Never give up

Munros since diagnosis #199 and #200

12:30 – Stob Ban (M140), 3278ft, 999m

14:30 – Mullach nan Coirean (M236), 3081ft, 939m

I once thought that I had plumbed every depth of despondency. Over the last few months however I have been experiencing a kind of despair I have never known, a sense of utter pointlessness, finding no purpose or reason for getting out of bed, wondering what the point was of ever having done so at all, of ever believing that anything I ever did had any value or significance. The darkness is always deepest in the early hours, awakening and latching onto some past failure, humiliation or episode of dickheadery, or just becoming convinced that I have achieved nothing in life and squandered every opportunity presented me. The underlying sense of futility is only exaggerated by engaging with the slow motion train crash of events, which is ever more obviously bringing humanity to the brink of extinction, the civilised world watching in degrees of horror and trepidation, waiting to find out if the USA has reelected a infantile, narcissistic imbecile as president.

It started in August when I heard that my PSA was rising again, or to put it another way, that the medication I endure to keep the disease at bay was no longer working quite as it should, that its aggressive malignancy had outsmarted the medication. I was hardly out of lockdown, having dutifully stayed at home throughout, despite feeling fully capable again of climbing mountains, sacrificing my personal goals for the common good, accepting that despite anomalies, the guidelines were there for everybody. The weather was perfect too. I could have climbed many Munros during the best season of the year for doing so, and already I would have surpassed 200. Then, just when I was starting up again, seeking out the best unclimbed clusters and planning trips into the wane of the year, fitting round other commitments and within the regular cycle of medication (which leaves me bed bound for up to a week every month) I learn that the disease is biting at my heels, reminding me of the whole medical thing that will become my life again, taking me back to the moment I first heard the news, that unless I took the medication I would be dead within a year, and even if I did I would likely die in three, bringing me again inside the worst double-bind I have ever had to endure. To add to my woes, since about the end of September I have been experiencing symptoms that concern me, that demand proximity to toilet facilities, that are also worse in the early hours and accompanied often by excruciating pain.

Reaching the summit of my 200th Munro has nevertheless been a burning ambition since before I was hospitalised at the end of 2018, when my tally was 174. This has kept me going, given me something for which to strive. Even though I spent most of 2019 recovering from radiotherapy and enduring the horrors of chemo, I still managed to add another 9 before the end of the year. After lockdown in July this year I ventured out again and climbed the Beinn Dearg cluster near Ullapool and a week later Beinn a’ Biethir at Ballachuilish, adding another 6. In August I went up Sgor na h-Ulaidh and then ventured into the Mamores for the first time, adding 3. And last month, with trips in the campervan to the Great Glen and to the eastern Fannaichs, I finished off the top fifty and set myself up nicely to choose the location for numbers 199 and 200. At the back of my mind during these months was always a sense that once I get to 200 I will be able to rest, to slow down and concentrate on writing my book or on something else, free of self imposed ambition. That something had to change. I am tired. My body is finding it more and more difficult to endure the exertion, preparation and stress required to get to a group of unclimbed Munros, most of which are now rather far away, not easily clustered together and more challenging than the gentle peaks of the Grampians nearer home.

Under other circumstances I would have invited as many of my mountain buddies as possible for number 200, as I did for Ben Lomond on my sixtieth birthday. But, I remained within my bubble and kept my distance in the campervan; I met Martyn again, who slept in his car again and invited his friend Gwynneth, who also slept in her car. All three of us have good reason to adhere to the guidelines, travelling only within advised limits for exercise, keeping a respectable distance from each other. It would however be easy to see the guidelines as arbitrary, ambiguous or inconsistent and to decide to fly beneath the radar; the chance of catching or spreading a virus up a mountain is surely a lot less than in a busy city park; the mental health benefits of the great outdoors are undisputed. If I were not in a vulnerable category, I would be much less strict.

