HERE in Scotland we can boast of some of the most beautiful and diverse landscapes in the world. From the rolling hills of the Borders to the arctic landscapes of the Cairngorms, from the mist shrouded western isles to the wild grandeur of the northwest highlands, few would argue that this little country of ours is one of the most beautiful in Europe.
In winter that beauty is often emphasised by a covering of snow, when every gully and corrie is picked out in stark shades of black and white and mountain slopes appear as curved and sensuous lines against the blue of the sky. In such conditions I want to be amongst these mountains, I want to immerse myself in their grandeur, I want to soak in the peace of them, take from them something of their timelessness and implacable nature. Being amongst mountains simply makes me happy.
But there’s more to it than that. We live in a very sanitised, prescribed society where health and safety considerations often give the impression we should all be bubble-wrapped and protected from ourselves. We live in a grossly over-regulated country where knee-jerk reaction and a persuasive media can easily shape and bend public opinion. Many live in a nine to five regime of repetitiveness with only weekends and an annual holiday to break the monotony. It’s perhaps not surprising that an increasing number of people are discovering a respite from such lives, and that escape is often found in the wild places of Scotland in the form of adventurous activities such as mountaineering.
This sense of escapism is important and that’s why so many folk become hooked on what appears at first hand to be a completely pointless exercise of expending a lot of effort to climb to the top of a mountain, only to turn round again and come back down.
Although there are very few places on this overcrowded planet where man has not trod, there is a sense of true ‘wildness’ on our high mountains. Signs of man’s presence in minimal and in winter, under a cover of snow, that perception is heightened, when even the footpaths vanish from sight. It’s then that I can experience the fleeting nature of man’s, and my own, time on this planet against the more lasting reality of nature. Mankind, and his successes and failures, somehow seem insignificant against the age-old, slowly evolving world that gives us every sustenance and life.
That all may seem very grand and worthy, but it’s probably the core reason for my own love of mountains. But there is also the challenge, the adventure, and the risk.
Our winter mountains are not only beautiful but are often potentially dangerous. So are our cities, so are our road networks, so are our own kitchens! We wouldn’t handle bare electrical wires, we wouldn’t knowingly walk out in front of a bus, we avoid certain city streets late on a Saturday night. Winter mountaineering is like everything else – you recognise the risks and you try and manage the risks. You find out what skills you need to cut that risk to a minimum and you learn those skills. In terms of mountaineering we learn how to navigate in bad weather; we learn how to use an ice axe and crampons; we learn about avalanches and how to avoid them and we learn how to recognise that often lost instinct for survival.
In the world we live in today those base instincts rarely surface. Our bubble-wrapped society protects us too much, but expose yourself to the bare elements of nature and they will appear, like the embers of a small fire. We have to breath those embers into a full flame, to recognise again those base instincts, intuition if you like, that protected our ancestors from sabre-toothed tigers and the like. Such protective instincts are there, in every one of us, we just have to fan them into life, and we can do that by going to the mountains.
I don’t want to comment on the fatal accidents that have occurred on Scotland’s mountains this winter, other than to say that accidents do, and will continue, to happen. I will continue to try and minimise the risks I face when I go to the hills and even after 40 years of climbing mountains I’m very aware that I’m still learning. What I will leave you with is an attempt at explaining the feelings I experience when I stand on of a Scottish mountain in winter. I suppose it’s a bit like taking drugs, and when I experience it I want more.
There is considerable physical effort involved in climbing a mountain and this exercise releases endorphins in our body – a kind of feel-good natural drug. The excitement of tackling risk and challenging situations releases another natural drug called adrenaline – this heightens our awareness and sensitivity. Add that to the sheer pleasure of being in a remarkably beautiful environment and a sense of achievement and the resultant mix is highly potent. A natural high like no other that I know of, a sensation that can last for days.
The accidents in the Scottish mountains this winter have been tragic. But consider those deaths against the 6.5 million participation days every year in the Scottish mountains when hundreds of thousands of people are refreshed and rejuvenated, inspired and re-equipped to go back to their normal everyday world. We need to continue to educate and train people, we need to continue to warn people of the dangers of the hills, but we also need to put the accidents into some kind of realistic perspective.
PS Both photos taken on Beinn Liath Mhor in Torridon