Monday, 18 August 2014

Walking and learning

Walking 300 miles through mountains and lowlands was a new experience for me. I'd never travelled so far on foot or been outdoors so long. I'm not sure I learned anything completely new, but that's not to say I didn't end up any wiser. It's one thing to be told something (however often), another to work it out for yourself first-hand, when your well-being depends on it. So, here are a few insights, lessons, and things I came to understand a little better during the walk.

1. You can't force the pace
At least, not too much. The weather and the landscape are going to do their own thing. They don't care about what you think you need. Then you realise that you're only flesh and blood too: another part of nature. Some days are wet, miserable, hard going. Other days may be not so onerous but you're just not quite so up for it, the energy isn't there, you feel lethargic; or you may be feeling it from a big day previously. I got better at tuning in to myself and my surroundings, knowing when to cut my losses and ease up, stop early.

Of course there were also days of fair weather and endless evening fade-outs, uplifting days when feet seemed to have wings and the land was a frozen symphony of light and texture, depth and distance, glorious and all-encompassing. On those days it could be hard to stop! I remember especially the walk from Balquhidder Station to Stuc a'Chroin. A hot sunny afternoon segued into a magnificent late evening as I walked the ridge from Beinn Each to the Stuc. The lowering sun mixed it up with ever-evolving banks of low misty cloud to dazzling - and achingly soft - effect. It was nearly dark by the time I got the Trailstar up, by Lochan a'Chroin.

A bit of patience and resilience goes a long way. Keep your shape, and remember that it has to stop raining and blowing eventually.

2. Human-friendly route planning
You need to allow for the unexpected, and for things like bad weather that are expected but unpredictable. I didn't build in enough leeway. In the wildest parts of the walk, from the Cairnwell through to Tyndrum, the daily distances I planned out were too much, over a lot of merciless terrain. I needed a couple of extra 'wild card' days built in to this part of the walk, and a rest day at Kingshouse might have enabled me to recuperate enough to take on the Black Mount.

Cruach Ardrain
As a result of this over-optimism in timing and route planning, I was forced to cut corners on the watershed route and missed a few summits. Which brings me to a bigger question: should I have committed myself to a watershed route in the first place? Possibly not, and I wouldn't do so again. Apart from the physical demands of a consistently high-level, off-trail route, I also discovered that on a long-distance route I need variety - not just to allow physically less demanding days, but also to keep the mind and spirit engaged. Hillwalking is great, but so is walking through glens, passes, and woods. Off-trail is exciting, but a day of easy, flowing movement along a good path can be wonderful too.

Compromising on the original idea of walking the exact watershed all the way was disappointing, but I ended up with a route that was right for me, I think. The Black Mount traverse - it was a shame to miss that, though.

3. How freedom works
Here it starts to get curiously contradictory. I remember a few years ago meeting a musician who made his living travelling Europe in a motor home, gigging and recording wherever the work came up. He'd made a conscious decision not to become embroiled in the world of salaried careers, mortgages, and chasing after dead things.

The first thing that struck me was of course the extraordinary amount of freedom he'd engineered for himself. The second thing was the discipline and single-mindedness needed to achieve and maintain it. This really challenged the lazy conventional notions of what 'dropping out' means, that I had in the back of my mind along with all the other acquired baggage. It's not about lying back and going with the flow, which in fact is more likely to result in drifting into un-freedom (if that's a word). Quite the opposite: it takes determination, self-belief, and an ability to let other people's furrow-browed looks bounce off you. It's all the more difficult in a society that touts itself as free but becomes ever more bland and conformist, regulated and controlled, and mentally dis-eased.

Anyway, that's becoming a rant; back to the walk. Yes, it was freedom. Essentially I dropped out for five weeks, but it wasn't a doss. It was hard work, but it was self-directed work. The good sort, towards self-chosen goals. Without the goals, the freedom is only half-realised.

4. How adventure works
It occurred to me that there's a contradiction at the heart of adventure too. It's both a commitment and a relinquishing, a letting go. Head outside and keep walking, and who knows what will happen, what you'll see and who you'll meet. In committing to the walk I was letting go of something else - predictability, control. There were risks but the rewards were worth it. Committing to a future goal and living in the moment.

5. The futility of 'all or nothing' thinking 
As I said, my route didn't work out as expected. I'd wanted to walk the exact watershed all the way, so in that sense the venture was a failure. Except it didn't feel that way. At no point did I seriously consider giving up when I was forced off the watershed.

It's a curious and common human quirk to think that just because you can't do everything, you might as well do nothing. But something is always better than nothing. By the time I had to compromise on the route I was so entranced by the walk, it didn't bother me so much. I worked out pretty quickly, in fact, that the route was secondary, a means to the end of experiencing a big trek and an extended time outdoors.

6. What really matters about being outside

Challenges, firsts, bagging, conquering... Nature is so often just a backdrop onto which we project ourselves and an adventure theme park in which we prove ourselves, rather than something we belong to and are part of. Our perceived separateness from and superiority to nature is implicit in this. It's an old notion that's fraying at the edges and will continue to do so as we continue to dump the cost of our excesses on the environment, but it's still far from dead.

Before I went on this walk I was already moving away from the peak bagging mentality. It's a funny game, the Munros. The land is carved up like a Risk board into 'sections' each with a list of peaks to be bagged (sacked?). It's a curiously colonial mindset to bring to the free-flowing and boundless glories of nature and landscape.

The first night of the walk was enough to for me realise what it was all about. Camped in the woods, I lay awake for a long time in the darkness as the night came alive around me with snuffling, shuffling, and rustling, the hooting of an owl and thump of deer hooves. I experienced something bigger than me, bigger than us. We walk a thin crust over an ancient flow that's always calling us back. Being outside is simply its own reward. It's where the real life is.

