I was in my sleeping bag by 6:50 PM on the night of the Spring equinox and still able to write by natural light. I looked east, watching through the tent flap as the light died over Meall nan Tarmachan, Ben Vorlich, Stuc a Chroin. I couldn’t see the sunset directly, having pitched my tent at about 750 m on the south-eastern crags of Meall Ghaordaidh to shelter from increasing night winds. However, a sharply demarcated block of shade had risen up the hills, contrasting with a diminishing russet glow on the tops as blue-grey clouds draped over them, the sky turned pink, and shade finally engulfed them. The moon was nearly full. It had risen in the east earlier but it was now high, steadily brightening; entering its own special time with Jupiter large and bright below it. Then the sun departed and colours muted, finally dissolving from pastels into black and white.
A still and sunshine-filled early Spring day had led me up to the summit of Meall Ghaordaidh from Glen Lochay. Now that we are into long days and more certain warmth, it’s hard to recall how that weekend seemed so charged by a sense of the winter ending. With its translucent light it projected a distinct doorway into Spring. In Glen Lochay the trees were at their barest but there was a sense of suspension, a brief lull before they would burst into life beside the shimmering river. Ransoms were spearing up through flood silt; the light was still low enough to make luminous trims from the moss on trees and walls. There was heat in the sun and yet there were still snowfields to crunch across higher up. There was so much to lift the spirits.
I had been undecided about what to do with this special weekend; special because it was the equinox but also because the forecast showed that the weather would be glorious and most beautiful closest to home. I debated whether I should go further from home; seek hills I didn’t know – steeper, craggier ones? However, in the end Perthshire won. I didn’t want to spend long in the car and it was also encouraging for me, as I was going alone, to court familiarity.
All seemed fortuitous. Beside Loch Tay a red squirrel scribbled across the road, and later as I climbed the hill hot from the sun, a lizard scuttled in the heather. It seemed that life was beginning to be lived again. Quartz and false gold glittered in rock and soil. Higher up ice was melting noisily. I wanted views and sky and drama, and to celebrate the Spring and coming Summer rather as I had celebrated the Autumn equinox. This walk had the same elements of time alone to reflect and stimulate creative thought, but six months before I had been looking back rather than forward.
As I climbed, a cold wind came up from the Northwest and as soon as I left the summit, wisps of cloud started to scud in and soon draped over it. So I contoured around away from the wind and perched my tent on a grassy ledge above the steep-sided valley forming a watershed between Glens Lochay and Lyon. I was still buffeted somewhat but I wanted to stay as high as possible to see the sunrise the next morning. From here I enjoyed a cold supper: a tray of sushi from the Co-op, pasta salad with tuna and corn, Ambrosia rice pudding, chocolate. Carbohydrates; treats.
With the sky clearing, by 9 PM my outer tent was crisp with ice, rattling in the wind. Snowmelt had frozen into silence. When I looked out, the stars, snow, peaks were all sharp. But by 6.35 the next morning the sun had come over Meall nam Tarmachan and the ice was melting, the hills behind me floodlit, and I enjoyed a glorious sense of height and space. The nearby burn started to flow again and the tent gradually dried. I was in no hurry. I sat in the sunshine and looked at the view, wondered about changing my route down or staying high for longer. I mentally pinpointed more expeditions, more adventures I might take with height and night. It was true I had chosen this hill because it was close to home, felt relatively safe, and had few objective hazards, but now I could see some interesting routes that I could take another time from this glen up onto the ridge of Creag na Caillich. The light Summer months opened gloriously before me, humming with possibility. By lunchtime I was drinking latte in the sunshine outside the Bridge of Lochay Hotel. I’d only been away for 24 hours yet I felt I came back a slightly different person and had stepped into a new season.
Going off alone like this is one of the most empowering things I do; it makes me feel self reliant to face whatever the elements and the land present. I’m not antisocial; I also love company. But perhaps I’m one of those people who feel most themselves when solitary as Cheryl Strayed observes of herself in her book, ‘Wild’, about her transformational solo hike along the Pacific Crest Trail. Being alone heightens my senses so that I keenly observe the weather, the scents, the hardness of the ground under my back. I am not generally afraid, even when others worry over me. And I’ve learned to cope with adversity, in fact probably deal with it better when on my own because I know I have to. What it comes down to is the feeling of being viscerally alive.
