I took the first tumble of the year in this morning’s long shadows.
January’s low, cool sun accompanied me for seven miles along an empty coastal path. It was time and space enough to reflect at last on the year that has just ended. The year of words.
I’ve been absent here because work words took priority. They also took their toll. The day job on a newspaper; editing of broadcast interviews; tweaking the novel; updating Twitter; and checking in on Facebook . It left my eyes screen-saturated and begging for darkness.
There were a few short adventures in the hills I would have shared: a remote summer camp beside a Highland loch and autumn days spent climbing high for views above Scotland. But they were too few. My whole focus last year was on work. On not stumbling.
And now I’m faced with an enforced break. I have annual leave I need to use or lose, so tentative planning has begun for three weeks in New Zealand, a mix of catching up with family, wilderness walking and work.
When I tumbled this morning (to a soft landing), my head was somewhere along the Kepler Track, the high ridge route I walked with my son last time I visited. I was mentally packing my rucksack, locating my tent , boots, head torch and sleeping mat. Scotland’s mud and ice were 12,000 miles away. And then, quite spectacularly, they weren’t.
Happy New Year.
Camino Portuguese Day 4
The map indicated a mountain of Himalayan proportions; a near vertical climb to the top of the Alto da Portela Grande. It was a route grandly described as a “high pass over the mountain ridge”.
And then I looked carefully at the contour lines and realised the summit was only 405m high, which in Scotland barely counts as a hill at all. However a heavy pack meant the rutted track through the trees was heart-thumpingly steep, and the Spanish cyclists who’d whizzed past me 30 minutes earlier shouting a cheery “Buen Camino” had to lift their bikes and manoeuvre them shoulder-high over the rocks. Their noisy machismo and bravado had long since evaporated by the time I’d caught up.
I took a deep breath, changed gear and left them in my wake, pausing for just a few seconds at the stone Cruz dos Francese in the woods near the top. The final push at last brought views into the Coura river valley far below.
But there was no time to linger. More bites on my face this morning meant I needed to reach laundry facilities where I could boil bedding and clothes then roast any lingering bugs in a tumble drier. It took some imaginative miming to explain to the Portuguese manager of the next albergue that I would only stay if he had the necessary machines. We went on a tour and found the essential white appliances then (since i was the first person at the hostel) I stood right there, removed my clothes and emptied them and the contents of my pack into the contraption and turned the dial to maximum. I scurried away in a towel to the shower to wait until they’d done their work.
And so to the bliss and peace of a clean bed. I’d chosen a quiet corner away from the known snorers but when I returned to the dorm at 9.30pm I discovered the neighbouring bunk was now occupied by the notorious Portuguese Snorer, a man many people have changed hostels to avoid. True to form his bed was already vibrating to deep guttural roars.
I rammed earplugs deep into my head and pulled the pristine bedding over my face. The promise of peace was destroyed. This was going to be another long night .
Cappuccinos at 3500ft? Oh, yes please.
The frothy powder was the propellent that spurred my wearying legs up the fourth mountain peak of the day. We sheltered behind peak three’s cairn to munch doorstep sandwiches and chocolate while the chill wind blustered, numbing our hands and cooling the drinks.
By evening the day had mellowed to sun and long autumnal shadows when whole hillsides moved with herds of red deer and bounding mountain hares. Occasionally a ptarmigan dodged between the rocks while, high above us, skeins of early geese wheeled in from Scandinavia.
Spot-on map reading was provided by my son (who didn’t inherit his navigational skills from his mother).
For sure, a day to remember.
The cool waters of the Yellowstone River flowed around my legs. I was wearing waders, casting half-heartedly for the fabled cutthroat trout as I gazed over the still meadows and up at the mountains in this paradise setting of “A River Runs Through”. All was quiet in the searing afternoon heat but for the trickle of the water on stones. There was no shade. No fish. No animals. No other fisherman in sight.
When I turned I realised I did have company. The lone bison who’d been napping earlier was now wide awake, considerably closer and grazing only feet away at the edge of the river. He filled the entire frame of my vision and I froze.
Do bison swim? I rapidly spooled back through childhood cowboy movies to scenes of herds fording rivers and concluded they’d certainly move faster in deep water than I would in my waders. Or even without them. So I sidled slowly away and he watched with one eye but barely lifted his head. A bit like Ferdinand the Bull, it was just too hot to bother.
Yellowstone has pink stone too, and rocks of orange and red and white. But Yellowstone it is. A natural wonder.
