Munro since diagnosis #181
14:00 Beinn Narnain (M259), 3038ft, 926m
I love autumn, always have. It truly is the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness. As a child growing up in Perthshire, the lowering sun and shortening days of autumn, the changing colours of trees, meadows and bracken were an ordinary event; in the autumn of my life these have become coupled with deep rumination, now inevitably infested by what happened seven autumns ago, when first I was diagnosed with this disease and told that even if I took the medication I would die within three years.
Previous anniversaries have come and gone with less intensity than this one; it seems as if every question I have had to answer, every issue I have had to confront, every fear I have experienced, every anger and guilt that arose in the aftermath, have returned to haunt me. The only reason I am able to cope is that it is all very familiar and know it will pass, though sometimes I dissolve into a mess. It all goes back to the moment I was told that thing, in that way, by that urologist.
During these seven years, he has been the only medical professional ever to have proffered any specific number of years in answer to the question of how long I might have left in this place. His answer was the only one so blunt, so encased in emotional blackmail, and his attitude remains stuck in my craw. He is the only doctor ever to have answered the question with anything other than: it is always difficult to predict, individual cases vary greatly and statistical norms are no indication of how any particular disease will develop; it is true that there is no cure, but it can be managed successfully for a long time, and there are always new treatments coming into use, some of which as yet we know nothing about – which would be a rough summation of what I have subsequently learned to be the most truthful, sensible and compassionate answer.
But no. What I got first, and what has stuck, despite experience to the contrary, was that the medication would keep me alive for only two years more than the solitary year I could expect without it. That I would be dead within a year if I did not take the medication and within three if I did. This is a literal translation of what he said; his Dutch words still haunt me. It is my suspicion that he offered the information in this way because at that moment, I had still not taken the medication he had prescribed; I was waiting until I had all the facts at my disposal before making any decisions about treatment, and this evidently was both a threat to the authority of his ego, position and knowledge, and an inconvenient blip in the smooth operation of the big assemblage of state and insurance capital paying his wages.
As I have said before, the most profound effect of such a bleak prognosis is not so much a fear of death or dying (although these are not entirely absent), but the obliteration of the future. Despite epiphanies where, looking back, I have seen that until this present I have been alive since that past event, and that perforce at that moment, objectively, I did have a future, it seems still to have been taken away from me, with no justification, by a spiteful provincial urologist with a hidden agenda.
I have on file still an unsent letter to the hospital where all this happened, pointing out that on the basis of the prognosis, I made decisions that have left me financially worse off than would otherwise have been the case. More importantly though, the longer I live beyond the limit of that resentful first prognosis, the greater the stress I encounter. The letter will probably never be sent, but I am not yet ready to bin it.
With all this nonsense rattling round my head, I have been desperate to get out into the hills. Despite marvellous autumn weather, windows of opportunity have been limited by the continuing aftereffects of the chemo and continuing side effects of chemical castration. And given that the bulk of unclimbed peaks on my Munro list lie beyond The Great Glen, requiring a very long drive or nights out, not to mention shortening days, the logistics of my campaign are becoming more challenging.
In every year since he retired, Martyn has reached the summits of as many previously unclimbed peaks as his age on his next birthday. So for example, during his 65th year (starting on his 64th birthday) he would climb 65 new summits. And so forth. He explained that although this might seem at first sight to be a substantial challenge, particularly for one who has bagged every Munro, there are more lists of hills than the well known ones, which contain many, many unclimbed hilltops.
Reasonably, he has been trying for some time to persuade me of the joys of these minor lists. After succumbing to a lurgy on the day we had planned to bag some Arrochar Alps, I relented, and a few days later joined him in for a walk in the Ochils, where we bagged two each of Donalds and Tumps – respectively all 89 of the hills in lowland Scotland above 2000 feet, and all 17,060 (!) tops in Scotland, England, Wales, the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands separated from adjacent tops by a height difference of at least 30 metres, on all sides – thereby keeping his tally on course for the year’s goal.
I got on a bus at just after nine thirty and met Martyn, as arranged at Halbeath P&R less than an hour later, from which it was a forty minute drive into the heart of Glen Devon, where we parked just past the lodges at The Whittens. What a glorious day it was to be out anywhere! Not a cloud in the sky, warming sun, cooling breeze, mellow autumn colours, ripe brambles. First, we followed a forest track as it contoured back to one end of the ridge that forms a horseshoe round the Glen Sherup reservoir.
