02 Nov Let’s take a stroll in the hills
I wake up at seven, dark and rain on the windows but my twice-a-week walk on The Cobbler is overdue, I need to visit my local wild place with the dogs.
I get to the Cobbler (Beinn Arthur, 3000-footer) as the rain slashes down, and take a grim pleasure in putting on my gear. A couple of other people are lingering by their cars, they hang back as I head for the woods. I make fast time to the top of the conifers, ignoring the pain in my legs and push on without stopping, up the old tramway section. Near the top a man walks past me down the track, he’s decided to quit and gives a wry smile as he goes by, you’ll do the same is what he’s thinking.
When I get to the flat section of the track at around a thousand feet I go left to the main corrie, and the rain is now driving in my face. I get to the small dam in poor morning light, the sky is like lead. Ahead the mountain is swathed in thick cloud, I’m already at cloud base.
Now I see why the lone walker has turned back. The burn is in spate, at least 10 feet higher than normal, the usually quiet stream is a white-water torrent. All the small gulleys which generally are dry, are now full of foaming brown water crashing into the main burn. I’ve never seen the valley like this before.
So we go on. The dogs carefully ford some small rivulets to show me how its done, looking back to see if I’m following, and gradually we make progress. It is possible alright, and we progress carefully. It has stopped raining, I’m alone and its a good feeling. Following the roaring burn I finally get to the big boulders, skirt carefully through the boggy peat and now we have to face crossing the river. How are we going to do it? At last I see a possible place where the river is narrowed to around 6 feet, pouring with amazing force between a high spot on the bank and a ridge of rock. I could jump it here and if I don’t fall back into the torrent I’m over in one.
What about the dogs, though. Well I’ll see how I get on, if I can’t make it the question is academic. OK, standing on the edge I wish I could take a run but there isn’t room. The water is raging past within a few feet of me, its disorientating looking down. I suddenly think of Papua New Guinea, the last place I did this kind of jump, but it was a lot warmer. I think, now or never, do it. I take off and immediately regret it, this is not smart at all. My left boot bangs onto the mossy target rock several feet short of where I expected, skids off, right foot is grabbed by the water and in an instant I’m being pulled back by the river; but I find a handhold too and I’m safe. Jesus.
I look behind and my crazy golden retriever Angus is in the act of jumping into the burn, then he’s gone, whipped away in turbulent swirling water. I see a flash of brown, that’s him but he didn’t surface. I think he’ll be smacked into the boulders. Then miraculously the stream spits him out, 20 yards down where it swings left to spin him into quiet water, and he drags himself out like something Jurassic, slicked and gleaming, coughing and cursing, and runs up to me wagging his tail and barking.
Which leaves Misty, and I have to get her as being a more intelligent dog she won’t jump. I take off my sack, get the two leads and the orange sling from the bottom of the bag, and knot them together. Not a good knot, but I think if she doesn’t come over fast it won’t matter, better then that the line parts. I jump the torrent again, easier this time because it is a down jump and I know I can do it and the take off is firm rock. I land next to her and tie the sling around her belly, behind the front legs, and I just have enough length to let me cross again, if she stays still whilst I jump.
This time I make an even bigger mess of things, I should be shaking but I don’t feel at all concerned about my safety. I land on the bottom of the rock ridge. My crutch slams onto it but I feel nothing because I’m totally focussed on staying out of the torrent. I’m OK, soaked but safe. Now its Misty’s turn, good luck you old so and so. I weigh up the options and I think I can swing her across like a pendulum, so I get into the water in the lee of the ridge in order that I can reel her in. I yank on the line and she topples in, turns into a submarine, and vanishes. There’s a strong pull on the line, I almost have to let go but the dog swings across and reaches the side of the burn. Got you!
She looks like a drowned rat, maybe I do too. I laugh wildly, I feel a surge of triumph, and they bark madly, we cavort about in crazy celebration. The dogs have my mood and I feel we can do anything. We can take on anything in this place. We are unbeatable. On we go, immediately the mood of heady success is lost as we fight our way through sticky bog, sucking at my boots, my legs feel like lead and in places I’m in up to my knees. At last we get above the stuff and slowly make our way north towards the Cobbler’s big face. Not that I can see that, its very, very misty now, I will have to think about getting a position fix and then walk on bearings. Decision time then, either we can stay by the river and head up to the col between the Cobbler and Ben Narnain, then swing up to the east ridge of the Cobbler; or we can walk into the main corrie. I’ve done that before in the mist, its not bad but this time I decide to stay out. Maybe I’m reacting to the river crossing, I think I’ll follow the river and let it do the navigating for me it. I don’t want to think about route finding yet, my mind is floating and I’m only 10 percent concentrating on the job. So that’s what we’ll do, I look back to see if anyone is around as we lose all visibility, the place is ours. Good.
Over some roches moutonees, threading through the rough ground, steadily climbing and I feel strong. The dogs are coursing, looking for game, of course there is none, not even a croaking raven is presently here. We squelch through some more bogs, my boots filling with icy water. We reach the col after half an hour of this, and now I have to find the east ridge. I realise I have made a mistake in coming this way: there’s a gale blowing from the north, and as we breast the col it rips into us. Suddenly it is very, very cold. Conditions have gone from bad to simply atrocious, I can hardly stand and my body is already flinching from the cold.