I walked the Tay catchment boundary for two great charities, Scottish Wild Land Group and Venture Trust.
You can still sponsor me by making a donation to Scottish Wild Land Group here:

Saturday, 9 August 2014

Back in the box

Heat, noise, traffic, crowds: another grimy August in London. It's been six weeks since I walked out onto Tentsmuir Sands, two weeks since returning to the Smoke and the nine-to-five. Some aspects of readjusting have been tricky, that's all I'll say. Then again it's always good to get back to your own space.

After the walk was over we spent a nomadic few weeks around Scotland, splitting our time between Islay, Aviemore, a cousin in Sutherland and parents in Fife. My daughters are city kids, I have to admit - my oldest is three and she asked at least once a day: 'Why is it so quiet?'

My other half and I oversaw as she got to grips with sand, seaweed and salt water; tall grass, trees and nettles; rain, sun and wind; and sticks, stones, rock pools and rivers. She was utterly engrossed, but never still. One evening at dusk we walked out to a lighthouse and back, jumping off every boulder along the way. Out at the beach or on little walks through the woods my pockets were quickly filled up with artifacts: pebbles, pine cones, seashells, even a cold bird's egg on one occasion.

I also got away for a couple of grown-up walks in July. From our Sutherland springboard one changeable day I headed for Quinag, triple-topped sibling of Suilven, pulling over near the top of the road between Loch Assynt and Kylesku.

Quinag is owned by the John Muir Trust. Signs of their tenure and management are low-key. The stalkers' path into the range has been rebuilt, and it's a discreet, pragmatic piece of genius, a narrow and well-drained gravelly ribbon taking to the driest ground and cutting out old loops of pulverised peat, now slowly recovering.

It may be akin to Suilven and certainly looks daunting, especially in lowering cloud and driving rain; but Quinag on closer inspection is a laid-back beast, a perfect walker's mountain giving easy passage through high drama. With a light day pack and honed by five weeks of backpacking I was flying up the steep path to Sail Gharbh, highest point of the range. 

Nothing much to see, huddled into a stone windbreak at the top. The wind is wild and searching, unexpectedly cold fingers groping through gaps in the rocks. The trig point is scorched dark on one side with a great vertical crack several inches long near the base at one corner. Lightning.

On to Sail Gorm as the rain passes on. The ridge is long and easy-angled and I'm stretching out, entranced by this easy travel, a walkway in the clouds. It all comes together on the top. Lochs Glencoul and Glendhu, gateway to the gnarly backside of Assynt. I traced a backpacking route through this wilderness on the map a few days before, one or two nights. Another one for the never-ending list. Definitely some day...

The sea and sky dominate here on the frayed edges. It's an hour and a world away from the sheltered east coast of Sutherland where I came from in the morning.

Back along the ridge, clouds flying in and out. Taking my polarising filter from its case, the little foam pad is whipped away. I watch for minutes as the wind toys with it, whipping and swirling it high then low, almost back again, then finally far out of sight. I feel guilty!

This would be a perfect mountain to cut your teeth on in winter conditions. Short scrambly sections around the hub peak of the range, from which ridges radiate to the main summits, barely register in summer but could be fun and challenging under snow and ice. It would look awesome as well.

Over the central hub, heading for Spidean Coinich, peak number three. Sail Gharbh, the Rough Heel, now in view.

Sail Gharbh
Spidean Coinich: more proof, if any was needed, that height isn't everything. The lowest of the three, but repository of the mountain's character. That distinctive craggy carbuncle on the summit possibly inspired the name for the whole range. Quinag is from the Gaelic Cuinneag - stoup, in old Scots, a water vessel or bucket. From the north in particular it has the look of a lip or funnel.

The peak stands slightly apart from the rest of the range, across a low bealach. It hogs the goodies, including an inky loch at the foot of rocky terraces, topped with a shock of sand.

Over the top and down an easy-angled slabby pavement, quick and easy in the dry, apparently treacherously slippy when wet. The wind had dried out the rock nicely.

It finished in warm sun and a gentle breeze as I hit the outward path, then walked a mile along the road, dodging the motorhomes. But who could blame them.

A week later, the opposite side and opposite end of the Highlands. Coast and lowlands basked under hot sun and blue skies but large amounts of benign fluffy cloud floated over the Mounth. It was warm, uncomfortably so on the climb out of Glen Clova, but perfect on the tops, t-shirt warm with a light breeze. I didn't miss the direct sunlight.

There are some lovely corries up here. Loch Brandy is a fine halfway house on the route to the tops. From above it looks a solid glassy paperweight of a thing.

The sea is a far-off rumour here; it's all about the heft of the land.

To the west, the fringes of the Mounth drape towards the Angus lowlands. Cat Law isn't far away, the first Highland peak of the Tay watershed walk.

A new fence cuts a line across the plateau; an electric wire attached for good measure. Why? Along with hill tracks, new fences seem to be proliferating in the Highlands - at least it seemed that way during my long walk when I got pretty good at scaling seven foot deer fences. Boundary fences first went up in the Victorian heyday of sporting estates. What is prompting the current rash of fence building in this new age of toffs and inequality?

Sandwiches and malt loaf by the trig point on the Goet, Ben Tirran's highest point, then down the other side of Loch Brandy.

A shock of colour in the late afternoon.

I lingered by the loch, unwilling to let it go, unwilling to let the summer go, but eventually I turned my feet downhill as my thoughts headed south. It's been a good chapter.