Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5 and Part 6 of this story were published over the last six days. If you haven’t read them, briefly, I have been introducing @ian_bec to the spiritual pleasures of mountaineering in the Scottish Highlands. The year is 2007.
Ian and I waved goodbye to my folks, thanked them their hospitality and headed North to the small dock village of Lochinver, where we had booked a Bed & Breakfast. When we got there, we found our landlord was an incredibly stiff ex-RAF fighter pilot. He offered some stern words about the village itself: “There’s all sorts of sinful behaviour in the village, evil things. Be careful, if you go there. They have parties every night and frequent each others houses, drunk and carelessly.” It sounded great! However, first we had an appointment with a mountain. The question was, which one?
I’d been talking up Suilven throughout the whole trip. The photograph above us a still from my video of it at that link. To get a proper look at it, you either have to climb it or check out image SG2_08 on Iain Roy’s Landscape Photography Galleries. Take a long hard look at it and ask yourself, do you feel drawn towards its summit or towards having it, framed, on your living room wall? Iain Roy is my Dad after all. If you don’t share his love of mountains, as I do, you can pretend by buying his photographs. Okay, plug over.
Ian wasn’t keen, I could understand why. It looks fearful from afar. The very look of it frightens everyone. We looked up at it in the evening. Even from many miles away, it dominated the horizon, like an enormous version of that creepy peak from Close Encounters of the Third Kind. I pressed Ian to consider it, talked up his recently acquired skills and pointed out that it would be difficult to come this far North again. This was our chance. Ian wasn’t convinced. “Let’s see how it looks in the morning,” he told me, “and speak no more of it now. It’s starting to freak me out.” Oh dear, I’d overdone it.
In the morning of 6th April, we couldn’t see Suilven any more. We couldn’t see anything much. That pretty much settled the issue. We chose something else. We chose Canisp. I’d never attempted Canisp before, so this would be breaking new ground for both of us. Our guide books suggested that it was relatively straightforward on the navigational front, although one had to be careful of the ground falling steeply away from its summit on the North and West.
Many people climb mountains to obtain the view at the top. I call those people simple pleasure seekers. Others climb mountains because they are there. I call those people challenge seekers. I’m the latter camp. I once climbed a hill where the weather was so inclement, that I did the last half mile on my hands and knees, even though it was only a gentle slope. Had I been with anyone else that day, I probably would have been talked back down. On my own, there were no such distractions.
Ian’s made of similarly stern stuff. Even though we couldn’t see Canisp at all when we set off, we set upon the long walk in with glee. As you can imagine, there wasn’t much room for photography on this walk. We concentrated our minds on the little details.
After a period of concentrating on these tiny aspects of life, you can forget about the bigger picture altogether. This is what the simple pleasure seekers never understand. They remain disappointed because they did not get to point across a panorama but they overlook the miracles of nature below their own gigantic feet.
As we ascended the cloud became thicker and thicker. We had to concentrate hard on our footfall. Much as though we enjoyed the mosses and lichens, these were our private moments. We did not risk getting our cameras wet, so that you could see them now.
It was hard going. We got to the point of stopping to rest every 50 yards or so. The scree sloped upwards ever more steeply. Everything was wet and slippery. The privations were such that we both knew this was definitely going to be a case of delayed gratification. The argument I made in the pub at the end of Part 1 of this tale, wore so thin that its remaining sliver failed to convince even me. I suggested we turn back. Ian suggested that we go on at least another 50 yards! Truly, here was a fellow who had become a mountain man! After 50 yards, with no sign of a ridge horizon before us, Ian suggested that we could throw the towel in, that the pub in the village looked very attractive, that there was no shame in not reaching the top. “No shame at all“, I agreed, “but we might as well try another 50 yards.” Almost exhausted, we pressed on. Our defeatist banter went back and forth. If I’m honest, I was more for quitting than Ian. He was in better shape than me, carrying much less weight around his middle.
