Road trip

Since we met on the slopes of Ben Dorian at the start of 2017, Martyn has talked with great animation about his mountaineering club’s hut near Achnasheen, how well placed it is for Torridon, West Monar and much more besides. Circumstances have thwarted all our previous plans to stay here for a few nights and to use it as a base, but last week we were able to coordinate other commitments, and Martyn booked two nights during a period of particularly fine weather. Two days after we returned, despite considerable stiffness and pain round my pelvis, I got out of bed and realised that I was able to stand with both feet flat on the ground, with my knees level, my legs straight and my hips perpendicular to my line of motion.

I consider this to be utterly miraculous.

Martyn arrived to pick me up in plenty time for lunch with Coll, who recognised me enthusiastically as only a dog can. We were on the road about two thirty, well fed, fully equipped and prepared, stopping only once. During summer the extent to which trees are now colonising the margins of the road is impressive; when I first saw this landscape nearly sixty years ago it was denuded of all flora but heather, now it has become in places a veritable forest. Although this is a most reassuring sign of regeneration, cause for real hope that the land might one day return to more natural cycles, naked hillsides exist still above the trees, striped by the usual scars of muirburn. The denatured land is pushed higher up, out of sight, obscured by strips of forest along the roadside. In places the A9 now is reminiscent of an Alpine freeway, a far cry from the days when it was single carriageway from Perth visiting every village and town on the way to Inverness and beyond. Then the only trees were non-native commercial plantations, dark green squares outlined over the barren surface of the landscape and coloured in.

We arrived in good time at the parking place for the “hut” – which looked from where I was sitting much more like a bothy. Martyn was keen to ensure that the resident cattle on the surrounding land would not become interested in Coll while we transferred our stuff along a boardwalk above their meadow, which during wetter periods than this becomes the flood plain of the river. The ground was dry and the river low as we bounced along the boardwalk, cattle indifferently wandering off. Summer at its height, midges in profusion, wispy mists, pastel shades with the setting sun. The building had the smell of church hall about it and was in good order. Impressively constructed, self contained with off-grid gas, electricity and drainage, equipped to accommodate about twenty souls in relative comfort. We ate heartily and built a fire to dry the air and dispel the musty atmosphere.

It was sometime at the end of last year that my back crunched in a way that gave me pause to reflect that this might now be a permanent feature of my condition. I was gripped by intense pain, although nowhere near as excruciating as the cord compression at the end of 2018 that landed me in hospital. The crunch coincided with the beginning of exponentially rising PSA level, feeling progressively more cancerous and the drugs no longer working. This was when I started the process of medication change. At the time, I put down the back crunching to rising metastasis or to damage brought about by radiotherapy or medication leeching calcium from my system. I simply increased my intake of painkillers to make life more comfortable. From time to time since then, I have experienced little cracks and creaks and a couple of months ago, I experienced another serious crunch somewhere in the region of my left hip, which left me with the distinct sense that it was now several centimetres to the rear of my right. It felt as if my right leg was much longer than my left, but because my pelvis felt so squint, I could not tell precisely what was going on, and in any case, an asymmetrical pelvis seemed to be the least of my problems. I began to accept it as just part of my life and bought a Leki walking stick to support my odd gait.

I had been bothered a bit by flushing on the journey north and the exertions of transferring stuff had left me sweaty. I was also anxious, for we were about to climb quite a big mountain, starting from not far above sea level. Although the weather was forecast to be excellent and although I had chosen this mountain carefully from the many available nearby because of the relative gentleness of the gradients on the way to the summit, I was troubled by the usual demons that would be dispelled as soon as we were on the move. The drugs always take the pain away too. When they kick in about mid morning, I am capable of ordinary daily movement if I am mindful of my movements. I knew that I would probably be able to get up this mountain as soon as I started it, although as always I was prepared to turn back if necessary and knew that I would know when this would be, just as I knew this time last year as I was coming off Sgùrr na h’Ulaidh that I would not be going up Beinn Fhionnlaidh. I trust myself. I believe with some justification and personal experience that I am a reasonable judge of what is happing in my body; for the moment though I was still getting used to the discipline of the latest medication intake cycle.