When I talked about this trip afterwards, several female friends said how much they would like to do something similar, but either didn’t dare or couldn’t seem to get their act together. Fears that were hard to name seemed to lurk around the prospect. Around about the same time a Facebook post linked to an article from the US and prompted a long string of comments and quite a bit of sparring. The resistances for women, this discussion suggested, were mostly to do with perceived danger from other people rather than fear of the wild itself or of being alone. Those people one might fear were, by inference, men. Under discussion was the best way for men to behave when they meet a lone woman out walking (more intimidating when they are friendly, or when they’re not, for example?), and included contributions from women who walk carrying a satellite phone. Male walkers in the Scottish hills, it seems to me, are more likely to comment on how unusual it is to see a woman walking in the hills alone and to find this regrettable.
Whilst aware of the dangers of hill walking alone, (having fallen and hit my head when in company), I’m prepared to take the risk. However, I like to be reasonably remote when I camp, to feel I am properly alone, and I know other women feel this too. The places that make uncomfortable camping for me are closer to so-called ‘civilisation’, where people might notice me and I would be aware of them. The worst that’s ever happened to me has been some Irish lads unzipping my tent and encouraging a goat inside, and some loose talk by teenagers about collapsing my tent when I’d camped rather too close to a village. They were easily discouraged from doing so. Of the women I know who are most relaxed about camping alone in remote places, most have been doing so from a young age. We don’t feel that we’re out of bounds or stigmatised by it and we know how to enjoy our own company and relish the intensity of the experience that comes with it. Whilst recognising the hurdles, I would love other women to enjoy such adventures when and if they wish.
Women I spoke to about their fears and resistances occasionally mentioned ‘stranger danger’as suggested by the American article, but much more often they were influenced by things like the fear of not being fit enough, the difficulties of getting organised, or of lacking the necessary resilience in an unfamiliar situation or bad weather. Also, less tangibly, there’s strangeness for some in being alone or even being seen alone, as if one might be judged as a ‘loser’rather than it being a positive choice.
When setting out on the walks collected in ‘Doubling Back’, many of which I did alone, I was often told that I was ‘very brave’, or asked whether I was sure I was doing the right thing. Interestingly the journey with the most objective danger, up the 4,274 m peak of Finsteraarhorn in Switzerland, attracted less comment. I can only conclude that it was because I was climbing with two men. Occasionally I’ve felt that concerns expressed for my safety have veered into disapproval or a suggestion I was behaving irresponsibly. I think a certain amount of doggedness in managing the reactions of those around is essential to not being cowed out of important experiences.
If you are doing a lone trip for the first time, I offer some suggestions here to make things a little easier:
• Enjoy the planning — pore over maps, plan your menu, select what you need to take; whatever makes it seem real.
• Travelling light is essential to travelling enjoyably. Take only what you absolutely need. If it’s just one night, for example, do you really need pyjamas? Get someone experienced to check through what you’re intending to take and chuck out things that they think you can do without. On this trip I reduced weight by not taking a stove and I think it was worth it, particularly for climbing the hill with ease. Normally, however, I would say that hot food and drink is a great spirit-lifter and also adds a feeling of normality, almost as if you’re ‘playing houses’. Some camping recipes have been provided here by David Lintern.
• Just go for one night initially with the aim of seeing a dawn and dusk while you are out. You will develop a ‘system’of packing and organisation which can keep you going over several days later.
• Take a notebook and pen, or a sketchbook and pencil or a good book to read. You might record thoughts or observations. Interacting with a page is not unlike having a conversation; it can stave off loneliness.
• Link your trip to an event or a special time in the seasonal calendar. It makes you commit if getting organised feels like a struggle, and it ensures a sense of occasion.
• Make sure your tent is lightweight and get to know it well (a night in the garden maybe?) so that it’s second nature to put up. Once inside it should feel like home.
• Get competent with things that matter, for example navigation and winter mountaineering skills if relevant. Leave a record of where you expect to be when. This relieves a lot of anxiety.
• For the first trip consider going just beyond territory that’s familiar, or where you’ve walked with others first, and not stayed overnight. Familiarity may make you feel more secure. Afterwards you’ll want to go further.
• The experience is about much more than the exertion. There is no need to go far, because once you’re out there and alone, it feels like a true and scintillating adventure.