Friday, 16 February 2018
Living and Dying in the Mountains
I am always affected when people die in the mountains. I know why they went, why it was so important to them: the feeling is one shared among mountain people. I sometimes think: 'It could have been me.' Except that I don't normally go to the mountains when weather conditions are suspicious, in winter time especially.
'Dying on the mountains' is a real enough notion for me to indulge in some morbid fantasising concerning different ways you can perish on the hills. Falling down a cliff face in summer may not be so bad: hard and swift. But winter? Snow, blizzards, hypothermia, slowly losing all bodily sensation, physical and emotional energy, the will to live slowly sapping away. Or it could be quick and horrid: a mighty avalanche sweeping you away, or burying you alive.
It can't get much worse than this. "He died doing what he loved" (it is more often 'he' than 'she' in mountain mortalities) is the theme sometimes expressed in the search for solace, but it fails to convince me really.
The most anguished examples hail, not so much from Scotland, as from Himalayan, and occasionally Alpine, mountaineering. It was with fascinated horror, or horrified fascination, that I used to read about expeditions to the high Himalayan peaks, when only half the team would manage to get back to base camp. There's a mountain - it might be K2, I'm not sure - where climbing it entails passing bodies frozen solid into the snow. They have been there for years, but the oxygen's so thin at that altitude that nobody's got the strength to bring them down.
Closer to home, one incident in particular has affected me. Over a week ago now, two brothers - one in his 50s, the other in his 60s - along with a dog, set off to the mountains from the tiny hamlet of Achnashellach. They didn't return.
The incident has continued to play on and through my mind. I know those mountains well. The brothers set out to traverse the round of summits encircling Achnashellach. I have ascended these mountains many times: they comprise one of my semi-local happy hunting grounds.
On a fine day, there are no special problems for a person who knows what they are doing. But ice, snow, blizzard, wind chill, freezing gales blowing snow horizontally into your face.....
I can imagine in my mind's eye those two guys setting off on the path - across the railway line, turn left through the trees then down beside the cascading stream. Following its course as it climbs up into the mountain-encircled coire. Then choose a peak.
The images continue to play fruitlessly through my mind. What happened? Where did it go wrong? I travel the entire route in imagination: the climb, the ridges, summits, the little scrambles, the stalkers' path of descent. I know it so well. On a fine day......... as I said.
These are serious mountains, outliers of the famous Torridon group. Plenty of vertical faces of cliff, lots of rock. Lots. And, under winter conditions, plenty of places to get avalanched. One March a few years ago I was in these hills. The path cut below an enormous bank of snow. I moved gingerly, ensuring I created no disturbance, at one point diverting away from that bank, keeping all the while a close eye on it.
Those admirable, courageous people from Mountain Rescue found one body. I believe they've given up for now, with the search for the other body considered hopeless until there has been significant snow melt.
Personally, I love mountains, but have grown to feel that there are times when they are not really a suitable haunt for me. We are not 'meant' to be there, similar to how a walrus is not meant to be hanging out in the Atacama Desert. Love gives birth to respect, and to restraint. In my case, at least....
Images: Mountains above Achnashellach, late spring