Coming out of lockdown

Tuesday 21st – Thursday 23rd July 2020

Munros since diagnosis #184 – #187

13:15 – Beinn Dearg (M057), 3556ft, 1084m

14:45 – Cona’ Meall (M176), 3209ft, 978m

16:15 – Meal nan Ceapraichean (M177), 3205ft, 977m

18:15 – Edidh nan Clach Geala (M257), 3041ft, 927m


A week before lockdown, my wife and I were in Inverness on a long arranged break celebrating us both now being sixty. We had a night out in Glen Feshie with the campervan on the way, where I managed to build a fire using wet woodfall to cheer against the drizzle. The next day we visited the animals at the Highland Wildlife Park, where I fell in love with wolverines and wanted to take home a snow leopard cub. While staying in Inverness we drove up to the end of Glen Conon, from which I yomped to beyond the last holiday cottage, with an eye on the bulky white plateau of Maoile Lunndaidh in the distance, the centrepiece of what I thought would be my next expedition away with my tent.


Less than a week later, we took the campervan to Lochaber. It was cold and windy. The heights of the Grey Corries and Nevis ranges were thick and shiny with frozen snow, with Ben Nevis as usual holding onto summit cloud. The night before lockdown was announced, we were parked up at Corriechoillie after one at Garva Bridge by Laggan, a walk into the big corrie under Creag Meagaidh, and another night as the last visitors to the campsite at Roybridge. Naively we thought it would be possible to lockdown on the road, at least for a week or so. We would have been well able to maintain the appropriate distance from others, we had enough food, extra fuel and provisions. The attitude we encountered as we drove back to the road through the bit of Spean Bridge nobody ever sees, encouraged us nevertheless to think again. Fury was thrown at us by passing vehicles, curtains twitched and harsh language uttered. So we went home.


For the first three weeks I never left the house, during which I learned all there is to know about viruses, and like the rest of the world, watched the pandemic rise as the collective intelligence of humanity declined. It occurred to me that when supermarkets sell out of toilet roll because of a virus with largely respiratory symptoms, George Carlin’s warning never to underestimate the power of stupid people in large groups becomes particularly pertinent.


It seemed like the perfect opportunity however to continue writing and maybe even complete the various unfinished manuscripts I have on my hard drive, but I lost my mojo. I simply could not write. Everything I might have to say about my adventures in the mountains, or anything else, seemed trite in comparison to the crisis unfolding everywhere. Quite early on during lockdown, my wife and I had a video call with a friend who declared she was going to use this time as an excuse to go on retreat. This immediately appealed to me. After all, many years of solitary mountain wandering has taught me how to endure my own company, and the assorted meditation techniques and philosophical principles I have learned as a peripheral member of the Buddhist community can all now be put into practice. My wife found it difficult not seeing her children and grandchildren, but with the marvels of technology we could see and speak to them all regularly. 


For a while, I followed the newsfeed with interest, keeping up with every nuance of the assorted arguments and opinions dispersing into public discourse like pigeons scattering before curious toddlers. I even joined in for a while on Twitter, but discovered quickly that despite its demonstrable power as resource, it is a veritable black hole on the other side of which is a multidimensional chaos of vitriol and micro-gossip, so now I only lurk there. Meanwhile it became clear that the countries of the world were dividing up along quite distinct lines. Countries like New Zealand, Germany, Canada with broadly social democratic governments and a tradition of responsible governance made genuine efforts to introduce measures and policies to attenuate the worst effects of the epidemic. Countries like Brazil, the USA and the UK made efforts at every turn to deny, obfuscate and ensure that at all costs “the economy” would be preserved and their disaster capitalist pals able to clean up in emerging markets for protective equipment, virus research and epidemiological data. With one or two exceptions, the lowest death rates are among the former category of country, while the highest are in the latter. The complexity of Scotland’s status can be summed up fairly easily: were we to be an autonomous country, we would have moved more in the direction of New Zealand and closed down the border with England.


So I moved away from the newsfeed and ventured into the garden, where I began the task of converting the ground from a rat-infested jungle into an outside room that can be used for cultivation. It was a long haul, but the weather was good. I moved and riddled a lot of ground, created borders, pulled out ancient shrubs, buggered up my back pulling up the base of an old fashioned clothes poles that had somehow remained hidden throughout the garden’s many years of renovation and development. Since moving in, I had rather let it go; with lockdown I found good reason to work together with my wife on our own little piece of land, and for me to leave a footprint in the sand, something more concrete than all these words. We put up a couple of poly greenhouses and I built some raised beds and cold frames. By the end of June we were no longer buying lettuces, we had a marvellous crop of kale with another on the way, the beetroot were sweet and juicy, but some of the little white turnips had already been enjoyed by a variety of thin worm. Potatoes, carrots, courgettes and tomatoes are now coming on. I also moved the woodshed, cleared a space in the sun for a garden table and replaced the rear door and window of the garage. I feel as if I had a very positive lockdown.


Coming out of lockdown was then a little daunting. My fitness level and core strength are back to something like what might be expected for a man of my age. On the day before lockdown my wife and I walked to the bealach on the way to Stob Ban, the Grey Corrie I decided not to bag back in the summer of 2018. Perhaps if I had been with one of my experienced mountain buddies and had started much earlier in the day, I could have made it to the summit. Conditions were perfect for a clear ascent of hard packed frozen snow. But it was not to be. I will be back. The point is only to emphasise that I would have been able again throughout the lockdown to climb mountains had this been permitted; gardening and carpentry are also very good exercise for a body, but nothing beats reaching the heights of the world. I have therefore been frustrated throughout. We had a plan to drop me at the side of the road on the moor above Strath Carron, so I could disappear into West Monar for a week to bag Maoile Lunndaidh and its neighbours before emerging somewhere to the south for pickup. It never happened, but it was a fine fantasy.