After rising steeply through an old firebreak we entered an almost savannah-like landscape. This bit of the Ochils has been cleared of grazing animals and seeded with indigenous trees. The grass is tall, but now yellowed and bowed over, young trees colonise the slopes with varying degrees of success. It was a very pleasant walk, affording marvellous views towards both the southern Highlands and the Central Belt. And it turned out to be a training run for the actual attempt on some Arrochar Alps a week later.
Again, we met at Halbeath P&R, although much earlier this time, and were walking away from the carpark at Arrochar just before ten. The plan was to bag both Beinn Narnain and Ben Ime, but we were unsure of the best route to take. Martyn left me to decide, so I went for the logistically more sensible option – straight up the front of Beinn Narnain, to get the steepest section out of the way first and more quickly gain altitude, followed by a gentle descent to the bealach, the much more gentle and less rocky ascent of Ben Ime and gentle return via the path under Beinn Narnain.
It took me somewhat more than the projected two and a bit hours to get to the summit. This was the steepest path I have taken since Ben Starav last autumn, and the greatest continuous ascent. It was hard work and I had to stop frequently to recuperate and snack. My legs felt heavy and were not able to do what they once did, and so I did not push myself, and tried to move mindfully. As we climbed out of the forest, the views of Ben Lomond and all the Trossachs beyond opened out.
The higher we climbed, the more rocky was the path, with several sections of light scrambling nearer the top. The steepness seems to go on for ever, but it levels out slightly for a bit at a point where possibly the strangest mountain in Scotland – The Cobbler – and the summit lump of Narnain both come into view.
The final section felt like real mountaineering. The path finds a way through a series of crags and piles of randomly sized boulders before skirting underneath a protruding tooth and up a bit of a gully. My spirit rose quite markedly with this experience – as if I was seeing my body doing something I thought it would never again be able to do, and certainly a reminder to my body of previous adventures and stuff that it managed easily and with great joy.
It was two o’clock before we were at the top. At which point I saw the summit of Ben Ime for the first time up ahead and thought to myself, nah, although I did not tell Martyn about this until we were on our way down to the bealach. It is a remarkably flat and wide summit for a mountain that appears so craggy and pointy. We did not stay long and soon headed off towards Ben Ime.
After I told Martyn of my decision, we sat near the lowest point on the bealach beside a rock looking at the path up Ben Ime, scattered along the way with white builders’ bags full of path making material, awaiting the arrival of path builders. Martyn was looking at his map and I was aware that he was up to something. Then he asked if I minded if he were to bag the hill next to Ben Ime – a Corbett, which was not so far away and would add to his tally. Of course I did not mind, it would give me the opportunity to take my time on the way down as he stretched his legs a bit after patiently keeping my pace on the way up Beinn Narnain.
The path builders have been busy. It was a long but easy descent between The Cobbler and Beinn Narnain, through fields of scattered boulders the size of small buildings, evidently tumbled down from the cliffs and crags above – although from the form of the thing, it looks as if at some point The Cobbler simply exploded, throwing random debris down the hillside.
As I descended, I became more convinced that it was a good decision not to carry on to Ben Ime – the mountain is not going anywhere, and I now have a clear idea of what it will take to climb it, maybe next week. I arrived back at the car slightly before five, Martyn and Coll the dog about half an hour later. It being now later in the day, buses home from Halbeath P&R are less frequent and no longer express, so Martyn took me to Inverkeithing railway station, where I did not have long to wait for a train home. Now that I have turned sixty (I still can’t quite believe this) I have a Saltire Card, entitling me to free bus travel throughout the country, and train travel within Fife for only a pound. Another of the little things – like free prescriptions, proportional representation and banning fracking – that distinguishes the governance of this country from alien governments at Westminster. A reminder of another important autumn anniversary, when five years ago the people of this country were asked whether or not they would like to become independent of Westminster and inexplicably voted no, after which emerged the most powerful political movement these islands have seen since the General Strike. So yesterday I marched, well actually I shuffled, along the Royal Mile in the capital with getting on for 200,000 other folks, who are going to carry on doing so until this country disentangles itself from the perfidy of Albion.
Autumn it may be, heralding the decline of life and the challenges of winter, but hope never dies, and despite setbacks, the power of people moving against unreason and oppression will always prevail.