I had always intended to be away in the hills somewhere for the week or so before my next oncology appointment, which was planned for 27th June. I was in a mood for something a little more adventurous than hitherto and further away from my comfort zone, somewhere in that vast tract of land between Inverness and Kyle of Lochalsh through which no roads pass except at the coast.
Looking at the map it seemed that the twelve Munros surrounding Loch Mullardoch might best be traversed clockwise, starting with Toll Creagach and working west towards Carn Eighe, Sgurr nan Ceathreamhnan and the rest, then crossing over the end of Loch Mullardoch to traverse the four along its northern shore. I calculated that in the worst case, I might be out for four nights, but thought that three would be more likely, although I was in no hurry. I left Edinburgh at eight in the morning and was walking away from the car park by the dam at Loch Mullardoch at half past three.
The first night I slept at about 1000m on a beallach between Tom a Choinnich and An Leth Creagh with views into the depths and heights of the northern corries and ridges of Carn Eighe. The sky was clear but there was cloud to the west. At dawn, the sun shone pink under heavy clouds; when I arose the cloud was down around my tent, blowing past and swirling in corrie updrafts. As I walked through the pinnacles and along the ridges to the east of Carn Eighe, I was in cloud, but there were intriguing glimpses of sunshine and light above it. At the summit of Carn Eighe I waited for a while beside two rucksacks – presumably left by two people doing the spur to Beinn Fhionnlaidh. After a while of no sign of the sun coming out I headed off in the same direction.
As I emerged from the cloud at the beallach, the rain came down. I met the owners of the rucksacks coming off the ridge. They had just spent their second night out near the summit of Mam Sodhail. Earlier in the morning I had met a couple who had spent their second night out near the summit of Carn Eighe and the previous day I had met a group of three men who had been round the whole circuit with only one night out. Evidently I was going round the wrong way and taking far too long over it.
My plan from here was to traverse round the back of Carn Eighe to the beallach between it and Mam Sodhail, to then follow the path round the ridge to find a place to camp beside An Socach in preparation for a scramble up Sgurr nan Ceathreamhnan the next day. But the weather turned nasty and I had to rethink things. I missed the beallach and almost gave up completely, but decided just to climb up and up until I found any ridge and then work out where I was. I came out beyond Mam Sodhail and had to backtrack; I got to the summit and sat inside the square hole in the massive round summit cairn for a moment. I noticed as I left a substantial series of deep pools in a cleft only a few meters from the summit that would rather undermine the idea that the highest body of standing water in the country is to be found near the summit of Ben Alder. Under other circumstances, I might have stopped to examine it more closely and taken photographs, but the rain was coming down heavy now, and lumpy on an sharp wind, and my priority was getting off the mountain to some nice flat grass in the glen below.
The nearly 1000 meter drop into Glen Ciollich was hard, steep and exhausting. I put up the tent in the rain and battened down the hatches. With warm food, goose down and a drying wind between the showers, I felt safe preparing to climb the three Munros surrounding the glen with this as a base camp the next day. When it came, the day did not look promising. The summit of An Socach was only intermittently visible and Sgurr nan Ceathreamhnan was shrouded down all its many ridges, and I could only guess where they all came to a point. I do not know what time I left, but it was after I concluded that the weather would neither get better nor worse during the course of the day.
It was an awesome day of ridges, scrambling and lots of air below. But I neither got a view from nor of the top of Sgurr nan Ceathreamhnan, and took the wrong ridge off the summit to get to Mullach na Dhieragain. But this was only a minor diversion that took me across a very sharp ridge to the west top and then on a traverse through a high corrie back to the right ridge. At the summit of Mullach na Dhieragain the sun came out at last.
The descent back to the tent was easy and relaxed. The next morning I packed dry and headed off down the glen to the end of Loch Mullardoch and the gentle south western slopes of another An Socach from where I got my first good view of the summit of Sgurr nan Ceathreamhnan, how I traversed it and came off along the wrong shoulder, and how I should have come off the summit to get directly onto the beallach to Mullach na Dhieragain. An impressive peak indeed.
The weather deteriorated at the summit of An Socach though, and when the route to An Riabhachan emerged from time to time, as clouds sped past, it seemed to involve quite a lot of clambering over pinnacles and following paths that clung to precipitous slopes, with a final push to the summit ridge of An Riabhachan involving what is euphemistically described in guidebooks as “exposed scrambling”. The path down from the summit was also challenging and I was beginning to stumble a bit. Again I almost gave up. The rain was wet and the wind strong. The path before me was scary. Below I could see the northern shores of Loch Mullardoch tempting me with a path back out to the dam where I had left my car. But I persevered. Taking each stride at a time. Mindfully placing each footstep in the right place, following a well trodden path through difficult terrain while remaining indifferent to how “difficult” it might be. At the final climb to the summit ridge of An Riabhachan, the scramble was indeed steep and exposed, but it was easy enough to find a safe way up. The summit ridge of An Riabhachan is long and no doubt affords splendid views. But I saw nothing but cloud and my priority now was to find somewhere to make camp.