Apart from the barely concealed breakdown of the social order, the collapse of trust in government and a potentially fatal blow to capitalism, the worst effect of the pandemic is the separation it creates, the incipient mistrust engendered by the pathogen’s invisibility, the assumption that proximity to others and contact with surfaces might result in both infection and infectiousness, that crowding together is inherently dangerous, and that rather ironically, being sociable, at least in the meantime, is antisocial. Perhaps enforced social distance will successfully thwart the spread of the virus, perhaps not, it depends on the extent to which individuals are able to extract the principles underlying the guidelines rather than get bogged down in trying to fit every possible scenario within them, or vice versa, and in good faith to conduct themselves in ways that will make the spread of the virus less likely. Some might think this a rather tall order. Whatever else, conditions of mutual suspicion and mistrust will continue to pile up for many years to come, adding to the divisiveness created by neoliberal ideology. The comfortable future of economic growth has been summarily removed. Political stability is a thing of the past. Getting back to normal is a forlorn hope. Disaster capitalists and eugenicists are waiting eagerly in the wings to make a killing.

On the other hand, the weather forecast for the day improved as it approached, to the point where the Mountain Weather Information Service declared it was more or less certain that there would be cloud-free summits. I was reminded of my trip along the CMDA to Ben Nevis with Chris when the MWIS said the same, and felt sure this would be another epic day out, but I was nervous, worried that I would not get a good night’s sleep, that my bowels would disturb me, that my temperature fluctuations and medically induced flushes would get the better of me, that I would fail on the brink of this achievement, forced by dint of circumstance or my own inadequacy to return home, disappointed. I arrived at the big carpark near Polldubh in Glen Nevis at about seven in the evening, a little stressed out and later than I had wanted, having been encumbered by diversions and road works and stuck behind traffic at points along the way. Martyn had phoned to say they would probably be arriving after nine. I parked up, made supper and went to sleep. In the middle of the night nature called and I saw that Martyn was parked nearby. I was glad he had not woken me up.

I slept enough, though fitfully. Early, when it was still dark I had to make another visit, after which I felt a rising sense of peace and relief. I had already made the first step by waking up into this day; there was nothing to worry about. The route would be straightforward; a long slow rise up the glen to a bealach, then on to a pointy peak, back down the other side, along a ridge to a plateau and down from its highest point along a shoulder into the forest. The journey was already underway from the moment I woke up here at the start of the path thinking about it, with all I would need and a beautiful day ahead. I sat awhile, breaking into the day, relieving myself of demons, concentrating on these opening gestures of the journey.

We had agreed to leave at about eight, which gave me plenty time to eat a good breakfast, to prepare food for the day, including a steaming flask of home made broth, and to tidy up. The first to introduce herself was Gwynneth’s dog Poppy, an engaging little spaniel with a bright face and infinite stock of energy. Then Coll came bouncing over to say hello. I walked over to the human beings and introduced myself to Gwynneth. She told Martyn that because she and I had never met, we would have to be polite to each other, while we could both be rude about him without redress. He agreed to be the butt of all ridicule for the day. I was ready at eight. A film crew was roaming the expansive carpark asking people to move to other spaces so a fleet of vehicles could be stabled neatly for the day, but nobody was at liberty to tell us anything about the film. Before eight-fifteen, Gwynneth was also ready. We left just before eight-thirty.

After looking over the bridge into the lower falls on the River Nevis, we took the path towards the hill, along the Allt Coire a’ Mhusgain. Morning light intensified the autumn ochres, casting dark shadows on the flanks of Ben Nevis, illuminating the complex gnarls of the Aonachs and the pointy tips of the Grey Corries beyond. We rose gently and without difficulty through regenerating birch woods along a well trodden path, under the western flank of Sgurr a Mhaim, opposite a complex of high corries, serrated ridges and pointy peaks, after which gradually slanting high above the burn, zigzagging and flanking again to pick it up more steeply into a high corrie, with view of a clear path onto the bealach. The sun shone. It was warm. There was not a breath of wind. We were surrounded by massive rock formations and complex cliffs. The dogs ran about happily. The humans chatted and passed the time of day with passers by, unhurried and content. At the bealach we stopped for elevenses gazing southwest past Glen Coe and the Black Mount to Rannoch, Orchy and Ben Lawers.

The path from here in the direction of Stob Ban looked rather daunting, carved into the earthy side of the mountain, high above the course of the West Highland Way, just behind the crest of a crisp ridge finishing with a steep peak of quartzite screes and precipitous cliffs. It was nevertheless straightforward, presenting no difficulties and took us to the summit of Stob Ban before twelve thirty. I was enjoying our relaxed pace, such a contrast to our traverse of the eastern Fannaichs, when keeping moving became necessary for keeping warm, there was absolutely no hurry and every reason to dawdle, to stop from time to time and gaze in awe at the expanding horizon. We hung out at the summit for a while, taking photos and eating first lunch.

