When I reached the summit of Mullach na Coirean last November, I felt that this would be my last Munro. Not only had I taken the tally to 200, my excursions last year into the Mamores and Fannichs meant I had now summited every Munro above 1100 metres, the top 50, which seemed like a good moment to take a step back. Winter was coming and I needed to recover.
Answering the question: how are you is never straightforward.
Burning up on the inside, freezing cold on the outside, pushing sweat from every pore, pouring from pate, temple, neck, shoulders, chest, legs. Dripping and soaking into clothes, shivering and chattering. The shortest are dried away with towel or wind, after which normality is a blessed relief. Though sometimes, this so called hot flushing persists for hours on end. It is very difficult to know the natural state of this body now, for its functioning is governed entirely by the effects of medication, and yet there seems to be no medication under the sun capable of keeping these flushes away. Even the medics can only suggest a herbal preparation, sage powder, which helps a little, as does Paracetamol, though nothing brings relief in the throes of prolonged prickly heat, the hours during which there is no method of sloughing off the sweat, while keeping warm against the cold and cooling from the heat.
More than once I have called NHS 24 in state of stressed anxiety, wondering if this might be the sign of some hidden infection. Always I have spoken to a kind person who has taken me through triage, but when I have been called back by a clinician, the worst is passed and again I am blessed by normality.
I had very positive visit with the Edinburgh Cancer Centre recently though. It seems I am still doing very well. I felt like royalty; I talked with a new registrar, the professor and the senior clinical nurse specialist, all of whom have a slightly different take on the disease and how it affects my life. The medication against the cancer is working – a combination of Abiraterone and Decapeptyl, along with Prednisone to compensate for the depletion of natural steroids by the former while supporting my liver’s efforts to metabolise all these pharmaceuticals; also the medication against the effects of the disease – Tamsulosin, Oxycodone and Diazepam; and the medication against the undesirable side effects, except of course the aforementioned flushes – Paracetamol, Laxido and Ibuprofen. All my blood values are within normal limits, my PSA is hovering around 6. If (when) this combination of drugs stops working, and the PSA rises, the professor explained that this is often the result of only one tumour, which can be targeted with radiation. Once more the disease will be held at bay, managed.
It is however a delicate balance, sustained by bloodymindedness, whatever exercise I can manage and a healthy diet, supplemented with vitamins, minerals and immune system boosters. Having lived for most of of my life before cancer, and a number of years since, free of medication apart from a few courses of antibiotics, paracetamol and so forth, this new cyborg existence takes some getting used to. It is difficult to know what I can do with this body; if I push myself too far, I suffer the consequences; if I depart too much from my modest diet and give in to the temptation of rich food, my digestion complains in some way; if I exert myself too much or too quickly, I need a day or so to recover, and sometimes I experience odd throwbacks to chemotherapy; but if I give in completely to medicinal dependency, I soon become a blob of resentment and self indulgent despair, a condition not assuaged by one of the other major side effects of all this medication, emotional turmoil, the best remedy for which is getting out into the mountains.
It was a difficult winter. My body became increasingly weary as the disease again made its presence felt. The medication I was taking against it, Degarelix, was beginning no longer to work and yet continued to batter me with its collateral damage, which is hellish. I was tired in my head, fed up of pushing myself to fulfil ambitions before my time ran out. I declared that this would be a good point to complete my book, which might be entitled or at least nicknamed The First Two Hundred: Munro Bagging without testosterone, in homage to Muriel Grey’s rather good The First Fifty: Munro Bagging without a beard. I announced that I would need time out to recuperate and reassess my life, to rethink this almost dangerous obsession with climbing as many Munros as I can before I am taken by a disease that would soon become indifferent to all interventions designed to suppress it. I was tired of its continuous presence in my life. Tired of how it affected my moods, reactions and relationships. Despite my unfulfilled ambitions and achievements, my stubborn determination and will never to give up, I had to work harder at letting go of excess baggage and not attaching myself to stuff, and I began to prepare myself for the inevitability of what was to come.
Then, the COVID pandemic reappeared and the country was locked down again. Opportunism, wilful ignorance and downright stupidity came to dominate public discourse. The Westminster government continued to meld together shambolic incompetence and crass cronyism and yet inexplicably to remain popular, managing somehow to weave a scientific narrative through apparently arbitrary policy decisions and emergency measures. On the whole, us ordinary folks looked on with increasing dismay and incredulity, making do as best we could, waiting as patiently as we could for our vaccines.