Coming off the ridge to the beallach to Sgurr na Lapaich was scrambly and scary. The weather did not let up. Eventually I found a place to wetly pitch my tent at about 850 meters where again I was able to create a haven of dry warmth under the tumult of Scottish summer weather. I was uneasy. My reserves were low. I thought again about giving up, but realised that giving up here would be simply to stay put, to succumb to exposure. Throughout the night it rained. In the morning it rained. I packed wet knowing that all I had to do was climb the 300 meters to the summit of Sgurr na Lapaich and then descend to the gentle ridge leading to Carn nan Gobhar. It felt like a mammoth effort to gain the summit in that weather, after all these nights out on the bare mountain. The exhilaration was intense. But there was still the descent, which was strewn with boulder fields, residual snowbanks and steep gravelly mudslides.
When at last I got to the beallach, the sun came out. Properly this time. The clouds separated to reveal blue skies and spectacular scenery. This was my reward for the testing of the previous four days.
Back at the car I dried out all my stuff before packing and heading back to find the campsite at Cannich where I showered and then went for a feed at Slater’s. I thought that I should probably have a bit of rest day before deciding what to do next, but when I awoke to a beautiful woodland dawn with open skies and twittering birds, I decided not to waste the good weather that the day was undoubtedly going to bring. So at 9 am I was first in the queue at the gate to Glen Strathfarrar, ready to traverse the four Munros that dominate the ridge on its northern side. This place is a gem. An absolute haven of wilderness walking along a well trodden path over four splendid summits with views of Affric, Kintail, Torridon, Fisherfield and Fannach, as well as east to Wyvis and the Moray Firth. Go there!
I had just climbed 16 Munros in 6 days and the number I had climbed with cancer had risen to 70. Nearly a quarter of the total number. Back at Cannich, I tuned back into the media world the following morning to discover that my country had voted by a substantial majority to stay in the EU, while the neighbours to the south had voted marginally to leave, thereby precipitating an ongoing series of constitutional crises, political bloodletting and a continuing state of fiscal chaos. I drove home via a quick trip up and down Glen Affric, listening to the radio and began to experience the extent of the political upheaval that had taken place while I was chasing down my demons in the mountains.
My oncologist is a very nice man who recognises my will-power and sheer bloody-mindedness as important aspects in the management of my disease. He showed me a recent abdominal MRI in which is clearly to be seen that my prostate is now a kind of mush. The internal structure and architecture of my other organs are all visible, but as a result of radiotherapy over two years ago, my prostate remains inert. Which means that the exponentially rising PSA value must be caused by rogue prostate cells that have found their way into my lymphatic system. This is evidenced by a number of slightly enlarged nodes which under other circumstances might be seen as a snapshot of natural processes of cleansing. So it is back onto the euphemistically named “hormone therapy” for me. The combination of bicalutamide and decapeptyl will result in chemical castration within a month, no more testosterone will be produced anywhere in my body and so the stimulus for the proper functioning of prostate cells will disappear, thereby holding at bay the further production of cancerous prostate cells – whether in my prostate or anywhere else.
At the same time, my sleep will be permanently disturbed, every two hours I will be overwhelmed by a hot flush that will last up to five minutes, I will become depressed and lacking in motivation, my libido will die and my emotional responses will flatten out while from time to time I will experience uncontrollable urges to bawl like a baby. This is the state of my life now. A choice between continuing metastasis or chemical castration. There have been times during the week since I saw my oncologist when I thought of giving up, of allowing myself to succumb to the disease, and although I have not yet begun the course of medication that will chemically castrate me, I have not yet given myself over to despair and despondency.
My journey the previous week was often scary. I scrambled up steep craggy paths, traversed some very sharp ridges, saw a lot of air beneath my feet, all while carrying a substantial pack. I felt the sheer exposure of the mountains, why nothing much lives here, right up high. I was forced into myself to find my most essential powers and resources, and I learned some very important practical lessons. I should be taking it easy I know, but as with all of my journeys these days, they are scrupulously planned with time for rest, recuperation, meditation, eating and good sleep. I do extreme stuff perhaps, but I do it very much more slowly than once before. Deliberately, I took provisions for four nights out on a journey often completed with only one, more commonly with two. My four nights out were actually not difficult at all, and although I was sometimes scared, I was able to recognise the fears I experienced, to distinguish those that have to do with the actual circumstances of the present, with the mountain and the weather and the challenges to my capacities, and those that have to do with ….. stuff ….. with the ordinary inventions of an active mind looking back on a unsatisfying life, and those that have to do with cancer.
Now, back in the real world, the terror, exposure and exertion of being in the mountains seem nothing in comparison to the prospect of the hellish effects of chemical castration.