Wednesday, 11 November 2015
A Few Demons Revisited
Mountains, the natural world in general, may enthuse and inspire. They can do many different things. They are certainly not essentially 'nice' or 'benign'. If anything, nature manifests a complete indifference to the cares, worries, and tribulations of humanity. It may or may not have a wider programme at work. But it comes dancing in all manner of moods and guises; some of which may be to our liking, others less so.
I go to the mountains; nowadays it is tantamount to a personal need. But not all mountains or mountain places are the same. Some appear designed to evoke happiness, relaxation, uplift. Some have little 'atmosphere' about them, to me, while others knock me over with something or other. And others still have a supernatural quality about them that is not obviously benevolent. It may be hostile, or may exude love in the toughest of disguises, enough to provoke mental breakdown.
Find Ullapool on a map of Scotland - a little fishing port on the north-west coast - then trend south eastwards for a number of miles. The first sizeable mountains you will come across will be the cluster referred to in the mountain books as the Beinn Dearg group.
During the first years of my living in Scotland I made several expeditions into the Beinn Dearg group. On one occasion I went in late winter. It was a glorious morning, the landscape resplendent in Highland sun. Then I turned a corner into a dark, awe-ful valley of the shadow of death. Ground still frozen hard, no rays of sun penetrating, bearing down on me with heavy oppressiveness. I was relieved to get out of that place. On another occasion I visited following a particularly harsh winter. After squelching across a seemingly endless stretch of peat bog, rendered especially squelchy by the ample snowmelt, I almost stumbled over the freshly dead body of an adult female deer. Her eyes still bright, wide open, she had given up the unequal fight against cold and malnourishment. I sat beside her body, spontaneously chanting some mantra (what else do you do?) before walking sombrely on. On yet another occasion I set off to climb Beinn Dearg itself. I had spied previously a graceful, airy ridge that would provide a far more exciting route of ascent than the path normally taken by mortals. However, once on the ridge, I found it to consist of enormous angular boulders, an almost impossible nightmare to traverse. Stumbling and struggling, trying not to twist knees or ankles, I considered it one of the least pleasant mountain ascents of my life.
Then came the end of May 2009. A friend of mine was keen to do a slightly adventurous multi-peak walk, including some rough and rather remote terrain. Was I interested? The question was rhetorical....
The first hill was fairly grassy, but from there we descended into a wild and lonely gap, crossing the outflow from a lochan in remarkable surroundings. From there it was a steep and rocky climb up a pathless ridge onto the summit of arguably the finest of the Beinn Dearg peaks, that of Cona' Mheall. The trip thus far had taken longer than anticipated. It was already late afternoon, and we still had the descent to do, along a narrow ridge, then down the steep, blunt end, whence it would be two hours across the moor to return to the road. It was while we were walking along the airy ridge that I had a freak accident. The bow in one of my bootlaces got caught in an eye on the other boot. This meant that, when I went to stride forward, one foot failed to move ahead. At the same time, momentum plunged the upper part of my body forwards, then quickly down towards and onto the rock beneath me. I have never hit the ground with such force in my life. I fortunately got my right hand in front of me just before I smashed onto the rocks, otherwise my skull might well have been splintered into pieces. As it was, my wrist was unmoveable, various fingers refused to do what they normally do, and the lower arm didn't yield very pleasant sensations at all.
In the early evening, we scrambled across the ups and downs of the rocky ridge, then began the precarious descent. Steep, stony, slippery, it required the use of hands for security. Ouch,ouch, ouch. I moved gingerly, painfully, but we eventually reached the bottom of the ridge. All along, the surrounding scenery was magnificent in the extreme, seeming to add to the gravitas of the situation. Once off the rocks, we were dismayed to find no trace of a path. Though this route appears in the definitive guidebook to such exploits, it seemed that we were the first humans to actually ever do it. By now the light was fading, and we were pretty exhausted. Still, nothing to do but to walk, stop for three minutes for a rest, then walk some more. Light faded, and we reached the car.