I slept much better than I thought and awoke less stiff than I feared. I took my meds, ate breakfast and prepared a pack for the day. Martyn did the same and mentioned he had seen a large bull skulking in a nearby copse of alders, so he would need to check out how he and Coll would interact before we left. I was in no hurry. The bull was not in the least bothered by any dog, actually he looked a bit depressed, and the rest of the herd had wandered off. We trotted over the boardwalk and drove towards Achnashellach, where Martyn squeezed into the last place in the walkers’ carpark. It was already very hot and not yet nine thirty. I was very glad of the flouncy cotton shirt my wife suggested would be good protection against this weather.

The path to the mountain rises slowly past a railway halt to a track through a regenerating forest, part of which has been clear felled within the last twenty years or so. The diversity of new flora supports a fine selection of fauna; dragonflies, damselflies and butterflies wafted between ferns and flowers, the undergrowth rustled with rodents and twittering birds. Rowans now heavy with fruit. Old pines smiling down, protecting new growth. At an obvious junction, a well constructed path diverts from the track, drops down to a burn and winds upwards, avoiding a deep ravine, finding a way through rough irregular terrain to a low plateau of river confluences, rocky humps, lochans and peat hags. We could see the path ahead clearly; to our left the massive buttresses of Fuar Tholl, to the right Beinn Liath Mhòr, a long ridge of mixed quartzite and sandstone, and in the centre our goal for the day, Sgorr Ruadh.

The only section of the ascent, from my reading of the map, that would present any difficulties would be diverting from the path over the bealach between Fuar Tholl and Sgorr Ruadh towards the summit of the latter. Although there are no serious gradients here, the ground is irregular and complex, with intermittent outcrops, slabs, loose boulders and sudden deep lochans. Perhaps we walked too far up the path before finding a way through, though we stopped as planned for first lunch at the east end of the big lochan to the south of the mountain, preparing for the only steep section of the ascent, upwards from here over a tumble of boulders and outcrops, through which no path was obvious, towards a more gentle rake leading all the way to the summit.

The steep section was happily shorter than I had feared and the rake grassy, long and accommodating. It was hot, but there was usually a breeze to keep me cool. And there were several springs from which I drank deeply. I have this undoubtedly irrational idea that water taken from high up a mountain has a certain purity, perhaps even health giving properties, and that the water of each mountain has its own flavour. I enjoyed the taste of this mountain. The approach to the summit is most agreeable, once past the steep rocky bit, it was a gentle plod over thick summer grass all the way up. Frome time to time I paused to pluck ripe blaeberries nestling in the spongy ground. The higher we climbed, the less prominent became Fuar Tholl as the horizon behind opened up to reveal the splendours of West Monar, Srathfarrar, Affric, Kintail and Knoydart. We were surrounded by Torridon, with views far beyond to Fisherfield and Fannaich.

I have remarked before at the top of a mountain that it does not get much better than this. The air was crisp and clear, the views sharp, there was a slight wind and the sun shone warm. Small clouds dangled about a thousand feet above the summits. The only oddity was a hatching of what I thought were flying ants around the summit cairn. I have since concluded that these were in fact keds or deer flies, one of the Almighty’s particularly unpleasant creatures, described by one wag as flying ticks. Although they lodge themselves predominantly in red deer, it is not unknown for them to have a go at humans. Throughout the western highlands these little wonders of nature have this summer been reported to have on the contrary had a go at quite a number of humans, and in the days after my return I discovered one or two nasty little bites. We met many others, all of whom avoided the flying monsters and went nowhere near the summit for more than necessary to have ticked the box. Many photographs were taken and there was much discussion of what we were looking at along the horizon. The furthest big peak to the south was Ben Nevis; An Teallach and the Fannaichs obscured all views further north, with Ben Wyvis to the east, Harris Skye and the small isles in the west. It really does not get much better than this. Here I was at the summit of Sgorr Rhuadh, the 195th Munro on the list at 3156 feet or 962 metres, my 202nd since returning to Scotland.