Next, the stupidity of Brexit became a daily reality as trade with the EU changed overnight from straightforward and frictionless to an administrative quagmire. The slow motion train crash continued; borders became very much more complicated. The febrile peace process that had kept weapons out of Irish politics for 25 years strained and creaked; where precisely the line should be drawn between the Republic and the North (and perforce between the EU and the UK), and for what purposes, continued to be a matter of dispute, which in the North of Ireland always creates a degree of twitchiness unknown in other parts of these islands. Cordial relations, such as ever there were, disappeared between the UK and the EU as the latter had to deal with the unalloyed Perfidy of Albion, reinvigorated by its newfound freedom from the interference of Johnny Foreigner.
In Scotland, the government did a slightly better job at dealing with the pandemic, behaving with a greater degree of integrity and good sense. There were always tensions nevertheless between what Westminster decreed for England and the decisions made by devolved administrations in Cardiff and Edinburgh on the basis of their particular needs, demographics and geography. Whatever else, if Scotland had been an autonomous state, able to make her own decisions, then there is no doubt in my mind that Ms Sturgeon’s government, though they made one or two rather embarrassing public relations gaffes during the first wave, would have led the Scots more in the direction taken by New Zealand under Jancinda Ardern. But it was not to be.
The Scottish government moreover prevaricated and obfuscated, now using the COVID pandemic as an excuse to kick the so called “constitutional issue” even further into the long grass, rather than use it as an opportunity to further the cause and to separate itself more emphatically from the devious proclamations of Westminster. It appeared to increasing numbers of independence minded Scots that their government was more interested in hard wiring the politics of identity into society and silencing critical voices, than in advancing the cause of Scottish independence, or acting in defiance of Westminster’s efforts to reign in or bypass devolved power. Amongst its many other effects, the COVID pandemic appeared to have cemented the alliance between the Scottish government and Westminster.
To add to the woes of any rational human being with reason to support Scottish independence and who refuses to engage in sectarianism, during the election campaign for the Parliament at Hollyrood, the complete shiteness of being Scottish was on full display to the world, as the independence movement splintered and turned in on itself. SNP loyalists continued to maintain that only the SNP would ever be able to deliver independence, critics wondered why, if this were the case, the SNP had done nothing to advance the cause during its time in government for the seven years since the referendum. Efforts and pleas to work together were treated with scorn and suspicion by all factions.
After writing several blog posts about these matters and reflecting on the responses, while taking into consideration the general political environment, it became clear to me that the Scottish Government had now become so intricately woven into the same systems of power and patronage that comprise the British State, that I would never experience actual Scottish independence during my lifetime, that the SNP under the leadership of Ms Sturgeon has, for whatever reason, happily established itself as the devolved administration in Scotland, and that it has quite simply betrayed the broader independence movement. Despite a much higher number of hits for these political posts, I decided that I would stick to writing inspirational tales about living with cancer in the great outdoors and posting attractive photos of Scottish landscapes. I would not after all want to get myself into trouble with the the thought police, nor heaven forfend, hurt somebody’s feelings.
If ever there were a time for a Bruce to emerge from a cave to lead the people against an occupying power, this would be it. Although given that Bruce’s epiphany in the cave would not have been possible without the execution of Wallace, for any historical parallel to be complete there would need to have been a new Wallace too, an enemy of the state, some political prisoner who has suffered the most severe of sanctions. Two candidates for such a role come immediately to mind. But I digress.
Despite being told in February that I was doing very well, throughout the winter and during the emergence of spring it seemed that I was in fact becoming progressively iller. As always with cancer, there are good days and bad days, but the bad seemed to be clumping together more regularly while the good were such a rare blessing, often filled with such exuberance that when the next day I felt shite again, it all came crashing down. Whole packs of black dogs circled my being. Sometimes I could not get out of bed for days. These were difficult times too for my wife, who has to watch helpless as the disease does what it does and the medication tosses my emotional reactions and moods like a cork on the ocean. Often I become utterly overwhelmed by the weight of things; yet the futility of existence often induces simple joy. It must be disturbing to watch a loved one bounce about so, never really knowing what to expect. Although the disease will likely kill me and despite the world being totally fucked up, we both know it remains possible to appreciate the staggering beauty of things and to celebrate this precious gift of being alive and breathing. Without the love, sense of fun and support of my wife, this journey would be unbearable.
