As I was driving towards the mighty Aonachs last Tuesday morning, the car radio tuned itself into the news programme of a regional station I normally never hear.
Reception was not good, with white noise often obliterating the message, presenting from my viewpoint, stuck behind a flatbed carrying a heavy digging machine on the road beside Loch Laggan, both a challenging listening experience and a partial review of events and issues.
I became aware of an item about the overcrowding of the Highlands and Islands during the tourist season, and the strain this puts on facilities and supply lines. Grist to my mill, as regular readers will know.
One voice came through for a moment, under the fickle influence of atmospheric clarity, apparently arguing on behalf of some political entity in Inverness in favour of a regional visitor levy, which would be used to fund infrastructural development. The voice was that of a hopeful and sincere young woman who seemed genuinely to believe that charging visitors a levy for access to the Highlands and Islands would sort everything out.
I did not really hear whether this opinion was appropriately scrutinised, but it did not strike me as having been particularly well thought through. Am I a visitor? Would I have to pay a levy every time I leave at six in the morning to drive often more than a hundred miles to satisfy my perfectly legitimate obsession to climb mountains in my own country? Would Scottish people be exempt? Who qualifies as being Scottish in the first place?
By this time I had overtaken the flatbed and was enjoying an open road through Roybridge. Almost immediately after turning south at Spean Bridge I found myself in a tailback of about a dozen assorted vehicles, stuck behind a luxury rental travelling no more than 45 mph, and frequently a lot less. The jostling to overtake, both in front of me and in the growing convoy behind, combined with a sporadic and unpredictable stream of oncoming traffic inclined me to stay put, frustrating though this was. Somehow, being stuck behind somebody operating a strange vehicle on an unfamiliar road, apparently more concerned with watching scenery than paying appropriate attention to prevailing driving conditions, was much more infuriating than being stuck behind a flatbed driving as best it could at about the same speed. Not much that a tourist levy could do about this, I thought, as I began to worry that if I did not get to the car park at the end of Glen Nevis soon, it would fill up as visitors parked for Steall Falls. How many tourist levies it would take, I wondered, to make sure there was parking for all who needed it here, and at every other tourist attraction in the land.
The convoy dispersed at the junction to Mallaig, after which ordinary Fort William traffic ensued. The road up Glen Nevis was clear of vehicular stupidity until the final single track section where immediately I fell in behind an slow moving people-wagon, the driver of which was clearly well out of his or her depth, far too cautious of, or just plain terrified by the hidden dips, blind summits and precipitous verges of the undulating road, oblivious to the function of either passing places or rear view mirrors. Could a tourist levy be used in some way perhaps to prepare visiting drivers for the unfamiliar challenges of the Scottish road system?
There was still space to park beside a sturdy pair of friendly German ladies who told me they were going to visit Nevis George, then asked how far it was and if there was another way back. I suggested with a smile that either a traverse of the Ring of Steall or a walk to Corrour Station with a return trip by train were possible circular routes from here. I also pointed out that it is gorge not George, which they appreciated.
After this encounter, the friendliness of people dissipated; despite crowds along the path to Steall, hardly any of the people I passed seemed willing to pass the time of day, or even to nod in acknowledgement of the presence of another person. Not that I am bothered that my presence remains unacknowledged; it is the apparent isolation that troubles me, as if these people were all still in their cars, watching scenery, unable to make contact with others, but to regard them only as obstacles, to be avoided in the traffic.
The clegs (aka horseflies) were voracious and I stopped only briefly at the ruins of Steall Cottage to prepare for the ascent, watching a young eagle as it parsed the ground over the of An Teanga, and surveying the south west shoulder of Sgurr a Bhuic, trying to decide whether to skirt to the left or to the right of its big craggy cliff. There was a path at the start, but it petered out, presumably as many feet had before had to make the same choice. I found a bit of a path going right, which I followed until it became obvious that it was traversing rather than climbing, so I broke off upwards, following animals, towards a gully formed at the edge of a big grey crag protruding from the grassy slope. Eventually this levelled onto a complex flat area of grasses and peat at about 800m, strewn with boulders and sheltering a pair of fine lochans. Ahead now was only a gentle rise over a bowl between the mountains where waters gather, strewn with bleached grey boulders, crumbled from the summit of Sgurr a Bhuic. Just before the bealach and the start of the ridge to Stob Coire Bhealaich, by a pool of clear water, I stopped for a snack in preparation for the final ascent.
This is the most sublime and emotional traverse I have yet experienced. The views are spectacular, the cliffs on the east sheer, the buttresses complex. These mountains feel as if they are higher than everything around them, higher even than Ben Nevis, which always looms slightly in the west, but never dominates, as it does over Carn Mor Dearg and the Arete. The experience of being on the summit ridge feels much higher than the experience of being on the summit of Ben Nevis or any of the high Cairngorms. Maybe it is the massive precipitous drops on all sides, the views down over the Grey Corries towards the high Laggans, Ben Alder and Rannoch, down over the Mamores, the Glen Coe ridges, Etive, Orchy and the Trossachs, or just the broad flat expanse of grass and gravelly sand at the summits, from which only horizon is visible.
At the summit of Aonach Beag I stood in awe of everything, overwhelmed by the moment, this mountain, these views, the effort of getting here, this achievement. Reaching this my 160th separate summit in slightly less than four years, with the 161st within easy striking distance, all after being diagnosed with a cancer that was supposed to kill me in only three ……
…. were it not for the presence of others there at the summit, I would certainly have broken down completely, given in to the weight of emotion, utterly overwhelmed.