We hung out for a while, chatting with others, soaking it all up, then turned to thinking about a route down, back the way we had come. The only alternative would have been to follow the northwest ridge to a path over the bealach to the north, but this is longer and is usually only used by those adding the traverse of Beinn Liath Mhòr to their day. Others were going to or had already done this. One group of enthusiastic and fit young people were now heading towards the third Munro in this little range, Maol Chean-Dearg. Another group, rather older but nonetheless fit, had decided that in this weather they were not going to bother. Martyn and I were aiming simply to find a more direct route from the big lochan below through the complex bit and back to the path down.

The gradient made for a pleasant descent. The views to the horizon east and south were clear as a bell. Clambering down the steep rocky bit was short and sharp and presented my body with no difficulties. At the lochan, Martyn declared that he was going for a swim. I went off to find a grassy hollow where I could lie down in the sun. Coll followed Martyn, then ran over to where I was, then went back to Martyn. I lay resting, nibbling blaeberries, enjoying the warmth of the sun and the cooling breeze until I thought Martyn would be done. The meds were beginning to wear off and I was aware of increasing stiffness and pain in my lower back. As I stood up, there was another crunch. Briefly there was intense pain and I feared assistance would be required to get me off the hill. But I stood up, a bit shivery, and was able to walk on, carefully using my poles to steady my motion. Coll appeared as I walked towards where our trajectories would converge, then Martyn, fresh and smiling, washed and invigorated by pure mountain water.

We found a series of slabs that aided progress, but this really is difficult terrain and it took us longer than expected to get back to the path, after which the gradient eases and the surface is good. My back seemed stable enough as long as I took care placing steps and balanced myself with poles. The pain was rising, but no more than it does towards the end of every twelve hour medication cycle. At the end of the descent, my feet seemed unwilling to be lifted far enough above the ground to avoid stumbling and once I stubbed my toe excruciatingly, reminding me that I should cut my toenails. We were back at the car just after seven and returned to the hut for gourmet mountain kedgeree. We chewed the fat in front of a fire awhile and read some before retiring and preparing for the journey home.

The next morning I could hardly move. Becoming vertical was a real challenge, but I pulled myself upright, got dressed and went off in search of painkilling medication and breakfast. After we had packed and done all the chores, we took our stuff over the boardwalk to the car then headed off to Achnasheen for coffee and to decide what to do before the long drive home. The weather was again spectacular. Still warm with a gentle breeze and light clouds flitting past at about two and a half thousand feet, the remnants of the morning’s temperature inversion. The air was a bit less clear, hazier, and clouds were gathering over coastal islands.

During my visit hereabouts last month with Chris, I decided not to climb Fionn Bheinn, the small grassy mountain to the north of Achnasheen. I had also decided that in principle it would probably not be a good idea for me to climb mountains on successive days. Martyn and I had agreed that this trip would only take in the one Munro and that we would find something less strenuous to exercise us before we went back south. But the idea of climbing Fionn Bheinn had been planted at some moment during the the previous day. Sitting on a veranda looking at the very easy approaches to the mountain, with a nice cup of coffee, a body now relatively free of pain and energised by medication, I could not hold myself back. So we booted up. It was about midday.

I have kept all doctors and medical professionals well informed about the crunching in my lower back, and I have asked several times to get a pelvic x-ray. But they were not really that interested and none felt that an x-ray would advance the management of the disease in any way, going along with the idea that my back issues were likely a result of metastasis or damage due to chemo or radiotherapy. In any case, any damage was most probably in soft tissue, which would not show up on any x-ray; the most recent scans give no cause for concern, PSA is stable and I am taking painkillers. The fact that my gait has become increasingly odd is irrelevant.

I was working on various ways of dealing with the strange gait, but a stick was essential, for if ever I stumbled, it was the little reflex balancing movements that produced the most pain. Fired up by medication, the worst of the stiffness and pain suppressed, looking at the very easy zigzag track onto the approaches of Fionn Bheinn, I was presented now with no barriers. I knew that if I set off, I would get to the summit without issue. I know. I had agreed that climbing Munros on successive days would not be a good idea. And yes. I knew that the ten hours we had walked in the sun the day before had taken a lot out of me and that I only felt capable now because I was drugged up. But what else could I do? Martyn assured me he would have energy enough to drive home at the end of the day, where I could have a shower and fall into bed. The book says it is only a five hour round trip.

