It was a big week - for me, anyway. The wind and rain that had threatened to wash the whole of Inverness into the Moray Firth finally abated, leaving a string of dry, calm, and largely sunny days. There were no excuses remaining, and my body felt ready. Time for the big test: after my hugely debilitating illness, the hour had come to go to the hills. I still experienced some tightness around the bottom of my chest, and could produce a decent nose-full of dark, dried bloody stuff from my sinuses if prompted. But other than that, not bad at all.
Weather forecasts suggested the clearest conditions in the west and, as Jim Morrison intoned, all things being equal, 'the west is the best'. One hundred minutes after boarding the train, I was disembarking at a tiny station in the midst of the mountains. So remote is this place that the station is a single platform, request stop only. Inform the ticket person on the train, who will in turn tell the driver to stop. For the way back, make yourself known on the platform. 'Should I jump up and down, so the driver will see me?' I had asked the first time I used this station. 'No' replied the ticket lady emphatically. 'You'll probably fall on the rails.' I think she was being serious.
The first hour, I knew, would be critical. I would be either gasping for breath, calling out Mountain Rescue, or walking not too bad at all. Through the forest, beside the river tumbling down from the hills, then climb the stalkers' path to a height of about 350 metres. A stiff, but not excessive, ascent. I took it easily, with plenty of short stops to get my breath and take in the wonder of being out in wild places once more. I wasn't actually feeling ill or in dire straits. Good news.
After an hour I reached a great crossroads, a meeting of mountain paths, where decisions had to be made. A whole rucksack of options present themselves from here, from full mountain ascents to gentle valley walks. Something between the two seemed appropriate. I turned left, heading down to the river crossing. Getting to the other side involves hopping across the boulders that are strewn on the river bed. I have done it many times before: not exactly easy, but well within the capabilities of anyone with reasonable agility and balance. Today, however, some of the natural stepping stones are well under water: the rains have left their mark.
I am viewing the boulders and the rushing water with increasing doubt when another figure comes into view. Tall, slim, rangey, the perfect build for a mountain walker. Replete in head bandana, sun shades, and stubbly greying beard, he strides in my direction. He speaks with an unmistakeable Irish accent, but hails from Glasgow. He, too, wishes to cross the stream. But, unlike me, he has no choice (unless he goes back where he came from, entailing a four-hour detour). His gear is stashed in a bothy that is over the river, up a path, down a precipitous mountain slope, and across another river. He has rashly informed his girlfriend that he will be back in Glasgow by nine. I assure him that this is the normal crossing place, but he might find success further upstream, where the water is wider but more shallow. As for myself, I prefer to avoid an easily-prevented soaking. I've decided on other plans, and I move off in the opposite direction. A few minutes later I hear the triumphant yell behind me: 'I'm across!' I give a distant thumbs-up, and he gives an emphatic victory clenching of the fist. Still a lot to do to get to Glasgow by nine, I reflect.
Up, down, up, down. My newly-chosen route takes me through a variety of landscapes, all in their way fascinating. And my chest seems to be actually enjoying the work-out! At one point I descend to a hidden shangri-la that I had forgotten existed. Remnants of the ancient Caledonian forest form a sheltered glade, where waterslides and waterfalls tumble over some of the oldest rock on the planet. Beyond this, the river cuts a deep, precipitous gash into the landscape, difficult to get a view of, so deep and narrow is the defile.
The walk is a splendid circuit, and I arrive at the station twenty minutes before the last train. Just as well, otherwise it will be a thirteen-hour wait for the next one. I hear a distant warning whistle, before the train ambles round the corner into view. I raise a sober hand to announce my existence. The driver waves his in acknowledgment. I am on my way home.
The benign weather continues. Four days later, I am up early, ready to profit from what appears, according to the mountain weather forecasts, to be the last of the calm and the sun. I am well organised, and go to make my picnic mountain lunch with the bread that I thoughtfully removed from the freezer the night before. I take it from its wrapping; something doesn't smell good. Then I check the ingredients. The cheese in the loaf hasn't enjoyed the freezing and defrosting, it seems. These sandwiches could be dangerous. More fodder for the compost bin.....
The same venue is planned, for the ultimate test; climbing. Having bought my train ticket, I venture into W.H.Smiths in search of a substitute main piece for lunch. Five minutes later I emerge with my prize. 'Urban Eat; No Fuss; Egg Mayonnaise on White Bread'. The list of ingredients fills half one side of the packet.
Three hours later I stand once more at the mountain crossroads. A small group is down by the stream examining the stepping stones. One by one they go over, the last lad with difficulty. The water level has dropped with the continuing dry weather, but this isn't the way for me. I scan the face of the mountain to my right. The hills hereabouts are steep and craggy, and this one is no exception. A scree-ridden path of sorts can be seen climbing the hillside. Rather than zig-zag up the slope, it generally makes a steep beeline for the upper mountain. In one place it appears nearly vertical.
I've been up here before, and know what it feels like in definite good health. How I'll get on today, I've no idea. I cast a wistful glance back at the path that winds its way gently upwards on the other side of the river, then set forth. There's only one way to find out what I'm capable of.
This climb is never a huge amount of fun. Still, I am in a wild and spectacular place, and height is gained quickly. Behind me, remote wild regions come into view with their remote wild mountain peaks. Overnight bivi-camp country. After a while I reach the level of a small, solitary tree that grows bizarrely on the edge of nearly vertical hillside. I stop for respite and for 'Urban Eat'. As I revitalise myself with the deadly cocktail of ingredients that goes to make 'No Fuss' egg mayonnaise, I marvel at this tree. How? Why? Why here? Eventually, I start off again, but am soon struggling. The way now leads through patches of snow interspersed on steep mud, rock, and dwarf heather. I stop frequently for rests. Then we are on the upper scree and quartzite boulderfield. Plod, plod, plod, stop. All said, however, my lungs are coping well, benefitting even from the workout. It's those thigh muscles, which haven't been used for months, that threaten to give up on me.
Then I am on the summit. A huge cairn has been built here, along with a tiny wind shelter made from stones. The view and the location is remarkable. Strange, primeval shapes in disorderly yet perfect array all around, their structures indistinct in the haze of the sun. Blotches of stale snow lighting up the otherwise monotone of their peaks and flanks.
I wander round the top; sit down; wander some more. And slightly later than is wise, I bid a fond farewell to this place, making my way once more across the boulders and the field of scree homewards. Care is needed when descending from these places. The almost vertical bit coming up is nearly vertical on the way down, too. I move deliberately and mindfully, taking care not to disturb the stones of the mountain more than is possible. In the early evening light, the sides of the hills appear to give off a glow of their own. They breathe, live, and today at least are smiling. Despite my growing fatigue, I attempt to walk with dignity and grace, in tune with the spirit of the place. I am alive, I am almost well, and I am thankful.
P.S. My original intention was to include a few photos with this post. However, and without wishing to get conspiratorial about things, every Windows update changes settings and makes the once-simple task of incorporating photos a more complex procedure. At this very moment, I can't be bothered. Maybe another time. I'll put a couple of days aside in my diary.