Finishing what I started

unless testosterone is no longer doing what it once did, its effects remain largely unnoticed, as they blend into the ordinary conduct of life

Munro since diagnosis #183

13:30 – Glas Bheinn Mhòr (M145), 3271ft, 997m

Last October I bit off more than I could chew. I thought I would be able to climb this mountain after I had climbed two of its neighbours. It was only two months before I was hospitalised, while I still had an incomplete idea of how sick I was. I knew there were metastatic tumours round my ribcage and on my spine, but I had no idea that the PSA was well over a thousand. From the summit of Ben Starav on a glorious autumn day I saw Beinn nan Aighenan in the distance I thought to myself that I could get to it before coming back to Glas Bheinn Mhòr, but when I got to the top, I could see that I would make it back to the car in daylight only by not climbing Glas Bheinn Mhòr. So it has remained since, waiting for a day such as this.


Martyn was keen to get out, but having stubbed my toe on the kitchen door a few days earlier, I was keen to wait until it had healed before attempting anything more strenuous than a walk along the beach. The weather was set to be good in the west at the end of the week and he suggested I chose the route for a day out. I thought about it for a few minutes, did some logistical research, and then gave myself a kick up the arse. Time to forget about the disease and to leave behind the last poisonous effects of chemotherapy. Time to remember that great feats of physical exertion are accomplished primarily in the preparation, and that the greater part of preparation is mental, a kind of prospective mindfulness. For two days I examined maps, read walk reports, remembered the expedition of last year, looked at photos, thought about a route, packed my bag, organised food, filled up the van with fuel, laid out clothes.


Apart from forgetting how long it takes to scrape off frost, everything went well. I left fully prepared at about six, we met at our usual rendezvous just after seven thirty and found somewhere to park at the end of Glen Etive at about nine. While we booted up, Coll the dog bounced about enthusiastically breathing in the fresh morning air, sniffing rocks and leaving his scent. Back up the glen, morning light garnished the tops of the Glencoe mountains, but no sunshine reached here. We would likely be walking in shadow for most of the day. Not a cloud in the sky. It was very cold. Unlike last year, but still familiar.


From the top corner of the enclosure round Coilietir, we followed the line of a forest fence over boggy undulating grassland, to the river coming out of the glen between Ben Starav and Stob Coir na Albannaich, after which we followed the left bank. Glas Bheinn Mhòr is prominent and very pointy in the background all the way up. Initially the path is easy to find, but it spreads out quickly as many feet have sought a way over squelchy ground, and comes together again further up, then spreads out some more. At length the ground dries and the glen narrows, as the path becomes more obvious and weaves up through more rocky terrain, never steeply, but the ground is rough. All the way up we could see sunshine on the bealach ahead, hoping when we got there to find somewhere out of the wind to eat lunch.


We found a place, then after lunch clambered from the bealach over the steepest rockiest section and emerged onto a wonderful flat shoulder leading gently up to the summit. All around, the mountain tops were garnished with snow above about three thousand feet, towards the east the blanket was thicker and lower. We agreed that this is in fact the reason for being here. We use the summit of the mountain as a reason to walk along this little ridge, to gaze at familiar horizons from a new perspective, to feel the ground beneath our feet and view the world from this great height.


At the summit, we tarried long enough only to take photos. It was very cold. Ben Cruachan to the southwest with the Paps of Jura peeking round its northern flank, more to the west Ben Starav, huge and darkly shadowed, obscuring views of Morven and Mull. In the north, the complex ridges of Glen Coe with the Mamores and Nevis ranges behind. Northeast the vast shoulder of Stob Coir na Albannaich, decaying orange grasses frosted slightly, in front of the peaks of the Black Mount. Finally, spread along the southeast horizon from Beinn Achallader, Ben Dorian, Ben Challum, Ben More to the Trossachs and south towards the Clyde peninsulas.


