to write for Walkhighlands or any of the other writing ‘gigs’ I’ve had since then, and all of those opportunities, not least my recent role with Ramblers Scotland, can all be traced back to that melancholic day in the Monadhliath.

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You should always carry a backup means of navigation and not rely on a single phone, app or map. Walking can be dangerous and is done entirely at your own risk. Information is provided free of charge; it is every walker's responsibility to check it and to navigate safely.