It was going to be as soon as the travel restrictions lifted. A day in the mountains. Nothing, but nothing, was going to stand in my way. Not even the totally lousy weather forecast. Iain soon gave up on any attempts to disuade me. He just about managed to stop me from driving to the 4.99 miles boundary in the late hours of 2nd July with the intention to immediately set off for the mountains as soon as midnight had struck and Friday 3rd July began.
Overcast and grey, very windy and heavy rain. Long trudges over boggy terrain, no views or shelter at the summit, midges galore, hefty doses of leaking waterproofs. All the ingredients that would usually make a summer mountain day extremely sigh-worthy. But after over three months enforced distancing from the moutains neither of us cared.
It’s week 10 of lockdown here in Scotland. I have had a reminder in my diary to write and then post this blog that has been transferred from one week to the next, but week after week this task has been left untouched. Why? Well, we each have our own way of coping with the restrictions placed on us during this time. Some rely on photos to trigger memories of epic mountain days. Others may read up and plan for that time when the freedom of the hills is allowed to beckon to them once more. Some may head out for the permitted local walks, and gaze longingly into the distance (if they’re lucky enough to be in an area which affords views of the [distant] mountains). I find the easiest way to deal with the lack of access to the mountains is to kind of ignore their existence. This was certainly the way I had to handle matters in early and late 2018 when I was ‘out’ due to injury. My answer was simply NOT to look towards the West, NOT to look towards those distant mountains (and yes, we can see them from our local paths on the outskirts of Aberdeen). But then I guess that we all have our own way of dealing with different situations. And so this is the reason that this blog has been greatly delayed – I just haven’t wanted to think about the mountains – or, for that matter, look at my photos. But now the time has come to write something….
Winter proper did eventually arrive (around mid-February) and with it came many, many days of extremely windy weather. Getting out into the mountains is all about making careful judgments through monitoring weather conditions at the best of times – and in winter, it is also about being avalanche safe. I’ve been out in the mountains on enough windy days to know exactly what my limits are. Being physically knocked down by a gust really puts you in your place, while crawling on all fours or being pinned to a rock unable to move because of the wind encourages a healthy respect for this powerful entity. And – let’s face it – being out in the mountains in windy weather is plain old hard work.
There are rucksacks …. And then there are rucksacks … I finally managed to sort out my winter pack issue this season and my conclusion is that there’s no getting away from it: due to my very short back length, my options with regard to a suitable winter sack are somewhat limited, to put it mildly. The two knock-down bargains (i.e., purchased in various sales over the years) that were loitering in the loft – and that had I felt so very smug about acquiring – were piloted before the snow truly arrived and both proved to be useless. A back system too long for me (yes, yes, they were women’s back systems) meant the load ended up hanging away from my back with the chest strap making its very best effort to strangle me. Sigh. Back to the drawing board. Something large enough for winter kit and robust enough to take the weight of all the ironmongery, rope etc. was what was required. The eventual solution weighed in a whopping 2.6kg before I had even put anything into it. But the back system, set to its shortest setting for once truly fitted me. Conclusion: I just have to deal with hauling an extremely heavy load in winter and cutting a rather laughable figure as the sack looks disproportionately big when I am carrying it (‘What do you have in there???’ ‘Are you out overnight???’). And so it started – the gradual building up of carrying (what was for me) a very heavy load – and with a bit of time and patience, carrying the full rucksack was no longer an issue (an issue that featured a few years ago in When is Heavy Too Heavy?).
The World’s Best Faffer? Really, this is not an accolade of which to be proud. 2020 was my first winter season back on the hill for a while (I’d been forced to miss the past two years). The first issue I encountered was not really remembering what really worked for me in terms of clothing and kit – and also not recalling just how bad I was at faffing at the car in temperatures hovering around zero (I take far longer than in summer). It goes hand in hand with being a procrastinator and indecisive person to boot. The first winter day I was out proved to be a mahooosssive 45 minutes before I left the car. Kit was everywhere. I frantically tried to remember the order in which order I used to pack winter gear into a sack. Heads turned with incredulity to survey the wild array of equipment lying around the back of the car as others drove past that first morning. My situation wasn’t helped by the ground being very icy in that laybay, so I was desperately sliding around as I tried to repack the rucksack. And after a few weeks of this, there came the dawning realisation that I tend to semi pack the rucksack and then throw the rest of the gear in the back of the car the night before, thinking to quickly (ahem…) add it to the pack when I’m parked up at my starting point. Solution: Not to be so darned lazy the night before departure. I don’t do this when I’m guiding – everything is all organised and shipshape, ready to start my day ahead of departure time, so why allow this to happen at other times? … think about how much precious hill time I’ve been wasting….