I confessed to Martyn at the summit that at lunch as we sat in the meagre sun, out of the wind, but still very cold, I was having doubts, unsure whether I would be able to make it to the top. Because my body has been deprived of the major chemical necessary to motivate it, I can only make myself do things using my mind, I cannot rely on the pure masculinity of my drive. This is not an easy idea to express, for unless testosterone is no longer doing what it once did, its effects remain largely unnoticed, as they blend into the ordinary conduct of life. Like most other men, being still endowed with his natural biochemical complement, Martyn cannot experience this, but he listens well as I rant, and sees how the most obvious effect of my medication – the flushes – seriously screw around with my ability to regulate temperature. When every couple of hours, a layer of sweat seeps out to cocoon my body, no matter what the ambient temperature nor activity level, keeping warm becomes part of a delicate balance with drying off. Practically, it is a matter of experimenting with layers, but in this cold the challenges are more complex and the whole chemical castration thing saps my spirit, threatening at every moment to pull me down into a dark unhealthy place.


There is a flip side of course, for at the end of lunch, when I moved off following Martyn to the little clamber to the summit ridge, my body was reminded of what it loves to do. Old habits kicked in. Muscle memory of lifting legs and pushing upwards, seeking safe places for feet, handholds where necessary, checking for options and lines up, looking always several steps ahead. Then onto the shoulder, with the summit but a short stroll away over safe solid ground, surrounded by air and mountain horizons, all doubts evaporated. And as we walked off the summit, I laughed happily, a great gormless smile spreading over my face as I saw the landscape all around and felt the ground beneath my feet, the descending gradient, the cold air and my stubbornly alive body. If it is true that what is found at the summit of the mountain is only what is carried there, then I must be filled with great joy. 


We descended by a slightly different route, crossing to the other side of the glen in search of harder, less boggy ground. As the burn slides over a series of slabs in waterchutes that in high summer might be tempting, a path traverses to meet the path coming out of the bealach between Ben Starav and Glas Bheinn Mhòr, crossing over another two burns on the way and gradually revealing the cavernous chasm into which all this water cascades in a waterfall of maybe fifty feet, and what a bad idea it would be to use the slide of slabs above as a waterchute.


The sun was going down, intense orange light bathing orange mountainsides frosted at their summits like giant cakes, intensifying the autumn colours. On the way along the section of path which joins with the one up Ben Starav, my toe began to complain a bit. For the rest of the way down I sought out softer ground to cushion my footfalls, mindfully avoiding any slithering and soaking up the ambient orange light.


After crossing a wooden footbridge, which looks as if it might not survive a season of sustained inundation, we followed a good path round the river’s edge and back towards Coileitir, forgetting to turn off in time up and round the enclosure. There is a good track back to the bridge straight on, past the front of a whitewashed cottage with small outbuildings and no evidence of habitation, but it is blocked by a heavily bolted gate on a sturdy deer fence with a notice that might as well have written on it: fuck off. So we clambered round into the bog again, churning up the ground even further. Apparently in the old days, an elderly couple lived in this cottage who would chase away walkers and threaten them with violence. So I guess times are moving in the right direction.


After the cottage the track bridges the River Etive over a deep dark slow moving pool. As we walked over, I noticed how the barrier of the bridge is constructed: slats have been bolted along the edge of the concrete floor; and screwed into to the planks but not through to the concrete, what appear to be plumbing elements formed into fence shaped things. It am glad I did not decide to lean over, but tested it for stability instead. Apparently, these toy fences function purely as a marker for the edge of the bridge, unlike the sturdy ones round the cottage blocking a sensible route to the hills. It must be right that access laws require responsibility to be taken, that we should not expect untrammelled access to other people’s gardens. But given that we do have right of access to the hills, I wonder who would be responsible if a person leaned too heavily on these pretendy barriers and tumbled into the river.


Back at the car we prepared for the journey home, invigorated. Coll the dog jumped in the back and curled up in his place. We stopped at Tyndrum for stovies and to soak up the heat from a new kind of stove, which appears to burn cat litter and requires electricity to operate. We were both absolutely exhilarated, almost to the point of speechlessness. What a fantastic day out. Perfect almost. Back at the van, we said farewell and I made a cup of tea in preparation for the journey home, then spoke to my wife on the phone. Something has shifted again, she noticed immediately, more distance from disease, its methods of management and collateral damage, another step back into being alive.


Many thanks to Martyn for making today possible.

Author: Duncan Spence

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

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