In the constrained space of the bunkhouse kitchen it was a dance with no music, no rhythm, no fixed pattern. An ‘open reverse telemark’ took me from the fridge to the sink without colliding with Eunice, who executed a neat ‘spinout with turn’ to negotiate the table and smoothly ‘chassed’ into the cooker space. John displayed an impressive ‘four-step change’, avoiding upsetting Tom’s delicately balanced bowl of muesli, ‘howdy-doodied’ Joyce making her way to the microwave and I was sure I spotted a ‘quarenta cinco’ with ‘circular hip twist’ and ‘open reverse turn with lady outside’ as Tom spun past both Joyce and Eunice to rendezvous with his buttered rolls. Revel-Horwood would have awarded us a two.
As we finished breakfast Joyce returned from a foray outside in search of a mobile signal.
‘It looks like a nice morning. I can see a star shining.’
A shock ran through my system. ‘A star! A star!’ I stuttered. ‘What the fuck am I doing up when there are still stars in the sky?’
The focus on the weather was germane however. The previous day had been horrendous with my friends blown off the hill and my own journey north to Ullapool had been through heavy rain and low dark cloud. As I had driven on from Wyvis the wan afternoon light faded away. The sky grew a darker grey and gloom hunkered down on the landscape. Is there, anywhere in Scotland, a bleaker, more desolate prospect than that around Loch Glascarnoch? A loch should promote life, woods and undergrowth should flourish along its shores bringing colour, variety to the landscape: green in spring and summer, warm yellows and glowing reds at this time of year.
This black, man-made ‘loch’ offered only bare, endless, painfully straight shores with none of the variety of small bays and promontories which bring charm to lochsides. On the north shore lay bare, empty hillsides deficient of any indication of habitation, the hills themselves low, formless humps devoid of interest. The south side of the loch rivalled its bleakness: rolling moorland punctuated occasionally with plantations of black conifers which swallowed up what little light there was into their dark maws.
The loch itself was low, exposing steep banks of black, barren shoreline, all vegetation drowned and extinguished by the rise and fall of the water level. Little glimmer of life was evident around the loch, only the isolated Aultguish Inn, huddled beneath the black, concrete walls of the dam with its ever heart-warming welcome… ‘CLOSED’. For mile after mile this post-holocaust barrenness stretched on, not even a road sign promising an end or escape to break up its depression. I increasingly felt as if I had slipped into another reality, a dying, empty world under a fading sun in some other universe, alone and condemned to keep travelling along this road to nowhere.
The mental blackness only lightened when I saw the green trees of Corrieshalloch Gorge rise into view and finally the road sign for Gairloch reassuring me I was not alone. The temptation was to turn off to that town just to confirm there were other people in this world.
Yet Sunday was a beautiful morning. We drove round to Knockan Crag and the sun’s low rays lit up the Torridonian sandstone of the hills – a wonderful rose against the pale washed-out blue of the sky. The coarse, yellow, dying grassland took on the umber shades of Tuscan roof tiles. Stac Pollaidh stood clear and stark in the pale light, its isolated and jagged ridgeline resembling the broken, fossilised stump of a dinosaur tooth. Regrettably our target for the day, Culmor, seemed as if someone had thrown a duvet, a thick, white duvet, over its ridges: the only such bed-ridden hill in the landscape. Never mind, we told ourselves, it will burn off as the day goes on.
The roadside parking area for Culmor was still in the shadow of the crags and stepping out of the car gave the system a shock as the promise of the pleasant sunshine was belied by the cutting cold of the east wind. Shivering we set off in the wake of a group from a Galloway club, following the path that, undulating, wound its way across the lower slopes. The mist/cloud ahead on the ridges showed no signs of warming up never mind burning off.
After a while the slope settled down to a steady rise across increasingly stony ground and the traces of the path began to fade away. We overtook the Galloway party (a pleasant surprise to both of us, it being a long time since Tom or I overtook anything other than a frog on the hill) and ascended into the blanket of cloud. The route, despite the absence of a path, was easy to navigate as, in recognition of the broad featurelessness of the slopes, a line of cairns, varying from reasonable standing stones to mere ruckles of rocks, came and went at intervals ,the next usually heaving into hazy, uncertain view thirty or forty metres after the previous one.
After fifteen minutes or so a particularly impressive megalith loomed into sight thirty or forty metres ahead, erect and solitary. To my puzzlement as we drew closer, some straps appeared to be waving in the growing wind suggesting it was carrying a rucksack. So… unlikely to be a way marker then! The lonely walker remained unmoving, as we approached and passed him. Tom made some friendly comment, probably about the conditions and received a grunted acknowledgment but the stance and fixed stare into nothing never faltered.