And that’s not the end of it …oh no … the other faffing problem was out on the hill itself. One trip I actually attempted to keep track of how much time I was losing on an average winter hill day – also how many times I stopped. The numbers were rather embarrassing: at first I didn’t want to believe that I really could be that inefficient. Diagnosis: not having items to hand and ready to go. Just not being quick enough with changing over different items of kit. Indecision. Solution: pep talk – ‘JUST GET ON WITH IT’, awareness of bits of kit that have the potential to slow me down, thinking ahead – can I foresee that I will need another layer as I come out of a more sheltered area (seeing as I’ve stopped anyway)? (Debate: Grivel C2 crampons with LONG straps v. Charlet Moser C2s that are much less problematic. Debate: am I ever, ever going to wear the Grivels with those instruments of torture, the Scarpa Vegas (my double plastic boots) ever again – the only time I’m ever likely to need such long straps – or do I simply shorten them to a more suitable length??).
‘Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow….’ By late February I was in the disciplined mode of making sure that I went out for at least one QMD (quality mountain day) every week. Finding a suitable day often proved somewhat challenging as I had to work around other part time work commitments. As already noted, in winter, weather and snow conditions make assessment, planning and ‘being out there’ a dynamic situation. It involves endless tracking of weather and avalanche forecasts – and if you’re not sure where exactly you’ll be heading from one week to the next, this means tracking all forecast/avalanche areas in Scotland. This particular day had snow forecast, but not until later …. so I headed out to Braemar, calling in at the local mountaineering store to just run a quick further check on what local opinion was of the weather that day. It was already starting to snow as I headed to park the car at Linn of Dee and intermittent flurries continued all the way to Derry Lodge. As I headed up Glen Derry, it really started to come down, and as I headed for the col between Meall an Lundain and Beinn Bhreac it continued to get heavier. Underfoot conditions were incredibly hard going. I was constantly sinking up to my thighs in wet, heavy snow, hauling one leg out, shifting my weight only to sink deeply in again, this time on the other leg. Beinn Bhreac in summer is a nice easy and relatively short Cairngorm day, but on this occasion, it turned into a mammoth undertaking. It took me two and a half hours to cover the mere 2.5km to the summit. The falling snow was relentless, higher up the wind was really battering the top of Beinn Bhreac. The endless effort of taking steps was incredibly draining. As I slowly ploughed my way back to the main path it became evident just how much snow had come down while I had been out. The walkout from Derry Lodge was in the dark, by this stage the winds had dropped, the skies had cleared and the waxing crescent moon provided more than sufficient light for me to see where I was going.
Whiteout: The next objective was Monadh Mor ( Cairngorms, ) from Glen Feshie – crossing the Moine Mhor. A front was due to come in during the day, with low cloud predicted to gather on Western hills. For the Cairngorms wind speeds were supposed to be negligible with the odd snow flurries, but it was expected to stay dry for most of the day (70% chance cloud free Munros), but cloud base may be down to 800m in snow showers, perhaps more extensive in the afternoon, patches of sun (east), visibility good but reducing in snow flurries. Minus 3 at 900m, freezing level 500-600m during the day. Avalanche conditions: Low, moderate above 900m on N, NE and E slopes in Northern Cairngorms and N through to SE slopes for S Cairngorms.