When at last, lockdown was lifted, I was trepidatious. I did not want immediately to mix with the hordes littering the countryside. I wanted to get out with my tent again somewhere far away beside some spectacular mountains. Chris declared that he had a couple of nights available and I presented him with some ideas. We rejected Fisherfield on the basis that two nights would not be enough. The Fannaichs, or some of them seemed also possible, but there is a lot of there-and-back involved. So we decided on plan C. The Beinn Dearg cluster.


We left Inverlael car park just after six in the evening, yomped about 8 km up the path to find a high point on a moraine between two burns, where we made camp at about nine. It was still light. I ate hungrily, wrapped up in down and fleece, warming up against the sweat of the ascent and the side effects of the medication. I had a difficult night, the midges were fierce and my digestion was disturbed. It took me a long time to get moving in the morning. Chris was very patient and went off to sketch the landscape. We left camp at about ten-thirty, the same moment as a group of young people and an enthusiastic dog trotted past chatting happily. It was a fine morning. Cloud was hanging a bit above 3000ft, obscuring the summits, but there were patches of blue sky between and a wind to move the clouds about. The path was clear and easy to follow up to the bealach, where there is a fascinating topography of boggy pools, outcrops and randomly scattered boulders, a place where three glaciers once dripped off a plateau, as the surrounding summits slowly emerged from the receding icecap, one into the glen we had just climbed, another to the north east, grassier and connected with the mass of round hills heading north to Seanna Bhraigh, and one behind an ancient drystane wall, plunging almost sheer for a thousand feet or more into a rocky corrie.


We had agreed that we would climb as many or as few as we wanted, or were able, given that the previous evening on the way up the glen we had both become aware of our lockdown legs. We sat with our backs against the wall, preparing to follow it upwards into the gloom and to the summit of Beinn Dearg. A pair of young men passed by on the way up and as we left, the group of six and a dog passed by on the way to Cona’ Meall. It was hard work, but it was much easier than had I feared. As the ground flattened out and I saw the summit cairn ahead I was overwhelmed with an emotion I find difficult to articulate; a sense of achievement woven into a deep feeling of humility and overlain with exuberant joy, always diffused with a more philosophical wonderment, not that I made it here despite the disease, but that there is here anything at all. There was not much to see at the summit, but on the way back down, the cloud lifted to reveal views towards the Summer Isles and Assynt. The sky to the north was clearing too to reveal the mountains of Sutherland on a long horizon behind Creag an Duine and Seana Bhraigh. 


On the way past the end of the wall we met the group of six and a dog on their way now to Meal na Ceapraichean. On the way over the grassy slopes of Cona’ Meall, we met the two lads on their way down. On their advice we followed the path curving round the south of the summit rather than attempt to negotiate the screes on the direct route. At the summit, the cloud lifted to reveal the marvels of this landscape, below to the east, the grassy north east corrie from the bealach plunges several hundred feet over a cliff into another dark rocky corrie. There were clear views of the North Sea off Caithness and the Atlantic Ocean with the Outer Hebrides on the other side of the Minch. As we retraced our steps to the bealach I felt my legs warming up for more, and my spirit rise. We sat again against the wall, looking out at the path up Meal na Ceapraichean and decided we might as well follow that too, and then decide whether to return the way we had come or continue along the ridge to the next bealach and the choice of continuing up Edidh nan Clach Geala or following a stalkers’ path back more or less to the tents.


At the summit of Meal na Ceapraichean, it was clear that returning by the same route would be longer than following the ridge, so we consulted the map and set a bearing off the subsidiary top of the mountain as cloud swirled past just above our heads. We found a way through the tumble of screes, bogs and crags to a wild bealach of pools and fascinating outcrops, a place where I would love in better weather to make camp and explore. We picked up an easy path towards the start of the gentle ascent of Edidh nan Clach Geala. We could not come all this way and not climb it now, The weather was turning a bit, with a comforting drizzle sloughing off the passing cloud. Again there was nothing to see at the summit and we had to take a bearing to reach a safe descent. We traversed the side of the hill, looking out to the vast cliffs and gullies of Beinn Dearg and Meal na Ceapraichean, eventually meeting the stalkers’ path out. We were back at the tents before seven-thirty.


I had a better night. It rained heavily and in the morning it was wet. One of the ideas mooted the previous day was to climb the first three and leave the fourth to this morning. We were glad we were not going to be doing that. Again Chris was very patient as I slowly got myself together. It was a shock to this body I think suddenly to return to mountain camping mode after more than two years, at the same time as breaking through lockdown legs and waking up in such typically sodden, midge infested conditions. It took us little more than two hours to get back to the carpark. On the way south we stopped at the Altguish Inn for a tasty lunch of mushroom soup followed by haggis pakora with mango chutney on a bed of fresh salad. Highly recommended!


At home I laid out my wet stuff in the garage to air and filled the washing machine with sweaty clothes. I was a little trepidatious that I would wake up the next day unable to come down stairs or cramped up from my exertions, as I had the day after Ben Lomond. But no. Since returning I have indeed had a couple of days quiet recovery, but I feel strong again, ready for more. The unwanted effects of chemotherapy have definitely now left me. The tally is now 187. I would like very much to reach 200 before the end of 2020. Watch this space.

Thanks to Chris for a marvellous expedition and for use of the featured photo.


Author: Duncan Spence

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

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