Climbing mountains with cancer

The first mountain I climbed with cancer is called Carn Dearg (Red Crag) and is situated at the north east edge of Rannoch Moor.

I did not know before I set out on my first solo expedition into the mountains since I had been diagnosed with cancer whether it would make any difference. I had a feeling that what is or is not possible in the mountains will depend as always on the conditions, the weather, the consistency of the ground, the midges, the visibility, and so forth, as much as confidence, motivation, will power, technical ability, experience and common sense. My feeling was very quickly borne out.

I parked at Rannoch Station and walked back along the road to the junction with the ancient path that connects Rannoch with Corrour and Laggan. It was raining. About four hours later I had found a place to camp at the ruin of Old Corrour Lodge. I was wet, it was still raining and there were millions of midges. So I got to work pitching my tent and getting myself warm and sheltered.

As I lay down inside, warm and dry, it was still pitter-pattering on the outside surface of the tent. The midges were held at bay by the micro gauze of the inner tent. I fell asleep. When I woke a couple of hours later, the rain had stopped the sun had come out.

I looked out of the tent and saw a chaos of peat hags and squiggly rivers seeping into the Blackwater Reservoir, and the little hill Leum Uilleim beside it with the great mass of Glencoe in the background. Further to the north the Mamores and Nevis Ranges and then distant unnameable peaks into the shimmering distance. To the south, the Hills of Glen Orchy and Bredalbane, behind me the gentle slopes of the first Munro I was going to climb with cancer.

The next morning, I packed quickly in the sunshine and plodded sweatily up the side of the mountain. I reached the summit at about nine o’clock and looked out all around for a while before following the ridge east to Sgòr Gaibhre (Goat’s Peak), the second Munro I climbed with cancer. From here I could see the goal of my expedition. My plan was to set up camp on the grass at Alder Bay on Loch Ericht and climb Ben Alder the next day. It was a hard long walk down to the lochside; it was hot, the peat hags were challenging and my body was tired – but not because I had cancer, just because it had been busy.

The next day I climbed Ben Alder as planned and the day after that I walked out to the road at the end of Loch Rannoch where I hitched a lift back to my car at Rannoch Station.

For the two nights I was camped at Alder Bay, I found the greatest peace I had experienced since my diagnosis. The comings and goings at Ben Alder Cottage on the other side of the burn passed me by, as I sat on a little pile of rocks, gazing out over the azure waters of Loch Ericht to the screes and scattered forests on the other side, to the ancient pine forest to the south, to clouds and rainbows and sudden summer squalls, a grumpy stag snorting across the stony beach, reflecting that in the great scheme of things, my existence is a minor irrelevance, and my presence here a precious gift, that my experiencing of these ordinary events sets everything into perspective.

This was the moment when I knew it was possible not only to live with cancer, but to celebrate being alive in spite of cancer.

I also felt quite pleased with myself that I had managed to climb three Munros.




Author: Duncan Spence

Mountaineer, retired bicycle messenger, philosopher, wordsmith, Dutch translator.

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