Hmmm …. The weather changed pretty rapidly as we made our way up the trade route from Glen Feshie. Not long after we parted company (as Iain decided he wanted to head to Angel’s Peak – skimming rapidly along on snowshoes), the cloud base dropped to around the 800m mark – and anything above this was in whiteout. For both of us, on our respective journeys, this meant hours in the white room. This was totally disorientating at times, with no real idea of what was up or down. Distances, when the cloud thinned or dispersed were totally skewed. With no points of reference, walking on the compass bearing (solo) turning into a time consuming challenge. I was constantly needing to check that I was walking in a straight line by checking the back bearing. Slow progress. I reached my turn around time, but decided to ignore that – I had a head torch, I knew where I was, I had a realistic idea of my return route, I knew what the snow conditions were like, I knew which slope aspects I needed to avoid, I knew that I had to be alert (!) to changes in conditions, I was prepared to walk out in the dark – so I went on. Slow progress on Monadh Mor, but eventually, by my reckoning, I was on the summit ‘ridge’. Of course it was near impossible to see too much, but I located the summit cairn (heavily disguised by snow), took a very brief breather and started back down and across the Moine Mhor. The advent of night caught up with me as I was making very slow progress back to the col area near Carn Ban Mor. The moon showed itself briefly as I stopped for a couple of short breaks to deploy axe and crampons for descent – followed by the 5km walk out. Late back to the car (later than Iain) and very late back into Aberdeen (which is a long way from anywhere at the best of times).
Fresh Snow Fall: Drumochter Hills East. Fresh snow down to 400m, which made for hard going underfoot, particularly where the snow had collected on lee slopes. The day started beautifully, but the cloud gradually moved in and by the time I headed down, the wind had picked up sufficiently to be blowing the loose snow around, rapidly covering over any tracks left by those who had been out on the plateau during the day. It had that ‘I’m the last person out here’ feeling as I descended towards the road.
That ‘Perfect’ Winter Day: No words needed, really! Drumochter Hills West this time. Stunning, stunning day with amazing light conditions. It was so beautiful that it was ‘otherworldly’.
The conditions underfoot were not quite as tiring as the previous week, The crust of snow was not strong enough to support any weight, so I was constantly sinking in where there were accumulations, and the tops were scoured by (surprise, surprise) the high winds of the past few days, leaving an icy underlay with a light covering of snow over it.
The Last Day Out: The final fling. By this point we knew that it was inevitable that the mountains were going to be ‘closed down’. All the signs were there. We headed for the Eastern Cairngorms, where we climbed Beinn a’Bhuird. Conditions were pretty much perfect, and the mountain was pretty much deserted, even better underfoot than previously. The sight of the snow-bound, ethereal beauty of the main Cairngorm massif was deeply moving. It was a bittersweet experience, knowing that we would have to accept that we were not going to see these mountains for a very long time, but that we were incredibly privileged to be out there right there and then.
Winter was set to continue: the winter seasons are so inconsistent now that you can never know from one year to the next whether a proper winter in the mountains will happen at all. That’s why any opportunity needs to be seized – never wait, as in addition, winter conditions can be really fickle: here one day, gone the next. So to be aware that winter in the mountains was continuing as we entered lockdown was tough, as tough as effectively losing our freedom.* But in the end, as with most things in life, the present situation is only a ‘passing thing’ (J.R.R. Tolkien). I will be back.
*Of course, the lack of freedom is but a minor gripe (I am not unaware of this) when so many others are going through extremely difficult times due to the pandemic.
[Note: ‘Let it Snow!’ was written by Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne in 1945 and has been released several times (Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin were amongst those who recorded their own versions). J.R.R. Tolkien’s Samwise Gamgee, on the miserable journey through Mordor, briefly sees a star appear: ‘[…] the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.’ (Return of the King).]
My thoughts are with all those whose lives have been impacted by the devastating effects of COVID-19.
Places Wild and High will resume guiding in accordance with the recommendation of government and professional bodies. Please do not hesitate to contact me if you have any queries relating to potential future guided days.
November 2019: We saw a lot of rain this month – which is surprising for the NE of Scotland as usually this side of the country tends to be significantly drier than the West. And with the rain comes the grey skies. Aberdeen, affectionately nicknamed ‘The Granite City’, is built of grey granite – beautiful on a bright day when the sun catches the mica, but day after day after week of overcast, leaden skies and grey buildings results in a sombre environment. Then the temperature dropped too …
So … I abandoned the NE for a few days out in the far NW:
Above: Ascent of Cul Mor, Assynt.
Suilven from Canisp
Above: Atmospheric views from Canisp (as a front closes in).