When dawn is breaking at 04.15 and the sun’s rays are just starting to inch their way down the rocky mountain tops, it isn’t easy to walk away from the wilderness.
I’d been camping out in the remote wilds of Fisherfield in Scotland’s far north west for two nights, climbing some of the most inaccessible hills in the country, and it was time to leave.
My friends tents were motionless in the half light; the inhabitants still asleep. Quietly I packed up my dew-sodden shelter, stuffed the gear into my rucksack and set off on the track between the sprawling lochs and hills. What a morning to be alive and alone.
At the first loch I unhooked my pack, washed my face in the soft peaty water, stowed my jacket and sized up the last of my food store: just an orange and a tiny breakfast bar. The walk would take at least five hours so I delayed my feast and crossed the stone causeway between two lonely stretches of water.
I heard the cuckoo calling and startled a few red deer as my boots grazed the stones of the rough path. And as I walked I tried to think of other mornings in my life that had felt as magical and momentous as this one. The early hours when my children were born are unforgettable, of course; there’s a string of dawns spent walking out from a corrie camp one romantic summer many decades ago that merge into one; and most nostalgic of all are the occasional early mornings of an idyllic childhood when my father woke me early to walk with him up to our high fields to collect the cows for the early milking. I recall anxious swallows swooping with food for their young in the eaves of the barns and the otherwise stillness of summer dawn as I held Dad’s hand and we walked up the road. I remember my sandshoes getting damp on dewy grass, the herd rustling and impatient at the gate and the precious feeling that no-one else in the world was up this early.
There was no-one else up early in Fisherfield either. I didn’t meet a soul for hours.
And I resolved to make more morning memories.
The hills lure you from every window in the wild rocky paradise of Assynt, and even in the rain the view from our hostel dorm to the massive hulk of Quinag was mesmerising. We dodged the stormy weather for a gentle evening stroll through rainbows to a chambered cairn just up the glen then decided to climb Stac Pollaidh next morning. It’s only 612m high but ranks 10/10 for drama.
It was a steep but short ascent and once we reached our high vantage we gazed over to the distant, outlandish rocks of Suilven, Ben Mor Coigach, Cul Beag and Canisp until their ancient outlines were imprinted in our minds, certain to call us back. Read more
Wild squalls blustered down to batter us at an exposed 3400ft and swathes of swirling mist chose that moment to lock down all the views. But at the first glimpse of the white stuff in the corries to the north I knew snowball fights were inevitable. Equally predictable, once the missiles were fired, was my role as a human shield. Mothers know their place even when the “kids” are nearing 30.
Solitary Ben Wyvis lies midway on the road to Scotland’s west coast from Inverness. It’s not a magnificent hill; it can’t boast fine lines or soaring crags, but (on a fine day) it’s renowned for the extensive vistas to east and west. I’ve driven past it for 35 years and yesterday we climbed it on a day of rain, mist, gale-force wind and the very occasional blink of weak sunshine.
So it’s not for a fine panorama of Highland scenery that I’ll cherish the day, but the rare company of both my boys. The younger one is home from New Zealand for a brief visit and the three of us were on a long-promised Highland hike. Tents, sleeping bags, food, stoves, rucksacks and three full-sized adults were stuffed into my Mini and we headed north to a soundtrack of atrocious weather forecasts.
The tents remained unpacked and instead we retreated to climbers’ hostels with their accompanying pubs, pool tables, wifi and big industrial kitchens. Yet the hills still beckoned even when we couldn’t see them for the torrential rain or misted-up windows. We reviewed our ambitions and instead of aiming for long multi-mountain circuits we chose Ben Wyvis. We strolled gently through dripping birch woods; followed tumbling Highland streams to lower slopes then climbed steep stone steps as views teased and then evaporated.
Mist soared upwards in spins and wisps then closed in to hide everything but the few feet in front of us. Then suddenly we were up on the broad high ridge that stretches for a couple of kilometres along to the peak of Glas Leathad Mor. A rocky outcrop gave shelter to munch sandwiches and chocolate then we piled on every last piece of warm clothing to reach the cairn at the far end of the ridge. The thick snow that lay clumped and accessible in the corries was an entertaining distraction from the cold and wet. A solitary ptarmigan disguised as a rock made a dash from his hiding hole then sat stock still as we watched and took pictures. Pints in the bar and fish and chips were our reward then card games and drams from a hip flask entertained us. I was in my bunk long before the boys (ok, men) but wakened to the sight of their sleeping heads on nearby pillows. It has been a while so yes, I know it’s soppy and I’m biased, but it was the best view of the week.