I faced towards the goal of the day, the 200th Munro since being diagnosed with cancer, Mullach nan Coirean, the highest point on an escarpment of grass at the end of a pleasantly curved ridge, with a horseshoe of sheer cliffs on the dip side. I began to feel the the goal pulling me forward, motivating me, just as I had arranged. The next section of the route was without doubt the most challenging, through semi screes and boulder fields of angular quartzite, steeply down towards a grassy bealach and the return of an obvious path, purposefully gouged out of the earth. I teetered over the wobbly rocks until I picked up a more obvious path again beside the cliff edge, after which my feet were happier and I strode on towards a large boulder at the lowest point on the path, where I sat watching ridges recede in the distance, waiting for the others.

Martyn and Gwynneth caught up and I overheard mention of a stroke. This was the first time Gwynneth had been up a Munro for four years. She had been up smaller hills and taken long distance walks, and explained that she had to be very careful descending because she was never fully aware of exactly where her left leg would land. I was impressed with her tenacity and willingness not to let the small matter of a serious medical condition to keep her from climbing mountains. We walked on towards the most spectacular section of the day, dipping slightly to pick a route behind the crest of a sharp ridge garnished with pinnacles and sheer drops into a clover shaped corrie of high rutting grounds. We stopped often to admire the views and to take photos. Then we climbed up onto the grassy plateau of Mullach nan Coirean. Views opened out back through the Mamores, over Rannoch, Glen Coe, Etive, Cruachan, down Loch Linnhe to Mull, Morvern, Knoydart, Kintail, Cluanie, Affric, and further north, dominated by the enormous bulk of Ben Nevis, the Aonachs and Grey Corries.

It was an easy walk to the summit. The others had me stand on the top of the large cairn, gazing at the world. It was somewhat overwhelming. I stood for a while soaking it up, all that had come before to take me to this place, turning round the horizon naming the peaks to myself, knowing that because they are where they are, I am here where I am. I could not also give each summit a number (I am not that obsessive) but I could remember when I had visited each. These old friends. The privilege of climbing mountains is experiencing at first hand, by the power of a living body, the multiple perspectives of the land, with such clarity and so intimately. I stood in the middle of it all, letting it be what it is. There was still not a breath of wind. High cloud drifted in front of the sun, then floated off. Unseasonably warm. I climbed down from the cairn and we ate second lunch, looking over Lochaber and Loch Linnhe to Morvern and Mull.

We started the descent before three, firstly circumnavigating more quartzite to find the start of the sharp northeast shoulder. It was steep and stony, but levelled out and broadened further down into an increasingly boggy mess. The final drop towards the forest was particularly squelchy and steep, challenging us all to remain upright. On the way we met a family wearing wellies. Two little children with little packs, mum with giant pack, dad with giant pack and small child on his shoulder wearing a mask a waving a flag. One of the little ones said they were going to camp up the mountain and see the sunrise; there was also a story of once when they had walked along a special ridge. Mum and dad smiled confidently, fit and well equipped. The children were healthy and happy, experiencing the actual world of mud and sunrises from the top of a mountain. But wellies?!? Martyn opined that wellies are very good in the mountains. Looking at the ground, I found it hard to disagree, and I remembered somebody I knew at university declaring that the best footwear for deep snow in the mountains was wellies. But, I thought in full caps, ANKLE PROTECTION!

At length we crossed over the last style in the fence and entered the forest again. There was also a special style for dogs. An old path wound a way through an area that had long ago been felled, was now regenerating with a diversity of scrub and young trees and yet concealed may ancient roots, made shiny by years of boots, always wet and very slippery. Only once though did I slither to sit unceremoniously in a wet splodge of peat. The mountain path converged with a forest track and at a hairpin, plunged again through another area of cleared ground with a few ancient red pines still standing by the burn. As we reached the road we could see much commotion and arc lighting, as filming continued. Daylight was failing. We turned towards the carpark.

Temporary traffic lights had been erected in and out of the carpark and over the bridge to the upper glen. We changed out of mountain clothes and prepared for journeys home. The dogs found their beds and quickly fell asleep. I said my farewells and thanked them for their company on this special day. It was a pleasure to make Gwynneth’s acquaintance and it was good sport poking fun at Martyn all day.