There’s something very special about the light quality in the far NW:
‘Ne’er Cast A Clout Till May Be Out’ is an old adage that is well-known and often quoted throughout Britain. The rhyme was originally recorded by Dr Thomas Fuller in 1732 in his Gnomologia, while the version cited above appears in F.K. Robertson’s Whitby Gazette of 1855. The word ‘clout’ refers to clothing (think ‘clootie dumpling’, the traditional Scots fruit pudding which is boiled in a cloth). The implied meaning is not to cast off your winter clothing until ‘May Be Out’. The latter half of the phrase is widely debated, the typical interpretation being that one should wait until ‘end of May’ before storing all those winter clothes. However, the hawthorn tree in days gone by was known as ‘May’ or the ‘May Tree’ and hence it is thought that the saying relates to when the hawthorn puts forth blossom rather than referring to the end of the month.
There were very definitely no flowers on the local hawthorn trees when I left Aberdeen for the West. In fact, on arrival at Ratagan, ten minutes sitting at the lochside with the odd swift hail shower ushered in on a northerly inclined wind was enough to convince me that it was better to admire any views from inside the parked car while I waited for the rest of the expedition party.
A through-route always requires logistics. This occasion involved four people travelling from two different cities, two cars, three persons’ worth of luggage for a weekend of mountaineering as well as full packs for all four of us for the two day exped. The result was a major reshuffle of a hair-raising amount of luggage (a staggering proportion of it was food) before the car that was going to take us up to our start point was finally ready to depart.
Like any good expedition there was a just a hint of nervousness in the air as Joan (Thoughtful Navigation, A Very Special Client…) drove the 70 odd miles round to the River Affric car park. This was a serious birthday expedition (Happy Birthday, Mary!) – serious in the sense that all the formalities of a birthday ‘feast’ supplies were to be carried with us to the very remote hostel (the cake was the only thing that didn’t go with us). Pauline (When Grahams Come Into Their Own) was carrying a bottle of champagne, while I had the evening’s main meal – carefully prepared stuffed peppers, with accompanying tahini sauce. After painstakingly preparing everything the night before, I had been somewhat taken aback to realise that the filled peppers were extremely heavy. As Mary (The Tale Of Mary And Tom Buidhe) pointed out: that’s what happens when couscous is hydrated… Mary seemed to have a very good supply of gin and mixers with her… she certainly had sufficient to allow for a very civilised G&T with her lunch the following day.
Disembarking at the carpark was a shock to the system. It was cold, damp and felt slightly raw. ‘Be bold, start cold’ is a common saying in mountaineering circles, but we all ignored that pearl of wisdom and layers were piled on. Still semi-seriously considering downing the champagne, and a few gins for good measure before setting off – until one of us pointed out that we probably would be too insensible to even find our way out of the car park – we headed off. A backward glance at the car, and then forward – and we were committed to our adventure.
The Affric Kintail Way actually starts in Drumnadrochit, wends its way to Cannich and then up to Glen Affric (Gaelic: Gleann Afraig. Glen of the Dappled Woodlands) itself. The Glen is generally considered one of the most beautiful in Scotland: it is a National Nature Reserve and also a Caledonian Forest Reserve. Despite its beauty, the Glen has not been left untouched by development, forming part of a hydroelectric scheme. The original proposals (dating from as early as 1928) suggested that Lochs Affric and Beinn a’Mheadhoin should be joined to make one huge dam. But eventually it was the parallel glen to the north where the River Cannich was dammed in 1951, flooding and drastically expanding the original Loch Mullardoch. From there the water runs via an underground power station and by tunnel to Loch Beinn a’Mheadhoin (also dammed) in Glen Affric. Then the water travels by tunnel to the Fasnakyle power station near Cannich. Loch Affric remains natural. Due to good management and some foresight, the Glen has survived well as a natural living landscape, despite the intrusions of the hydroelectric scheme. The Forestry Commission (now Forestry and Land Scotland) took up management of the Glen in 1951 and, in the wake of the Second World War, after initially starting to grow non-native trees for commercial timber purposes, had the good fortune to be managed by one Finlay Macrae: an enlightened forester, Macrae repopulated the Glen with native Caledonian pines. During his time at Affric it is estimated that he planted some 8 million seeds. The development and preservation of natural forest continued as priority with careful management of red deer numbers on the estate and the eventual removal of all commercial timber plantations. As a consequence, the native forest mixture of Caledonian pine, birch, alder, rowan, hazel, and juniper flourishes here.
