I love the hills.
When I was a bit younger I used to go on holiday to various bits of Scoland with my family, and the older I got the more I noticed the hills. For a long time they seemed far off and unatainable. There they would lie at the end of huge valleys and across boggy moors, quietly beckoning. None of my family were real hill-walkers so I felt bound by the seat belt of the car and the rain drumming on the B&B bedroom windows.
Near the end of my school days something happened which changed everything. I went on a Duke of Edinburgh Expedition, as part of the Gold Award. The expedition was a 50 mile walk over 4 days through some of wildest Scotland. Up to this point I had always dissapointed the Scots half of my family by demonstrating apparent indifference to their side of my heritage. Those 4 days changed a lot. A seed was sown and that seed has grown.
Perhaps the greatest thing about hill walking in Scotland is that you feel the word ‘freedom’ has taken on new meaning. Rights of access laws now permit you to walk pretty much anywhere, and when you’re starting out up a hill on a crisp November morning the feeling is overwhelming. I just don’t think there are that many places, at least in Europe, where it’s so easy to feel in such a wild place, yet be within a couple of hours of two large cities. If you ever want to understand what I mean, look no further than the work of one of the finest photographers in the world, Colin Prior. He lets you see Scotland as it really feels to me.
Last weekend highlighted the often fine line between perfection and disaster that can describe the winter hills of Scotland. On Saturday I had an incredible day in the southern highlands with a pal of mine. The weather was calm, sunny and snowy, which let me tell you is pretty rare in November in the highlands. It perfectly demonstrated everything that is great about being in the hills in winter. Crisp snow underfoot, rich sunlight lighting up the landscape and the sure knowledge that you’d better get moving because it’ll be dark by 4pm.
It was a special day. We encountered red deer, snow hares and a very inquisitive raven that seemed to follow us from mountain to mountain. The day had everything from energy sapping snow plodding to a pretty exciting climb up a snowy slope full of old boulders. This was probably the most challanging bit of winter walking I’ve done, but it did nothing other than make me feel a strong urge for more.
On Sunday two climbers set out for a day in the hills with, I’m quite sure, a similar sense of excitement. They finished their climb but on descent the weather closed in. Only a few hours earlier, and barely a hundred miles south, we had been blessed with incredible weather. But up in the northern corries 70mph winds and driving snow showed just how brutal things can turn. The death of young folks like this is very difficult to take. On the one hand it seems going into the hills in winter is a crazy thing to do. But as anyone who winter walks or climbs will tell you, the lure is hard to resist. I suppose in the end it highlights, not for the first time, how little you can afford to take for granted. Whether it’s the weather or health or sitting around the dinner table with family, it’s sometimes hard to believe how frivilous you can be.
The next time I set out at 7am up a cold dark hillside, I will try to remember that sometimes you’ve got to go home to climb the mountain.
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