Hope emerged slowly during the process of medication change, which, after a few months of trial and error resulted at last in the aforementioned stability and further suppression of the disease. I am being extremely well looked after by the NHS and all who work in it. I know that it is not like this for everybody, and feel that everybody should experience the NHS in the same way as I do, but it seems sometimes as if having cancer puts me into an elite category. I am a regular at the chemist where the staff are always helpful and encouraging. When I visit my local surgery (for blood tests or injections), if I bump into my GP, she will take time to ask how I am and if necessary tweak the medication. So apart from persistent stiffness and pain in my lower back, and weakened hips, which mean that I need now to carry a walking stick, I am now physically much more able than I was during the winter. And apart from the flushing and emotional turmoil, the side effects of the medication remain manageable and I am sleeping a lot better than I have for several years. Fewer black dogs howl around the house during the wee small hours, for many of which I am wide awake with only the noises in my head and the BBC World Service to keep me company.
Throughout the year I have been out and about whenever possible; living in Fife affords many varieties of landscape and coastline, amongst which my favourite place to watch the influence of forces greater than any human agency, the dunes at Kinshaldy slowly creeping away from the forest, creating lagoons and new ground for young trees to colonise. I went there for two days in a row at the conjunction of new moon with equinox to watch the height of the tide, after which I needed a couple of weeks to recuperate. At the start of May, my wife and I had a lovely week in Speyside while there were still thick snowbanks blocking the tourist path into Coire an t’ Sneachda as the forests of Rothiemurchus and Abernethy were bursting with spring life. The highlight of the year’s excursions was in June with a boat trip across the Forth to the Isle of May, with not a cloud in the sky, not a ripple on the water and hardly a breath of wind. Upon landing, we were mobbed by nesting terns and surveyed by puffins and sundry other seabirds, going about their business, unused to ground predators, but well accustomed to boat loads of visitors. I was not however at my best, and struggled to get around the island before the boat left again for Anstruther.
Martyn and I have been able to get out too, when mutual windows of opportunity have arisen, as I accompanied his endeavours to reach the same number of new summits as his age at last birthday. Having completed all the Munros many years ago, he is now ticking off peaks on minor lists, of which there are many! We have been to some lovely little hills, most of which close to home. At the start of April we walked up Carnie Hill from the village of Monimail on a fine clear day. I had not long emerged from my bed and was raring to get out again. There was no serious exertion involved, but I was bothered by flushing, unable to get the balance of clothing right and out of condition. There is evidence at the top of earthworks and the views of Fife are splendid, but it is wooded and on the north side trees obscure the view. Again, I needed time to recuperate, still in the throes of medication change.
The high point of our adventures was a walk along the ridge from Dunsinane Hill, obviously once fortified with terraces and earthworks, over Black Hill and past Little Dunsinane to the King’s Seat, the highest point of the western Sidlaw Hills, not far from where my grandfather had a farm when I was a child. Throughout the traverse, overlooking the Carse of Gowrie, the Silvery Tay and the prominent hills of Fife, with Strathmore to the north, a patchwork of fields and woodlands, Blairgowrie nestling in a cleft of the foothills to higher mountains, the chasm at Dunkeld partially obscured in hazy cloud and illuminated by dazzling shafts of sunlight. By now I was beginning to feel fitter and a good night’s sleep was enough for recovery.
On my birthday, just last week, we clambered up Largo Law where there is a view of the enormity of the Forth Estuary, from St Abb’s Head to the bridges, the reason why Fife is really an island. It was very steep though and there was a cold wind that again did not make it easy to balance my temperature. I got myself into a prickly shiver that was difficult to shift, even after a shower when I got home, so I had to take to my bed. Perhaps it was exacerbated by the haunch of venison I enjoyed earlier in the week or the delicious cheese I had eaten for lunch. From time to time I allow myself these little pleasures, sometimes I get away with it, sometimes not. It is a delicate balance.
Under these circumstances, gradually it occurred to me that I might actually be able to get up another Munro, or at least, to make a good effort to do so, and if I did not make it to a summit, to enjoy the beauties of summer in the mountains. Martyn and I were not however able to find mutual windows of opportunity to get anywhere near a Munro. I have not seen Chris since last summer, so when I told him that I was contemplating a trip into Wester Ross, he jumped at the chance. I warned him that he would be babysitting and that there was a greater than small chance I would not make it to the top of any mountain. Although I have been increasing my levels of fitness with regular exercise and keeping busy in the garden, I had not encountered big gradients for eight months. I suggested either one or both of the two Munros in the close vicinity of Achnasheen; both only slightly over 3000 feet with a base at a bit over 500. For Chris too, it would be a good way of testing his mountain legs, having spent much of his recent outdoor time playing with his home built sea kayak. While the rest of the country basked in tropical sunshine, Wester Ross was mildly warm, bathed in layers of drizzly cloud.