This section of the Affric-Kintail was has always been a traveller’s route – and also old drovers’ route (cattle were driven from Skye to markets (trysts) in the south via these glens). The lonely atmosphere that we prize so much as modern people came at a price for those that lived here during the time of the clearances. There remains little trace of human history along the way: the odd lonely ruin reminds of the existence of people and hints at the importance of this route in the past. We followed the track along the south shore of Loch Affric weaving amongst beautiful wooded areas and eventually emerging at the far end, where the trees fade out and the scenery becomes bleak. We crossed the bridge, passed Strawberry Cottage and continued on our way, eventually reaching Alltbeithe (Birch Stream) Youth Hostel mid-evening.
On arriving we were greeted by the news that the only two twin rooms in the hostel were available for upgrade if we wished – good news indeed – none of us was going to turn that opportunity down! The excellent custodian of the hostel, Hannah, gave us the complete tour of the place and in no time at all (it is after all a very small hostel!) our little party settled down in the common room area for G&Ts, champagne and food (I was immensely grateful to see those stuffed peppers disappear – that would make a difference to my load tomorrow. I’m sure that Pauline felt the same about the bottle of champagne). Hannah spends three weeks on duty and then one week back at home during the months that Alltbeithe is open. She has wonderful tales to tell about experiences at this remote hostel and is responsible for the running of the place, having the exact skillset for the post: from clearing blockages in the stove chimney (no mean feat) to advising unprepared travellers, to exquisite embroidery skills that feature on cards for sale , she is resourceful, hospitable and completely at home with the vastness of the surrounding landscape and remoteness of Alltbeithe.
The weather on our first day had been pretty benign, but as we set out from Alltbeithe, the initial sunshine disappeared, the cloud base lowered and we were soon subjected to intermittent hail, sleet and snow showers. It was cold, no two ways about it. Alltbeithe, as I looked back, seemed dwarfed by the immenseness of the scenery. We followed the track upwards towards the Fionngleann. The sprawl of Beinn Fhada and, to the south, the distinctive shape of Ciste Dhudh dominated either side of us initially. We headed past Camban Bothy, after which the track turns into a path, reaching the watershed by Cnoc Biodaig not long after.
Twisting and winding, up and down over moraines, scenery around us was changing from the bleakness of the more open glen to the spectacular vistas of Kintail. Eventually the path started its descent towards Gleann Lichd, passing a spectacular waterfall and taking us down, down, down, only about 300m of descent, but feeling like much more.
We could spy Glenlicht house in the distance and eventually it loomed large in front of us, complete with a change in weather. Naturally it was warmer lower down, and we were more sheltered, but suddenly the sun decided to put in an appearance as we powered our way up the Glen, towards Morvich. The final sting in the tail, however, was the 5km walk on the road (including a stint on the main road) to retrieve my car.
The encounter with warmth was to be shortlived. As I drove Joan back to the River Affric carpark to retrieve her car, I watched in disbelief as the temperature gauge on the car steadily dropped from a reasonable 12C at Ratagan to 2C at Cannich – and then 1C as we approached the car park. The possible-ice-on-road warning light had come on by this stage and it was trying to snow. I was highly appreciative of my winter jackets that I had selected for this trip – not a luxury, but rather more of a necessity: ‘ne’er cast a clout till May be oot’ certainly rang true on this occasion.
[Finlay Macrae had been a student of Professor H.M. Steven (Aberdeen), who was joint author (with A. Carlisle) of The Native Pinewoods of Scotland – which highlighted the significance of Glen Affric.