The following day at Accident and Emergency, I was told that, amazingly, I had no fractures. The consultant seemed slightly disappointed. The fact that I am a pretty lightweight version of human made all the difference - less impact on hitting the ground. Still, I was in pain and discomfort, restricted by a splint-like thing on my lower arm, for weeks.
After that, I decided to give the Beinn Dearg group a miss. There are plenty of other mountains around, which seem to bode well rather than ill. Until September of this year, that is.....
I felt strong, well, changed since the Cona' Mheall mishap, and the perverse idea manifested within my mind to revisit the Beinn Dearg group. Thus it was that I set off up a long, slowly rising glen, first through forest then across open hillside, on a day that was far gloomier than the weather forecasts had predicted. Cloud hung over the mountain tops, refusing to disperse. I had actually passed this way many years previously, on a walk that I didn't even bother recounting above. But it was a day when I had been beaten back by strong winds and horizontal hard hail and sleet cutting my face raw. On that occasion I had found the glen bland, devoid of real interest. Today, however, it appeared in a more enticing guise. Waterfalls and rockpools punctuated the water tumbling down the glen; rocks and high cliffs marked the upper parts, conveying a sense of quiet awe to the place.
I climbed the steep end wall of the glen, to emerge on a high, lochan-studded plateau which serves as a kind of crossroads, with Munro-sized mountains to the left, to the right, and straight ahead. On my right, the summit cliffs of Beinn Dearg disappeared into thick, grey cloud, still displaying sizeable accumulations of snow left over from the spring (and this in September! Global warming, my friends...). Instead, my attention turned to my left, to a mountain I had not visited before. Up I went, soon on the flat but rocky peak, with a view over monochrome grey hills, glens, and sea lochs beyond. The ridge continued to another unvisited hill, but I looked back. There, appearing like an uninviting pile of scree from this direction, was Cona' Mheall. It had not been my conscious intention to climb Cona' Mheall, but suddenly the urge took me over, irresistible. I had to revisit the scene of my accident.
The route to Cona 'Mheall was longer - and took more time and effort - than I expected. I wondered whether I was doing the right thing, with this spontaneous add-on to the day. I climbed rapidly up a rough rocky path, to clamber over boulders at the top and finally emerge on the familar ridge of Cona 'Mheall. I gazed all round. My heart missed a beat or three, my stomach churned, It is indeed a magnificent place, a surreal spot in which to have a freak accident. 3000 feet up, and hours of walking from the nearest habitation. The funny thing is that I was able to pinpoint the precise spot on the ridge where the accident had occurred those six years ago. It is as if even mild trauma leaves a deep imprint in the mind. I wandered around the place, silently nodding my head. Then I went off down the ridge a way, to take it all in, and to let go of the trauma still lingering from the events of 2009. I spent a while at the summit, reviewing our trip of that day. What a marvellous landscape we had passed through. The only change is that, on that day, no wind farms were visible from our route; today, no less than five could be seen from the two peaks that I visited. Even the newly-built obscenities of low-grade humanity could not detract greatly from the magnificence of the location, however.
I retraced my steps to the scene of the accident once more, then headed downhill, across bog and rock, towards the plateau. At one point I was aware of being watched, and looked up to see an enermous mountain goat standing on a boulder scrutinizing my moves. While deer tend to watch with dreamy eyes, with an alert yet languid attention, the mountain goat seemed focussed, ready for action, not to be messed with. I moved swiftly on.
I felt that a freedom had been released in my mind following the revisit to the ridge of Cona' Mheall. There are times when demons of the past need to be revisited in order to free their grip, however subtle and unrecognised, on ones consciousness. I felt happy, relieved even, to have encountered once more the spirits of Cona' Mheall, and the Beinn Dearg group, and to find that they are not necessarily out to get me. Maybe I'll be back next year.....