A few hundred metres further on Tom drew my attention to the grey, rucksack carrying cairn that now was following in our footsteps. We realised he must have become frozen in doubt about his navigation in the conditions until we confidently strode past him whereupon he opted to follow our trail upwards. God there was a man who lived dangerously: abandoning map and compass to follow the navigation of the KMC!
The remaining ruckles led us to a small lochan that featured as a blue smudge on the map. There we took a compass bearing for the summit. The ridge now narrowing, rising steeply and the path reappearing, our grey shadow regained confidence and silently strode past us and into the cloud. More and more steeply the ridge rose and stronger and colder the wind grew, buffeting us aside whenever stable balance faltered.
For a moment the mist thinned in a powerful gust of wind exposing what seemed like an immense, steep slope directly in front of us. Articulate as ever I turned to Tom and grunted, ‘For fuck’s sake, we’ve to climb that?’ Tom nodded and continued his commentary of height gained, taking the readings from his GPS. ‘Two thousand four hundred… two thousand six hundred… two thousand seven hundred…two thousand three hundred’, but I admit, in my desperate breathing, I may have hallucinated that last one. We passed another lochan – not shown on the OS map. In the rapidly falling temperature the cloud was condensing on my fleece turning its black into a damp, glistening, grey and my fingers stiffened around my walking poles.
As a sting in the tail we clambered into an extensive boulder field of large, heaped-up, unstable rocks seeming to stretch endlessly upward through the cloud. Stumbling, slipping, cursing I dreaded another hundred feet or so of this but then the boulders petered out, the slope eased and the trig point hove into view.
The Galloway party soon joined us on the summit. A merry quip that the saucer of shelter we had cooried into was reserved for us seemed to be taken seriously and they chose to shiver on the exposed rim of the corrie, battered by the wind. Lunch was taken, then they gathered themselves together to descend. Given the poor conditions I felt it would be wise to keep the larger party in sight while going down but Tom was convinced another ten minutes would bring us the views – and him the photographs – that the previous hour and a half had denied us. Then there was the refusal to accept that his phone would not make contact with Mhairi. I admire devotion to the wife but ten futile attempts on a cold, damp summit, being buffeted by the wind seems a bit excessive.
Now alone again we began to descend, still blind beyond twenty metres or so. We came upon a lochan we had passed on the ascent but puzzlingly we were now on its opposite shore.
‘Is this first lochan or the second lochan? ‘ I queried.
‘The first I think,’ replied Tom.
‘But is it the first going up, which would now be the second going down, or the second going up which would now be the first going down? Like in the Bible, ‘and the first shall come last and the last shall come first’, and remember there was that wee one we spotted. That would be either the first or the third.’
‘D’oh,’ said Tom.
‘How about getting out your GPS and confirming where we are?’
‘I think I’ve killed the batteries checking the height going up. I’ve got spare batteries….Oh, they’re rechargeable and I haven’t charged them.’
‘D’oh,’ I thought.
Location confirmed by the dying batteries we set a bearing and headed off coming directly upon the first of the cairns marking the route within ten minutes. ‘Spot on navigation,’ I congratulated myself and walked on following the same bearing. We didn’t stumble upon another cairn until we moved down out of the mist. Not so spot on….!
Back at the bunkhouse the chat of the evening meal was enhanced when the hostel’s owner, Iain, appeared encumbered with a keg of craft ale, the sole remnant of a stag night he had been attending. Having himself had a surfeit, he said we were welcome to drain the keg. The passage of time and the journey back from Aberfeldy had rendered the beer somewhat flat and slightly cloudy, nevertheless it was alcohol, which is what is important, and we managed to squeeze ten pints out of the container.
And so to bed, accompanied by the tinkling sound of the water feature thoughtfully and decoratively placed outside our bunkroom window – a comfort to the strained bladders of the late-middle-aged with prostate issues.
Generally, for the first hour or so after he drifts off to sleep, John emits a strident, rasping, gurgling, broken cacophony of sound at frequent and unvarying intervals. It is as if his lungs are in a life and death struggle with his body to keep functioning. The kind of noise that one imagines accompanied the birth of the universe as it tore its form out of the chaos of the Big Bang.
I managed to fall asleep, however Tom, finding the heavy rock music on his headphones overwhelmed, retreated noisily to the sitting room settee. Waking up during the night I was struck immediately by the silence. Had John’s airpipe, larynx, vocal cords, tonsils contorted themselves into a death inducing knot of confusion? Did I care? I turned and returned to sleep.