Since the last post on this blog back in November my outdoor activities have been somewhat curtailed by Achilles tendon problems. Whatever the reason (whether the problem has its roots in too much running on tarmac when I was in training for a high peak a few years ago or whether related to the more recent knee problem of 2018), I was back in physiotherapy over the winter. Having learnt many valuable lessons about recovery last year (Coming Back From Injury), I was tentatively back on the hill in February with a view to building up length of days and general mountain fitness. But, as ever, several factors conspired to prevent those planned regular visits to the mountains. The weather for a start. Without fail, every time I looked at the mountain forecast through much of March the wind speeds were sufficiently high for me to abandon any thought of any shortish hill day, never mind a more lengthy one. Throw into the mix a cat who went in for major surgery at the beginning of April, and who required round the clock care for a few weeks (top priority of course, poor little guy), and it was pretty much impossible to get out on a regular basis. However, what it did mean was that the few days I did eventually manage were even more appreciated than usual – and the fact that I was out in the mountains, the fact that my Achilles tendons were not troubling me made those few days extremely precious ones.
The ability to navigate is a vital skill for any mountain-goer. Many people tend to rely on GPS systems (either a dedicated unit, or a phone app), but these items are no real substitute for map and compass – and knowing how to use them. The reasons why map and compass are still the best tools for navigation are many – and a discussion on this would turn this post into a very different blog (maybe best kept for another day!) – so I am just going to focus on a rather ‘unusual’ reason why using a map over a GPS is better – a reason that is perhaps the antithesis of a process that is perceived to be a very much structural and logic based.
Navigation can be defined as: ‘the science of determining position, course, and distance travelled during a journey and hence advising on the best course to be steered or taken.’ Put very simply, while out in the mountains we calculate the time taken to travel from one location to the next by working out the distance and the amount of ascent. There are various formulae available to help us to do this, such as the famous Naismith’s rule. Micronavigation is applied over shorter distances, and we make use of strategies such as pacing distance. As you might expect, close study of features appearing on the map is required. How you make use of those features to get you from A to B and then eventually to your final goal is a fascinating exercise, one that usually has several route options and is a skill that can be developed – and refined – through experience. The ultimate test for any mountain navigator is to put these skills to the test in poor visibility or during hours of darkness.
Nothing like featureless plateau for testing those navigation skills…
Compass bearings and pacing required here!
To closely observe the landscape around you and to relate it to what the map shows you is the key to knowing where you are. It takes practice to do this – particularly while you’re chatting away, to be able to still be making note of what the ground is doing under your feet (‘there was a gradual gradient, then flattening out, and finally a very steep section…’) – and while this sounds like a chore, a distraction from enjoying your day of freedom in the hills, it actually encourages you to relate more intimately to your environment. It helps you to develop a very close understanding of the shape of the mountains, the approaches to them. It helps you to make sense of the landscape and what it really ‘means’. Routes start to make better sense.
And as you become more connected to what is happening under your feet, you develop a better awareness of the many different mountain terrains that exist. You are more aware of the sequence of different sections of the route. The detailed observation of the landscape around you enhances the whole day. It’s almost a ‘mindfulness’ activity. Being in the here and now. Engaging with the landscape as you walk through it. Switching awareness between the far horizon, the mid ground and the foreground (and noting how the scope of horizon, mid ground and foreground is also affected by location and weather). Noting landmarks that are relevant and personal to you is almost like creating and memorising a secret trail.
It is this walking with awareness that truly fosters the understanding of the mountain environment and also encourages deeper engagement with it. Once you observe the shape of the land through the medium of your feet (i.e., walking it), the map makes better sense.
The photos that go with this post show that we had a very mixed day for our navigation work back in October. It was windy at first, but the wind speed significantly dropped as the day progressed. There was low cloud sweeping along and hiding the higher tops as we approached the col between Carn an t-Sagairt Beag and Carn an t-Sagairt Mor. Navigation in poor visibility was definitely the order of the day at first, but later the cloud lifted and we enjoyed some wonderful Autumn scenery. It wasn’t quite the full day of navigation in poor visibility that would have been desirable, but the views were more than worth paying the price for lack of low cloud base. After all, there’s always another day….
(Many congratulations to Joan whose careful and accurate navigation took us via some rather featureless terrain up to White Mounth, around the tops and summit and safely back down to Invercauld Bridge. The definition of navigation is taken from The Longman New Universal Dictionary, ed. Paul Procter (1982).)
More navigation practice last week: out in the Glen Clova area … this time with not-so-good visibility up high (ideal for putting all those navigational techniques to the test) … and finishing with a hefty shower that started 20 minutes before we got back to the cars. After the last time (A Very Special Client), when the temperatures had soared to ridiculous levels, neither Joan, Harris the Dog or I were complaining!