We decided on the second morning, after driving back to Achnasheen from our overnight stop looking along Loch Maree in the hope of finding more open skies to the east, that making an attempt at Fionn Bheinn in the mist would be less enjoyable than a walk to the base of Slioch and perhaps round the corner and up the glen towards Lochan Fada. Despite cloud dangling over most summits above 700 meters, the sun shone warm and a blessed breeze kept off the insects. From the map, the land at the northeast edge of Loch Maree and the delta of the Kinlochewe River appear as pasture dappled with sporadic mixed forest. In high summer almost all grassland is inundated by giant bracken, except on the path, which in places is but a gloomy tunnel. Tick heaven. The forests are thick and healthy; on the islands of the delta they are gorse and alder; along the path oaks, birches, alders and rowans, with sporadic pines in the screes and crags above. We met some people leaving the carpark who were heading for the summit of Slioch; we wished them well and said we were having a rest day after a stiff climb the previous, doing a bit of reconnaissance for the future and in any case we thought it unlikely we would see much from any top in this weather. We met them later on the way back. They had gone as far as the trig point and turned back because they had been in thick clag for the final 200 metres. I mentioned that the trig point is not the actual summit, but I did not press the point. As far as they were concerned, they had reached the top.
Our decision to tootle along the path and enjoy this remnant of native deciduous forest for a day was a good one, much better than the option to climb Fionn Bheinn in the clag. I shall be back this way at the end of the month and there are a number of other lower Munros in the area too. As we walked away from the carpark and into the bracken, the unmistakeable screech of peregrines echoed among the enormous cliffs above us. It is a slightly alarming noise; to human ears an expression of pained, terrified anguish. At this time of year it is usually parent peregrines teaching young peregrines how to be good peregrines, chasing each other like bullets between outcrops of rock and cliff. Their noises are probably the peregrine equivalent of “you can’t catch me” and “here I am over here”.
The path follows the edge of Loch Maree, passing by a number of inlets and other places where tents could be pitched, all of which we noted carefully. Although it was clear from the level of loch detritus that the water was now very low, so some camping spots might not always be here. At the outlet of the great river coming out of Fisherfield through Gleann Bianasdail, which was also running very low, the route along the loch becomes less distinct and the main path turns up the glen and towards access to Slioch. Tidelines of detritus and the smoothness of exposed rocks in the channel indicated that in spate this would be a terrifying sight.
It was a most beautiful day, with gentle breezes and clouds passing by a blue sky and warming sun. Only the summits held onto their own little caps of clouds. Chris climbed a little way up the path towards Slioch before we continued up the glen, and after the path ahead flattened out into a rough strath, at the end of which was a narrow chasm where the river again gushed through from a higher level, I sat down in a sheltered hollow in the heather and suggested Chris carry on his investigations at his own pace. On the opposite side of the glen I watched the diversity of the forest clinging to the cliffs and crags; pines, rowans and birches swaying with the wind. From time to time I looked up the glen to see the figure of Chris disappearing into the landscape, after which I fell asleep in the sunshine, cosy in the heather, protected from midges by wind, with nothing particular on my mind, drifting, just being with these passing moments of a summer afternoon in Wester Ross.
At length Chris returned with tales of how the path works, keener now than ever to venture into Fisherfield. It had been on our list of possible first expeditions after lockdown last summer, when we plumped instead for the Beinn Dearg cluster, and we have since decided than any sensible and successful expedition into this most isolated and challenging range of Munros, at our age, would require three nights out in tents. One day we will do this I am sure, and on the way, climb Slioch. For the moment we enjoyed tootling back to the carpark. Chris took a dip in a very inviting pool, and even I immersed my head and shoulders in the pure cold flow. A little fish jumped out just in front of the one of the feeder falls, playing at being a salmon, or maybe expressing a younger stage of salmonhood. Chris opined that this was indeed an ambitious fish, upon which we christened this stiller stretch on the terrace of falls, gullies and cascades, The Pool of the Ambitious Fish and wondered what this might be in Gaelic.
