In the few days before Lockdown was announced, a friend and I went into the mountains northwest of Inverness for the last of winter. It was remote, miles from the nearest road, but we were mindful of the (then) most recent advice to minimise our risk. We’ve both been off the hill more than on recently, but the weather was tempting and for my friend, a keyworker, this was his last leave for what might be some time. On balance, we were cautious: We allowed an extra day and talked down our expectations for a fairly long and quite isolated, but not unrealistic route choice.
In the end, we bailed early. A sublime alpine winter’s day gave way to rapidly rising winds the day after, and it just felt too extended, all things considered. We didn’t know that a new high-pressure system had arisen back on terra firma, too. My friend called it first, and after arranging a sensible rendezvous point, we split. I followed him about 15 minutes later with my tail between my legs. Better safe than sorry. The images in this piece are from that trip, undoctored save that the colour is inverted to reflect the new alien world we now find ourselves in.
On our return, the world had slipped from denial into anger. Thousands had taken rather vague government advice and, just as we had, seen a weather window and run for the hills. Rural communities were justifiably alarmed, social media was in turmoil. Even as I write, on day 5 of Lockdown, there’s disagreement and confusion as to what constitutes permissible exercise, although that may well be clarified with further restriction by the time you read this.
Had we been wrong to go? We had mostly done as experienced mountain people do, and cut our cloth according to the prevailing conditions and team strength at the time, and with a particular mind not to put ourselves at risk or burden the rescue services. We resolved not to share photos online, as it would only add fuel to an already white-hot situation.
Within two days of Lockdown, I had put my photography guiding business on ice for the spring, and the outdoor industry had largely collapsed. As the sole earner in a house of four, I’ve lost around 60% of my income, but we are lucky; many in the outdoor sector have lost their entire livelihood to these new circumstances. It will mean an immediate recession in many Highland communities. As a working and teaching photographer, it has been a confusing week. As someone who lives and breathes the outdoors, and who contracts and commissions within it, it’s been exhausting and distressing.
In the week before, I’d been thinking a lot about Bill Murray. No, not that Bill Murray, the other one – Scotland’s mindful mountaineer and conservation pioneer, William H. Murray. The other Murray established dozens of climbing routes, worked on the NTS survey that helped build the case for better landscape protection in Scotland, and wrote evocatively about life as a hill gangrel, his love of adventure and of the land itself. He practised meditation and that sense of clarity and insight pervades his texts. There’s a calm between the lines on the page. Get to know Scotland’s hills through his words and it’s hard not to fall in love; if you know the hills already it’s impossible not to fall harder.
The other Murray was a man with good reason to hoard toilet paper. About enlisting in 1941, he wrote “to me and everyone I knew at the time, mobilisation spelled the ruin of everything we most valued in life.” Captured in Egypt and incarcerated as a POW in Italy and Germany, he learnt to meditate and used the new focus to conjure memories of the hills he loved but couldn’t visit. He began to write his exploits down and used the only paper he had to hand. The guards found the nascent book and confiscated it, and so he began again, writing from memory about the places he was denied… a love letter written on loo roll, twice over.
Given our current predicament, we’ve still a lot to learn from William H. Murray.
After it was announced, and I contemplated what Lockdown meant for my work and my own mental health, I realised the obvious; that the virus is a shock event, and we are all traumatised. The speed of that change from denial to anger, while my friend and I were off grid in the Fannaichs, was as exponential as that other graph we are so used to seeing now. And our collective societal reaction is one of grief. The Kübler-Ross model of 5 stages will be familiar to most who have lost someone dear to them, but a reminder: Denial; Anger; Bargaining; Depression and Acceptance. Grondin uses the term phases rather than stages, and talks about a Refusal to understand; Resistance; Resignation and Reintegration.
These are only models; grief is more cyclical than linear and there are many optics we can use, but I found it a useful tool to identify what I was feeling. Fear. Loss. I tried to put myself in other Murray’s boots – genuinely imprisoned without access to the mountains for years, without freedom of movement or of creativity – and failed dismally!
So I want to ask you to be kind. We are all very frightened, and it seems with good reason. We are also catastrophising, because for most of us, Corona hasn’t touched us directly – yet. So please, the next time someone online asks if they can go to the hills, or drive a short distance, or include their state sanctioned exercise in another essential journey, ask yourself if they are grieving too. Maybe they are in that Bargaining place. Or maybe they are just desperate. Maybe they live in the inner city with no access to green space at all, or their local park is overcrowded and a newly stressful place to be. Maybe their job has just vanished, they cannot provide for loved ones and they want to escape. Fight or flight – what would you do? They are also asking because they care what their ‘tribe’ thinks. They care what you think. Treat them as you would be treated. By all means give measured, sensible advice when it’s asked for, but please – show compassion.
I also wanted to share some thoughts that resonated with me from other hill people, people I have never met but who I have had a little contact with over the years. Expedition leaders, people with far more experience than I, people whose perspective I found useful because it reminded me that outdoor people are resilient, resourceful and good at adapting to rapidly changing circumstances – just like the other Bill Murray.
Rebecca Coles shared ideas for helping in our communities and was particularly open about the potential need for many of us to redeploy in the coming months, given our new found employment ‘freedom’ – supermarkets, logistics, care homes and farms all need workers. Many of us have now also rallied to volunteer with the NHS or community resilience groups.
I also liked Will Copestake’s take on approaching Lockdown as an expedition itself. Expeditions need good communications between the team, managed expectations and “several plan A’s”, he says. His checklist includes some obvious things like keeping busy and exercise (that newly politicised hot potato) but also keeping a daily record of one’s emotional state (a 1-10 score) and making time for being silly! I love that this is both methodical and has a light touch.
Outdoor people have much to offer in this new, alien world if we channel our fears away from policing others’ behaviour negatively and work instead to our collective strengths. We are often task focused, have a sense of how to manage risk in a systematic way, used to assessing changing conditions and thinking about solutions. All these hill skills can be brought to bear now to help our friends and neighbours. In that sense, the hills don’t have to wait at all. We can bring them with us to wherever we are.
Breathe. Notice. Be useful. And above all, be kind.
David is currently reading The Evidence of Things Not Seen, the autobiography of W. H. Murray, available from Vertebrate Publishing.
You can also ask to book a mountain guide or an outdoor photography trip and ask if you can pay for it up front, to be redeemed when normal outdoor access is resumed. This can help support the outdoor community in difficult times.