January 2018: I’m out in Glen Tanar, approximately 9km from the car park, up around 600m or so. It’s a January day, the temperature hovering around freezing. There’re some very hard snow patches around but the main issue for us is the icy surface of the track. I catch the front point of my right crampon as I’m going slightly downhill. I try to get the other foot through to stop the trip but because I’m on crampons it takes a split second longer to move the left foot (due to the weight, and the slightly ‘higher’ effect of being on spikes) and I’m not able to stop my fall. I come down on both knees, but the right knee bears the brunt of the fall onto the rocky, frozen ground. Probably one of the worst surfaces I could have picked. As I fall I twist (crampon falls are often twisting ones) and crash down, gravity and the weight of my winter-loaded rucksack driving and grinding the knee into the unkind surface. The pain is immediate and I roll (as best I can) onto my back in reaction to the impact. For a few seconds I lie there as my nerve network clocks what’s happened. My companion, who is slightly ahead, turns to see whether I’m alright. I try to get up but feel so sick and dizzy that I collapse back onto the track. After what seems like an age (but probably wasn’t) I drag myself backwards, to park my backside on the embankment at the side of the track and sit there. Failure to get up from where I’m sitting is simply not an option. I need to be able to walk out of this. ‘Broken knee cap, broken knee cap, broken knee cap’ goes through my mind like a chant. With effort I launch myself, find myself able to stand, and, miracles of miracles, my right knee takes my weight. 9km to the car, I tell myself. You have no choice. You’ll just have to do this. The knee has become a numb non-entity, but within 2km the pain is kicking in and the joint is swelling rapidly.
July 2018: I have just returned from an ‘overnight’ mountain day in the Cairngorms. Nothing too unusual in that (Moonshadows and the Devil), but a landmark in my knee’s rehabilitation programme. Until now, I hadn’t really been able to contemplate a lengthy Cairngorm day, but finally I had built up fitness and had enough confidence in my knee to head a very long way from any road and any easy option/route out. Setting off at 10pm from Linn of Dee, we crossed the Lui, then, in the deepening twilight, followed the path through the narrow defile of Clais Fhearnaig. We joined the Glen Quoich track and crossed a very low Allt an Dubh-ghleann before starting the long climb up to the Beinn a’Bhuird plateau.
February 2018: ‘You sports people are just so impatient,’ the GP curtly says to me. Three weeks later and the swelling is showing no signs of abating. If anything, it’s worse. I can barely move the leg on or off the bed, am shuffling up and downstairs on my backside and have a very strange lopsided sway when I attempt to walk.
8 weeks, I’m told, until this calms down – and then there are no guarantees that there’s no damage. A few weeks later, the physio suggests that there may be a problem with the medial ligament, possibly a tear, but nothing is confirmed. The joint is still too swollen for the experts to be able to work out what the damage is and whether a full recovery is feasible. By the end of the month, I’m going stir crazy with the enforced rest and decide to give the gym a go – very gentle, careful exercise, of course. I discover that I can hardly shift the cross trainer with my legs when it’s on level 0. Using my arms to get moving helps, in fact I end up dependent on them. A quiet yelp escapes every time my right leg moves round… perhaps this is just a tad too advanced for me right now… Meanwhile, Iain has clocked up some crazy mileage on his cross trainer, having forced himself to do some ridiculous pace, is bright red in the face, gasping for breath and virtually collapsing over the top of the machine. Any minute now the gym staff will call the paramedics … how I envy him….
July 2018: As overnight ventures go, this one was nothing short of spectacular. Being this far north we never had full darkness. The stars slowly appeared, pale silver pinpricks struggling to make themselves seen in the light summer night. Mars was clearly visible at one point, unmistakeable with its red glow. Towards the end of our sustained climb, the waning quarter moon appeared over the shoulder of the mountain and as we approached the edge of the Corrie, the mist was rising upwards, with pre- sunrise hues painting the North Eastern skies, while the lochans down below reflected the moonlight above. Over to the North Summit the colours grew more intense around us. A herd of deer grazing near the summit were certainly very startled to see us and moved off rapidly. The mist brewed and boiled down below in the glens and corries. The sunrise gradually progressed, the paler shades deepening and preparing for the stunning, red ball of fire that eventually lifted itself above the horizon. The moon started to lose its wonderful silvery sheen and the power of its light diminished as it became a whiter shadow of itself.