To Hell with it, I hide behind a boulder and study the map, which turns quickly into a soggy mess. I have to skirt the east flank of the mountain and find the top of the main face, in more or less zero visibility. Traverse upwards on bearing 280 will do, and when I feel the ground fall ahead of me I’ll know I’ve hit the ridge. Bomb proof plan. I have learned not to try fancy navigation in cloud.
We get the bearing, the compass is jumping around as the wind catches me, it seems sticky and won’t settle. Surely that’s not right, I think, north can’t be there but the voice in my head says yes it is, trust the needle. I can’t see anything and suddenly feel the isolation which comes with commitment to the traverse. I paid 2 shillings for this little plastic box 35 years ago. Now my safety depends on it.
We stumble on against the wind, for maybe a thousand yards, I can’t feel my face now. I begin to think we have blown it. Where is that ridge? I want to turn harder left up the hillside, I can see crags, its the right side of the Cobbler, a bad place to wind up. It attracts me though, just because I can see something, anything is preferable to the mist. But resist that. Keep going. There! The mist opens for a moment and I see the two streams which join at the col below, now 300 feet below. They are like golden threads in the grey mist, I pull out the compass in my numbed fingers and clumsily get a back-bearing before the moment passes, and I feel better. But its terribly cold, I know I have to get moving, go faster, I have to get out of here. I’m getting tired, the wind is draining my strength.
I walk on over difficult, greasy rocks, and I start to think of the consequences of a fall. No one will come this way today. I feel light headed, and terribly slow now, am I getting the beginnings of hypothermia? Put your gloves on! Part of me doesn’t care, the brain says do it, reluctantly the body obeys. I can’t get them on, my hands are wet and there’s no feeling, I have to haul them on with my teeth, it takes minutes. The dogs are icing, Misty whimpers as I delay with the gloves. At last the ground falls in front of me, I have reached the crest line of the ridge and to confirm I soon get a glimpse of the valley on the north side of the mountain as the mist parts. Its time to turn south and I know the top is only a few hundred feet away. I turn around and take another bearing. As the clouds wrap round me again, within a minute the line we are walking seems completely wrong so I check again, and I even wonder if the needle is stuck south-north. Again the mind says, trust it, keep going and I tramp on in the mist, shaking now with the cold. I don’t really care, this is what I wanted to do.
Now there are big crags looming to the left and this must signal the east top of the Cobbler; ah but is it? I walk close and realise I am still below the main peak in a very exposed position, I must back-off, skirt this dangerous, misleading place and walk on. Suddenly I meet the path, like an old friend, I know where I am now. The gale intensifies as if to eliminate the gain, and I want to stop for shelter. Not wise, it is too bad to stay here, keep going. Soon I’m at the last stretch, near the east, overhanging summit, some 50 feet of rock separates me from the top. Part of me says OK you can quit, take the corrie path, another voice says no damn you, go on and stand on the top of this thing.
Its not easy to make the last steps, the wind is shrieking and the top section is over wet slabs of schist, balance is awkward. The dogs are already running on, they seem to know what this is about. Careful, you are tired. This a bad place to mess up now. Then the last few yards and the cairn. I don’t feel much, immediately turn and retrace my steps with great, great, care. I stop for an apple and it tastes wonderful, the dogs beg half of it, every fragment is wolfed down. Maybe its just that eating is some kind of reassurance in this barren, wind-blasted place, normally they wouldn’t have touched it.
We reach the notch in the ridge between the east and central peaks, where the clouds are roaring through the gap, the gale is punishing me for being here, and I drop down into the south-facing corrie where the wind is suddenly lessened. Its quiet. The thing is done and still I don’t feel much of anything. We took risks and got away unscathed. I walk down a few hundred feet into the bowl of fog, I know this place and there are no more threats, except the problem of crossing the river again. I decide to swing left and join the valley as high as I can, the crossing will be easier there.
Then I suddenly realise something is happening. I look west and there is a faint, now stronger glow in the mist, it is the sun and I guess it is going to burn through the cloud in the next few minutes. I wait to see it. I take off my sack and get the camera, everything is sodden and I’m still half frozen. Yes, it gets stronger and the outline of the west peak becomes visible. Shreds of cloud fly off the crags and the silhouette is now clear, I start to take photos. The scene is wild, magic, pure savagery. The face looks huge and terrifying, I zoom the lens and bang through half the film. The flash is working, even though I am taking shots into the sun, God knows what these photos will look like.
It is suddenly brighter and the cloud is ripped off the corrie, we have blue sky, and I am bathed in light. I feel warmer instantly, and I feel my spirit filling with strength and the joy of being in this special place. I can still do these things, I shout just to hear my voice. The dogs bark at me. Now the place is just the familiar Cobbler again, a modest mountain transformed from a huge and threatening one within a few minutes. How can it have seemed so big? We walk down and meet a party of climbers, they had sheltered until the ridge was clear. We laugh and understand each other, they make a fuss of the dogs and Angus wolfs someone’s sandwich.
We go on down, there are no more hazards, we find a safe place to cross the burn and wander down the path in bright sun, the mountainside is golden. I have got what I wanted. The stress is gone, and I know life can be the way we want it to be.