We are just back from a few days on the Isle of Skye. The excuse, if any were needed, was that some friends from Seattle were also on Skye, and even offshore highland Scotland is closer than Washington state.
Yes thank you, it was an enjoyable time in excellent company though the weather could have been better. But that is not the point of this essay. Our foursome divided along conventional gender lines on one day, with Nick and I taking on the Black Cuillins whilst Sonia and Kristen toured the weavers and fabriquistes of Skye. Sometimes stereotypes are what people actually want to do, and this was one of those days. And it gives me an opportunity to lapse into the fashionable present historic tense in an attempt to explain what it is that is so uplifting, inspiring and all-round damn enjoyable about a day in the mountains.
Over morning coffee in a small café, we decide that the weather forecast has been unduly gloomy, and the day looks, well, not too bad. Shall we take a walk onto the Cullins and just see what the cloud and wind allow us to do? Oh yes.
The track from Sligachan to Glen Brittle is running wet with yesterday’s rain, but an enjoyable stomp none the less. To our left, an obstinate body of cloud sits over the highest peaks, despite a stiff nor’westerly that is becoming more and more of an environmental factor as we gradually ascend. We veer off onto the track into Fionn Choire, the ground underfoot becoming gradually more sparsely grassed and stony. Nick spots a small outcrop that should give some protection from the wind, so we sit for a few minutes to enjoy the view across to the Quirang. A couple of walkers are heading down, looking somewhat weather-beaten. One mutters darkly about not having an ice axe and crampons. In May? We can see big snow patches ahead on our intended route to Am Basteir, but crampons? We have been stationary for too long, and a raven is eyeing us up. Onwards and upwards.
Pleasant uphill walking over short turf quickly gives way to scree and rock, and the gradient increases. That wind is now distinctly cold. However, the ridge ahead is definitely getting closer. Another descending walker passes us: “Bracing” is his verdict on conditions ahead, spoken through teeth that were, if not chattering, certainly gritted. Now we are into the snow patches, stamping feet into old snow that is wet enough to provide a placement. At least there is no frozen surface crust. That would have been a turn-around point, no argument. The last few hundred feet pass in silent concentration, watching for the next few steps, keeping the balance. Suddenly we are there. The wind cranks up another 10 knots, my nose finally goes numb, and the view opens up as we top the ridge. Training kicks in: stop and look back, memorise the top of the return route so you can find it if the cloud comes in. Got that, now enjoy the view.
An ongoing suspicion of ladders notwithstanding, I seem to have lost my fear of heights over the last 10 years or so. Sitting on the ridge with my feet over the north side is perfectly comfortable, with a sweep of rock and scree falling away, flanked by dark cliffs on either side. Bla Bheinn dominates the middle distance, a jagged block of granite amongst more rounded hills beyond which the lower land fades into the sea. Photographs are taken, then Nick’s camera battery decides it has had enough, and so have we.
Descent is steep, slow and very cautious, conscious that this is when most accidents happen.
We pick our way in a series of broad zig-zags, eager to get down out of the wind which is now straight into our faces, but taking no chances. Gradually the snow gives way to rock, and the rock to thin patches of grass. There is time to relax a little, to photograph a tiny Alchemilla species that I noted on the way up.
As the gradient eases, it becomes possible to walk normally, bouncing down a good path, gradually feeling warmer. My back is beginning to ache in the usual places, a warning that sitting will be miserable for the next 24 hours. What the hell, this has been worth it. We rejoin the Glen Brittle path, flanking the green and white waters of Allt Dearg Mor, and thoughts turn to Seumas’s Bar. I think we can get there in an hour, Nick thinks 40 minutes. In the event, it was 52 minutes, so honours are even. At an outside table in the sunshine, I can lean my aching back against the pub wall, and look forward to a hot shower after this pint of Corncrake has put the seal on an excellent day in the hills.
We did other things, such as ambling up Glen Sligachan and watching white-tailed eagles and dolphins off Portree. Mainly, we chatted and caught up on the intervening years. But there is something about a good day up a rocky mountain, preferably one big enough that the upper reaches feel materially different to the world below. It is the human equivalent of turning the everyday world off then turning it on again. Sometimes it really does seem to work better.