March 2018: ‘You’ve been overdoing it again,’ my very astute physio says to me accusingly. ‘You MUST learn to pace yourself otherwise you’ll not allow the knee to recover.’ I thought I’d done quite well to hide the limp that morning. I’d recently been allowed to start horse riding once again, all good and fine … only I hadn’t just gone for a short hack that particular morning, oh no … I’d also limped my way at snail’s pace around a local mini forest walk, being rapidly overtaken by shuffling elderly Labradors who looked at me as if to say ‘Why on earth are you slower than us? Your problem is…???’ and also a lady supported by two sticks who’d just had a double hip replacement (after I explained why I was so slow, she proceeded to tell me with great enthusiasm: ‘Oh yes, knee injuries are absolutely the worst to recover from.’). The result? One twinging, unhappy right knee. And one severe talking-to, which I totally deserved.
July 2018: The wonderful experiences continued with the inversion that had firmly established itself with the high Cairngorm peaks visible above the clouds while the cliffs of the corrie were beautifully delineated in the glass clear early morning light.
We reluctantly began our descent (the most testing part of the journey for my knee), feeling the warmth of the sun rapidly ramp up. A mountain hare abruptly sprang out of the grass: we had been so close to him that we could, for a brief second, see in detail his eyes, whiskers, nose and coat. Clearly a youngster, he raced off down the path ahead of us. The temperature was rapidly climbing and we gratefully dropped down into the cloud that was resting in the glen, making things far more bearable. This just left the walk out, with that very surreal feeling that comes with finishing a lengthy mountain ‘day’ when everyone else is just starting theirs.
May 2018: Finally, after four months of recovery, I’m allowed back in the mountains. My downhill muscles are pretty much non-existent, but I was very pleased to have managed a 6 hour day in the Drumochter Hills as my first attempt.
Between March and May I learnt a lot about accepting my limitations and how vital it was to allow my knee to recover. I also learnt how to listen to my knee and to know when to push through discomfort or when to recognise that my knee was telling me that it really wasn’t happy. This was as much about managing my head as it was my injury. When the knee was back to its normal size, it was only really at that point that the physio was able to confirm that I’d been extremely lucky and that there was no damage to ligaments or tendons. Building back up to full fitness was now the challenge.
July 2018: My knee stood up to this fairly hefty mountain day with only a few gripes and twinges. I will still have to work towards being able to carry a full pack with all my camping gear, but given the unevenness of some of the paths, the challenge of walking in limited visibility on the said uneven ground, the amount of ascent and length of day, my knee is pretty much there in terms of recovery. I’m extremely fortunate that there was no long-term damage. I’ve had to learn to be extremely patient and only push myself to do things when the knee was ready for it… both my head and impatience were clearly a major deterrent at the start of the recovery process. However, it wasn’t just the frustration of not being able to do mountaineering (or the other physical activities that are an intrinsic part of my life – such as riding and, to a much lesser extent, running), it was the being deprived of the wild outdoors environment that is so much a part of my being. I had to avoid looking west towards the distant hills for a few months and completely confine myself to Aberdeen and its environs. Here the riding saved me and allowed me at least that vital sense of being in touch with the world of forests and fields.
So there we have it: Beinn a’Bhuird marks my return to a good level of mountain fitness. I’m still working on other areas (such as running and strengthening the knee for riding), but as long as I’m patient and sensible, I’ll get there. Recovery is a journey in itself.
[Many thanks to my fantastic physiotherapists who helped me on my road to recovery and didn’t put up with any nonsense from me. And a very, very big thank-you to the wonderful Flash who looked after me so carefully when I was able to start riding again. Thanks to Flash’s owners too, who managed to find a ‘mounting block’ that was high enough to allow me and dodgy knee to get on board, also to my hacking buddy, KB, who kept a careful eye on me … and finally, I am grateful to Hugh, Jen and Joan for suggesting various gym exercises that have helped – and will continue to help – no end.]