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Tuesday, 11 October 2016

Meeting on the Ridge

It's April 9th, 2011. A Saturday. 11.45am.  The sun, when it deigns to shine, does so with strength and ferocity in the Highland spring. I am soon warm as I ascend the zigzags rising from the floor of Glen Shiel, away from the weekend trippers and motorbikes and towards the stark clarity of that springtime sky.

The path which steadily climbs up onto the spur is a grand piece of architecture, almost a thing of beauty. Not one to normally wax lyrical about things Victorian, I nevertheless concede that these old stalkers' paths are works made with pride, sensitivity, and out of a certain love of the environment through which they pass. What contrast they make with the modern estate tracks, blasted through glens and up hillsides by bulldozers, great mechanical scars cutting deeply through the silence. Creations of a mentality that knows not beauty, sensitivity, love.

I reach the top of the spur and behold the climb ahead of me. The broad grass-and-bog ridge leads onwards and upwards, to give onto steeper rock which rises up to eventually reach the first peak on the ridge proper.

Today is a big one. Having got myself to the first summit, I shall head westwards along the ridge to two more peaks, then more-or-less retrace my steps to catch the evening bus home. By then, I anticipate, I will be tired.  

Walking along the spur, I become aware of another person ahead of me. Their pinpoint becomes steadily bigger: they are progressing slowly. Eventually this pinprick, which has expanded into a sizeable inkblot by now, stops altogether. What is clearly a tea-and-relaxation break on the part of the slow-mo ahead is my opportunity. I step up my pace with the clear intention of overtaking and continuing to the top of the ridge unimpeded.

Approaching this figure sitting upon the meagre bog-and-grass that ekes out its existence at this altitude, I see that it is a man. Quite a senior one, in fact. He is enjoying refreshment from his thermos, clearly enjoying the warm sunshine of spring. I bid a cheery 'hello' with an energetic wave of my hand, but it's no good. I am not adept at passing by people on the mountains who would like a brief dialogue about the weather, the hill, and the rest. I have been well and truly waylaid.

My newfound friend must be, I guess, around eighty years old. His gear is straight out of the 1950s; in particular, he is using as an aid to walking an alpenstock. I have never seen an implement such as this close at hand; it is something which I thought was only used long ago, for early ascents in the Alps. It sports a long, straight, wooden handle. I have never set eyes upon such a magnificent yet simultaneously unwieldy and impractical walking aid in all my life.

"May I accompany you up the hill?" he asks. It's got to be a rhetorical question, hasn't it? It's not exactly easy to say "No, look. You're really slow, and I've got some extremely important walking to do today." It's not easy, for me at any rate.

We begin to snail pace our way up the narrowing ridge. My companion is, to borrow an unfashionable word from a fellow blog-writer, cultivated. He has this air about him, and an accent that marks him out as hailing from well-heeled Surrey. "I live in Middlesborough" he exclaims, almost causing me to tumble into the coire below. He tells me his name, which I have forgotten. He also confirms his age as eighty. And, lowering his voice conspiratorially, as if to tell me a great secret, he proffers a deep confession: "I am staying at the Kintail Lodge Hotel. Splashing out a bit." For a moment his eighty years are stripped away, and he appears beside me as a rather naughty little boy up to no good.

We amble on slowly, gradually gaining height. At one point the ridge narrows, and the path climbs a small rocky turret, requiring the use of hands for its ascent. My Teeside companion finds this tricky. His legs aren't up to it and give way, leaving him dangling. I am alarmed, and rush to help him up the mini 'bad step'.

We finally reach the top of the mountain, a Munro no less, and sit beside the cairn for another break and to soak up the view of ridge and sky. I cast my eye in the direction of the peaks to the west. "This is enough for me" my companion states definitively. "I'll stay for a while, then head back to the hotel for early dinner."

I stride off into the afternoon sun, leaving this man to feast his eyes on the landscapes before retracing his steps downwards. I look back one more time, apprehensive about his descent: will he negotiate the rocky step without tumbling head first and smashing his skull open on a protruding piece of rock? Several hours later, as I descend a parallel ridge, I see no sign of a crumpled body beneath the bad step, so assume that he made it OK. And I complete the day in reflective mode.

There, at 650 metres above sea level, somewhat below a rocky step on a northern spur of Maol Chinn-Dearg, I had the privilege to encounter a rather remarkable human being. I partook of his company, but then sped off along the ridge, intent on my own very important programme for the day. Was this an opportunity missed? A deeper, richer communication spurned for the sake of my own mad goals and agendas? My not fully appreciating the wonder before my very eyes, intent instead on finding it somewhere else - in this case, along the ridge? The answer to all of these is simultaneously 'yes' and 'no'. Did I miss out? Yes. Would I do the same, should the situation arise again? Most probably 'yes'.

The one thing I do know is that, should I reach such an age, it would be marvellous to be able to do as this man from Middlesborough. Know my limits, know my ever-dwindling physical abilities; realise without regret that those epic multi-peak marathons of yore are no longer. Yet to hone what I know I am still capable of, to still breathe in magnificence from expeditions which appear more modest, yet with age and the waning of physical ability take on proportions of enormous magnitude.

Photos: On the South Glen Shiel Ridge