It was a fitting coda to our trip, after which we drove towards Torridon to find a roost for the night at one of the access carparks to Liathach. We ate kedgeree and drank cups of tea, agreeing that this had been a better way of walking off the fatigue of the previous day than attempting another mountain. It was good for me too to see that climbing a mountain two days in a row would probably not be a good idea, unless and until I regain some mountain fitness. For the side of Moruisg was very steep indeed and the path went straight up it.
We had parked the previous evening by the roadside in the big lay-by used only by those climbing the mountain or heading further into West Monar. Chris pitched his tent on a knoll on the other side of the fence, I slept in the campervan after a mildly stressful and longer than I had anticipated journey north. There was a slight drizzle upon my arrival, after glorious weather until Garve, which was disappointing, albeit not entirely out of character. We caught up, drank cups of tea and discussed the next day. Down the track over the bridge, under the railway line and along the path up between the two most prominent of the gullies gouged out of the mountain by millennia of water. We left the next morning at about ten in better weather; open skies with clouds hanging over the coast, beginning to gather around a few summits above 800 metres. Initially I thought I did quite well; my legs were glad to be following a path through a large area of fenced off native trees, still very young, but flourishing and soaking up much of the famed bogginess of the approaches to the mountain.
As we climbed, the peaks of Fannich, Fisherfield and Torridon came more into view. A’ Mhaighdean and Ruadh Stac Mòr were most prominent, strangely resembling respectively from this angle Suilven and Stac Pollaidh. As the ground steepened, my footing became much less confident and sometimes I felt quite wobbly. Chris took note. We stopped rather a lot so I could rest, regain my balance or wait for the sweat of another flush to evaporate without freezing me to the bone. We zigzagged too to attenuate the gradient. Chris did a very good job of guiding and encouraging, emphasising always that if I wanted to stop, there would be no shame, though he freely acknowledged that finding a less precipitous return route would probably be a very good idea, given my wobbliness.
We persevered, slowly and steadily until at last the gradient eased and the path swung round the upper reaches of the gullies, past a verdant spring and onwards into thin cloud. Up ahead we saw a crag protruding from the mossy ground and I suggested a stop for lunch. When we arrived, we saw that we were already at the summit. Beside the outcrop there was a cairn atop a long flat ridge. Through the gloomy mist to the south west there seemed to be another protruding from ground that appeared to be higher than this. So we walked out and back before lunch, just in case this turned out to be not the true summit. It was difficult to know in the mist. My legs were very pleased now to be striding forth over level ground.
So here I was at the top of my 201st Munro, the 255th on the list at 928 metres or 3045 feet. On the way up we had already decided to take a different route down, but in the meantime we sat against the cairn for lunch, willing the cloud to rise from the summit. I was tired and pleased with my achievement, not too sweaty from exertion or flushes, nor so tired that I feared I would have no energy for the return. There was also a slight sense of anti climax; getting here was easier than I had expected, slow and steady, stopping when necessary and always prepared to turn back, and when the summit arrived it took me by surprise. There was also a more general feeling. The top of a mountain is nothing special, just another piece of ground on planet earth, no more than another moment on a much longer journey, from which it is only downhill until climbing to the next, and not always with anything of a view.
After half an hour or so blethering and looking at the map to work out what we had seen on the way up and what we might see should the cloud lift, the cloud blew off suddenly and we could see exactly where we were. I turned to survey West Monar and beyond to Strathfarrar and the big peaks of Mullardoch and Cluanie, the oddly shaped plateau of Maoile Lunndaidh dominating the foreground. For about five minutes we had views, but then as suddenly as it had dispersed, the cloud congregated again and we decided to descend. We took the north shoulder, passing by a slide of slabs on the eastern rim of a huge corrie of hags, bogs and rutting grounds, and at a bit less than two thousand feet, we flanked west and down to meet the upper perimeter of the sapling plantation, which we followed until the gate and the path of the morning. Back at the vehicles, we debooted and drove to the viewpoint overlooking Loch Maree for the night, in preparation for whatever the next day would bring.
Many thanks to my lovely wife for being in my life, to Martyn and Chris for support and good company during long walks, and to my sponsors whose generosity paid for the fuel required to drive me to the locations here described.
If you would like to make a contribution towards the upkeep of this site or to the cost of travelling required to give it content, please use dncnspnc at gmail dot com at Paypal with reference ISBS, or get in touch via the same address.
Love and peace.