…. a look back at 2018

December 2018 was the first month since January 2017 during which I did not reach the summit of a new Munro, but I can already say with confidence, without checking any statistics, that 2018 was a good year.

Looking now at the bagging map at Walkhighlands – now more than 60% ticked off, I feel a sense of great achievement despite the many challenges of the year; I took the summit tally to 174, adding another 38; completed all but two of the top fifty – those above 1100 meters; I almost closed a couple of compleated sections; almost finished everything to the east of the A9 corridor; and saw even more of this enormous, tiny country than ever before.

I only had a couple of nights out in my tent though, but these were intense and deeply rewarding, both revisiting places I had been before under very different circumstances thereby giving pause to meditate upon what is most important during a life. I climbed along many a new ridge and enjoyed clear or uninterrupted views from over 85% of the summits I reached. Over 85%! The eastern traverse of the Nevis Ranges, starting in May with the CMD Arete, followed by the awesome Aonachs, and culminating in August with the Grey Corries was a particularly fond achievement. Likewise Ben Starav, the Ben Lui group and Stop Ghabhar with Stob a Choice Odhair from Victoria Bridge. And in amongst all this too, my first Weegie Munro and one or two other little gems I never knew existed.

I have spent more days than in previous years climbing with than without companions; I was grateful at the beginning of the year to meet Luke Ellix inside a ping pong ball half way up Carn A Chlamain on the path from Blair Atholl, with whom together we reached a summit to which we could never have walked alone, showing thus the value of collective necessity in the face of common struggle. I was visited for my last plateau Cairngorm by my dear friend Karen from my former home in The Netherlands, and throughout the year I have been from time to time accompanied by my regular buddies Martyn and Coll the dog, or Chris – although not at the same time – and not to forget Ben Starav in October, with some of the wonderful colleagues who helped me get to the hospital before Christmas.

Despite these achievements, and the photos I take to share here, the stories I am able to tell about them, I feel that it is my writing, rather than my mountain technique that is developing most promisingly – with particular reference recently to mother’s natural wisdom and her insistence on intelligent healing techniques, which neither reduce nor mechanise the complexities of being alive, nor vice versa, and which must be taken both as fundamental intellectual principle and sine qua non of health and being alive as such.

Most importantly about mother’s wisdom though is her agency, that we must be taught from an early age by one who knows, learn from the experience of being a living body, becoming mindful of the changes that take place during a life, under whatever diverse conditions, of what preserves and improves, of what stagnates and decays. My mother not only believed these things to be incontrovertibly true, she lived them daily in the practice of her life, to her final breath, which despite childhood paralysis caused by bad medication, gave her eighty five orbits of the sun, which she regarded as having been a good life, inspiring others with her independent wisdom and fierce intelligence, amongst whom her elder son, coming to realise now that his mother’s wisdom really is quite important! 

The more reflective, speculative and theoretical writing of the summer that emerged from earlier narratives about the personal and spiritual significance of being in the mountains can be see as preparations. So too the pieces on the phenomenology of medical determinism, on the experience of being a cancer patient and the staggering fact that any of this exists at all; that we have all, whether we realise it or not, been given this chance to celebrate being alive and breathing. Even lying behind curtains in a hospital bed, the room just settled from the disturbance of pained cancerous sleep, to more restful and rhythmical breathing, coming to an understanding of these things during the writing of this blog last year seems to be an achievement of much greater girth than climbing any mountain.

For the moment I do not know quite what to do with this, except to state the obvious, that although by no means at an end, days camping out high and clambering over wilderness summits are getting sparser, Munro summits will become fewer and further between. I will have to spend more time looking after myself at home, preparing longer and more vigilantly for possible trips away. 

I will have more time for writing. Apart from continuing to find the right words in the right order for a novel, I will be continuing my descriptions of this immaculate cancer care at every level, and I will continue to inspire others to get as much out of their lives as they are able. 

Mother’s wisdom is in my mind though, which I have in mind to develop further. For there is a power here that has yet to be tapped, something about ourselves we do not yet know of ourselves, and yet somehow always, already do.

I look forward to another good year working out what all this means, maybe getting to the summit of the odd unbagged Munro, certainly strolling along beaches with my lovely Shona, through farmland, along clifftops, and over moors, exploring together the heights without ever leaving the ground. 

Love and peace. 

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Author: Duncan Spence

Mountaineer, retired bicycle messenger, philosopher, wordsmith.

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