I was not sure whether or not I would spend another night out in the van, but I knew that if I did, it would not be here, surrounded by luvvies and their crew in a carpark half way up a glen just outside one of the busiest towns in the highlands. So I joined the queue out of the car park, chatted to the bloke with the hi viz and walkie talkie, then rolled down the switchback to the outskirts of Fort William, turning north to Spean Bridge and then east towards Laggan, where I turned into the carpark at Creag Meagaidh and parked up for the night. Going home would have been too much. I had everything I needed. This is a safe place.

I ate well, slept well and was only troubled once by my bowels. (Concerned readers might be relieved to know I have perfected a technique for gathering my waste in a bag for responsible disposal. Take nothing but photos, leave nothing but footprints.) Something had changed, the world was going to be shifting again. Good sense and reason had evidently prevailed in the USA, and yet despite democracy doing its thing, the imbecile was refusing to leave the White House. No real surprise there then, though news media turned very quickly against his delusional assertions that it was all a fix, that there had been systematic vote rigging to keep him out and that he had in fact won. I ate breakfast and tidied up the van, then wrote the following to my world at Facebook:

Yesterday I climbed Munros number 199 and 200, the two westernmost Mamores, Stob Ban and Mullach na Coirean, in unbelievable weather, not a breath of wind, warm sun and open sky. 200 Munros with a supposedly malignant and aggressive cancer that was predicted to kill me five years ago. I write this not only to celebrate this incredible achievement, but to emphasise that will power and a focused disciplined mind are as important to health as anything, that refusing to give up pays off, generating a depth of experience which offers much more compassionate and honest perspectives on life. It is particularly sweet to have achieved this on the same day that it became clear that my good friends in the US have been rid of that monster in the White House. With focused will, we all can find the strength to be the change we want to see. Nothing is inevitable until we put a mind to it.

It is difficult further to put into words what the achievement means to me. 200 is of course just another number; a milestone is just one stage on a journey. Why this achievement should be any more or less significant than the last or the next is arbitrary. It is so because I made it so. For a while I thought the impending sense of change associated with anticipating Munro number 200 had to do with my no longer being able to get up mountains. But I do not believe this now. Clearly I am able. Despite its alleged malignancy, the disease does not stop the body doing what it does. There will be more Munros, but I will concentrate on more salient traverses, or on places I have always wanted to (re)visit, doing it not to fulfil any ambition, but because I am able and it is there. I look forward in particular to the climb up Sgurr a’ Mhaim, the big mountain dominating the view to the east for most of our day out and along the flanks of which we walked in the morning, at 1099 metres the highest summit I have yet to climb, the first (or last) summit on the so called Ring of Steall, sometime at the start of the year, on a day like today, when the air is set to be still and the sun warm in a deep blue sky.

I have to be kind to myself, remember that I am not a complete failure, that I have done stuff with my life. And I must not forget that these periods of emotional disturbance are recognised side effects of hormone depleting medication. So what if my PSA is rising despite the medication. I have been here before. Yes, this is now different, but it is not the end. The most important thing about today is that I can now complete my book on a positive trajectory. It will not be a prelude to my demise, rather a documentation that being told of my imminent demise continues to be no barrier to being alive. The book can now end thus: at the end of the year 2020, despite numerous setbacks, I took my tally to 200 Munros having also ticked off the highest 50; I did not die but live on to climb another day. I never gave up and continue not to do so, despite demons of the night, uncomfortable bowel movements (that may or may not have something to do with the disease) and the vicissitudes of populism.

Many thanks to Gwynneth, Martyn and the dogs for sharing the day.


If you have enjoyed reading these words, without adverts obscuring the flow, this is because I have paid for it to be so. I recently received the bill from WordPress for the excellent service and for the next registration period for the domain name. It rather took me aback, as I am now scraping the bottom of my resources, living only from the PIP I receive from the state because I have what is euphemistically known as a long term illness.

If you feel able to contribute in any way to the cost of this site’s upkeep, please get in touch at dncnspnc at gmail dot com, or use the same address at PayPal with the reference I S B S – It’s shite being Scottish. 🙂

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Thank you for reading. Never give up. Love and peace.

Author: Duncan Spence

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

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