Visibility was down to less than 10 yards when the slope suddenly levelled off and we stumbled into a very unusual cairn. Desperately wanting it to be the top of the mountain, I declared that it was. I have occasionally seen cairns built into strange shapes on Scottish mountains. Usually these unconventional designs involve slabs of rock apparently precariously balanced but in fact they are very solid and survive the worst of the winter storms, with the snow piled high around them. The cloud thickened around us and then seemed to lift a little. We took a tiny sip from our hip flask and got the cigars out. Ian ran around the cairn, whooping.
Then he laughed at the way I had apparently flung my bag down. He was about to pick it up playfully, when I said, “Don’t move it, I lined it up with the direction we came from, so that we can take the exact same route to the edge of the ridge back down.” He looked at me, looked around, looked at me again with a face that revealed that he had no idea which direction we had come from and looked at the bag before exclaiming, “Yes, that is a clever idea!” He looked at me again, with a distinct look of admiration for my mountain craft. That tip can be a lifesaver. You might have a compass but if it turns out that there’s a lip on a ridge and only one way to climb over it easily in the wet, which you then lose, you are going to be in real trouble in low visibility.
We studied the map. The lie of the land was all wrong for the summit. Cold, wet and tired, I tried to convince myself that we had made it. Ian wandered a very short distance to the North, sensibly keeping me in sight the entire time. He called to me, “the ground rises up over here“. He came back and we studied the map again. We realised that we had veered very slightly off course, which was hardly surprising in the conditions. We were almost certainly standing on a shoulder around about the 2,400 foot mark.
Here’s a tip: if you want to see a free 1:50,000 OS Map of anywhere in the UK, you’ll find it on StreetMap.co.uk, if you zoom in or out to that scale. You can use it to search for all the Scottish mountains by name, even though in the case of Canisp there isn’t a street anywhere nearby.
At this link, we were slightly below the arrow, having followed beside the last burn up (burn is the Scottish name for a mountain stream). There was no two ways about it, we were going to continue to the top. It got pretty steep, wetter than ever and the spur was steadily getting narrower. Had it been clear weather, this would have been an exhilarating ascent. In these conditions, it was nerve wracking. I kept thinking about the unseen sharp scree slopes on either side. Whatever Ian was thinking about, he kept it to himself.
Eventually we reached the top. It is a rather pointy affair. Although we couldn’t see a thing up there, we had the feeling of a great space immediately below us. This emptiness was all too real. The guide books describe it as a ‘great depth, which gives the summit very dramatic views’. We did not hang about. We pulled out from our pockets the stones which we had collected from the bottom, placed them into the summit cairn, took a compass bearing to double check our line and retreated.
Despite my display of mountain craft on the way up, frazzled and keen to quickly complete the walk out I took a wrong turning on the way back. Basically, I saw a gap in the cloud and was seduced by it. Although the slope was much steeper than the one we had struggled up, I tried to convince Ian that it was just “a slightly different line.” Besides I could see all the way down to the ground below and it looked like an excellent scree run. I saw Ian’s alarmed face behind but no bells rang. ‘What did he know?’ I asked myself. Luckily, just then, the cloud lifted a little and we caught sight of his car, way off in the distance, at a right angle to my chosen direction. Sheepishly, I climbed back up.
As soon as we got back to the car, the delayed gratification kicked in big time. We were jubilant. We drove back to the Bed & Breakfast, laughing. We were punch drunk on our achievement. We parked the car, got changed and walked into the village, determined to find some of those wild sinners we’d been warned about. After a terrific meal and a glorious evening in The Caberfeidh, several of the allegedly sinning locals invited us out to some of their legendary parties. We went in and out of several homes that night. Our exhaustion was miraculously removed by whisky, excellent company and much good cheer. As Ian said later, “They certainly know how to party in Lochinver!“
We probably partied a bit too hard that night. For the first time on our expedition up North, we had become true equals, having conquered that mountain together. We couldn’t have done it without each other. We left the locals at five in the morning and began the long walk out from Lochinver, back to our digs. Both of us had the summit of Canisp burnt into our souls. We felt invincible. The next morning, we felt rather different.