The others were a friendly couple of ladies from Forfar. We chatted awhile then ate lunch in our own spaces before sharing some of the walk along the plateau to the summit of Aonach Mor, and for them back towards the gondola to the north. After this I was alone again to enjoy the descent, the first challenge of which was finding the alleged path that drops fifteen hundred feet or so, almost sheer, to the bealach to the west. In mist, this would indeed be a difficult exercise in navigation and a test of faith. At the end of a faint path over the plateau, there is a pair of small cairns beside what appears to be a cliff edge, over which the path disappears. About half way down I found a grassy bank with a boulder behind, looking out over the enormity of Carn Mor Dearg and sat for a while resting and preparing to continue. This was without doubt the most challenging section of the walk, the path is easy to follow, but it is very very steep, sometimes loose and gravelly, requiring strong calves and close attention. I suspect an ascent might be have been easier. I was relieved to reach the bealach, where I took a wee detour to the northern side to investigate a snowbank with a burn cutting through beneath it to create a tunnel.
The walk out is down a long, gently sloping glen, following the Allt Coire Ghuithsachan as it flows over big red slabs into a series of straths and water-meadows. I dawdled, gazing at the massive cliffs all around, watching ravens wheeling in thermals, stopping often just to sit by the burn, breathing in its oxygenated air, soaking up the the life it brings forth, cuddling moss. High up in a crevice under Aonach Beag, the glimpse of a snow patch, collapsing. Somewhere else above, a sliding rock clattering to rest, echoes slightly. Water flows. A blessed breeze fends off the insects.
Finally, the burn flows out of the corrie past a tumble of giant boulders, through a cascade of waterfalls, pools and wooded gorges. On the way down, I met a cheery young couple coming up the path from the ruins at Steall, carrying a blanket. He talked non-stop as she smiled sheepishly, both perhaps hoping it was not obvious why they were walking up the hill at this time of day, with a blanket.
Back at the waterfall, crowds were thronging about, playing on the cable bridge and taking photos. But again nobody wanted to catch my eye, with one notable exception. As I turned a corner on the path through the woods in Nevis Gorge, I was met by the smiling happy face of a baby, outstretched arms and open eyes inviting me to make friends. Immediately I said hello and smiled back, to which the apparently long suffering, manbunned bloke clutching the infant responded with a subdued hello and walked on by. The rest though kept their eyes down, apparently unwilling to engage. So I gave up trying and became part of the traffic.
In much the same way that it is difficult to imagine a visitor levy would do much to encourage more social driving skills, it not easy to see how it might lighten the mood, nor encourage people, if not to interact with each other, at least to pass the time of day.
The car park was full, but the road down the glen unencumbered by slow moving vehicles. The road home via Lagan and down the A9 was clear all the way.
I felt as if I had today achieved something, experienced something new, perhaps even unique. I have had many awesome journeys in the mountains this year, but this was exceptional. I began even to contemplate the possibility that I might actually live to compleation …..
….. for these four years I have never seriously thought I might bag every Munro, always it is the climbing of each that has been most important, all the planning and preparing keeps my mind busy, and the journeys are always a kind of therapy, a way of motivating myself to not fall into a pit of despair, in terror of the deterministic logic of medical prognostication.
….. but so many Munros in only four years is an impressive achievement for anybody; and at this rate I’ll be through them all in another three. And then what will I do?
It is hardly surprising that so many people come on holiday to the Highlands and Islands, for this is surely one of the most staggeringly beautiful places on earth. Those of us privileged to be able to experience these places at all times of the year often take the scenery for granted. Sometimes though it is just utterly overwhelming.
Scotland is in danger of becoming a bit like Machu Pichu or Venice, just another destination populated entirely by people visiting because it is a destination to visit, and by those whose labour is necessary to service their needs.
The economy of Scotland as a whole, and of the Highlands and Islands in particular is absolutely dependent on visitors; often a business only has a few months, if not weeks, during the height of the tourist season to turn over sufficient for the entire financial year. To this extent visitors are a kind of cash crop, a bit like strawberries in season, which supplements more traditional produce like whisky, game, timber, fish, oats, cattle and sheep.
Whether or not the Highlands and Islands are overcrowded is a moot point. Beyond the tourist attractions, car parks and transport arteries there are no crowds at all. Only within the spaces to which tourists are encouraged to be attracted are there crowds, and only then at certain times of the day. But that is surely the point. If there were no crowds, the economy would collapse.
As a wise man once said: you cannot eat scenery.
But you can sell it.
All the other stuff – hotels, meals, campsites, trinkets and baubles, admission fees – is incidental, sold on the back of the scenery. The tourists who come to enjoy the scenery are already paying through the nose for basic necessities like food and shelter, and presumably enjoy the overcrowding of public space, the rush for parking, the queues of traffic, inadequate toilet facilities, expensive fuel, and so forth, no more than the rest of us. A levy on top of this would seem to add insult to injury; perhaps if adequate supporting infrastructures were already in place, it would make sense to ask visitors to contribute to their maintenance. But the construction of new infrastructures would require capital investment far greater than any funds likely to be extracted from visitors, not to mention logistical planning and project management over several years. It makes no sense whatever to ask for a visitor levy in order to pay for infrastructure that might exist in years to come, while there is at the moment no such thing.
If facilities, supply lines and infrastructures are inadequate to the task of supporting visitors who, at the same time are actively encouraged by glossy photos of empty landscapes and exotic scenery to come here and spend money, in order to support the economy – as it is called, then it should it not be those who profit directly from the economy who invest in renewal and improvement?
Is that not the point of Capitalism?
Meanwhile, those of us who know Scotland to be far from overcrowded, know also to plan for changes brought by every season: blocked roads and blizzards in the winter, floods in spring, storms in autumn, and at this time of year hordes of midges and tourists.