It is a general consequence of mechanistic medicine that medics are not much interested in the structural elements and systems of a body, or any imbalances or asymmetries that may arise; the fasciae are just the bags that keep the vital organs apart, the skeleton is just a frame from which these hang, which is in turn moved about by muscles. The idea that the whole lot might comprise a complex … er … whole, operating as an autonomous self-regulating system is anathema, ruled out by mechanism. The best diagnosticians I know are physiotherapists, who are frequently given all the odd aches and pains that medics cannot understand, which invariably result from minor dislocations, imbalances and other structural asymmetries and which can often be put right by some sort of manipulation. For many so called alternative therapeutic techniques, like osteopathy and Bowen, not to mention yoga and meditation practice, being well balanced at a physical, material level is absolutely crucial, both the basis of further advancement into health or enlightenment as well as the goal of the technique in question moving the body in question away from imbalance, disharmony and asymmetrical being.

Recently, in order to investigate more objectively the sense that my hips were misaligned, while showering I placed my heels in the back corners of the shower basin and leaned forward to take my weight on the opposite wall of the cabin, trying to make my body as symmetrical as I could. Looking down, it was an odd sight that sort of confirmed what I had sensed; my hips were indeed very squint and only my left leg could be straightened, while my right knee remained rather bent. I was however reassured to see that leg musculature, built up from decades of cycling remained intact. As we were walking along the first sections of the zigzag track, and then later as we bounced among the grassy lines of walkers’ paths round the vast peat hag in the bowl of the mountain and upwards, I could feel again the power of leg muscles driving forward my body’s motion, reminiscent of the power I felt when I was at the top of my game on a bike, steadily powering up some gradient in northern Europe or mixing with the traffic on a fixie in cities all over the world, taking great pleasure in this defiance of gravity.

We stopped for a snack once where wispy clouds lingered, obscuring the view before slowly moving on, just at the border between layers of air. We were making good time and reached the summit at about two thirty, where we sat gazing out over mountain tops and far islands garnished by light white clouds, boiling up from mists over sea or lower ground. It was hot and the air was still.

It does not get much better than this. The air was still and when the sun shone, almost hot. There were fewer insects and no other human beings. I wanted to stay for ever. I was content and comfortable, my body not complaining that I had pushed it too hard. Munro number 246 in the tables, 3061 feet or 933 metres, my 203rd since being diagnosed with cancer.

Because the approaches to this mountain are grassy and often boggy, it does not have much of a reputation among those who strive to tackle complex ridges, to gaze upon grand buttresses or who enjoy a bit of scrambling. The short ascent is worth it however for the views alone. This had been Martyn’s last on his Munro round, although he had never see the view. Torridon, Fisherfield and the Fannaichs draped with benign white clouds, pouring between bealachs, clinging to peaks. To the south and east the sky was open, with only a few hazy clouds hanging among layers of ridges far into the distance. We could not see Ben Nevis.

On the way down I swapped my Leki walking stick for poles. The going was easy and we stopped only to adjust clothing, until nearly at Achnasheen, where Martyn found a pool where he could go for a dip. I plunged my head under a nearby waterfall. We were back at the car just after five and hit the road immediately. I took my regular handful of pills and sat back as Scotland passed by all around me. The evening sun bathed the landscape making it even more staggeringly beautiful. Sometimes words cannot describe how I feel about this land. It is so familiar yet every journey is different. The mountains do not change, but the forests among them and the habitation have become in this life more expansive and vibrant, almost becoming less denatured. We stopped only once for a meal deal at Tesco Aviemore, which Martyn ate on his lap as we carried on south. He dropped me off not long after nine then drove on to arrive home safely in time for supper.

My life is a rollercoaster. Up and down, with an underlying gradual decline to standstill, after which a slow mechanical grind back to the starting point. The idea that there might ever be any kind of improvement, that instead of each high point being the top of an inevitable plunge into a pit, it be the firm ground upon which to carry on upwards, simply does not arise. And yet. Despite the spongy, earthy approaches to Fionn Bheinn, my legs powered me forward, on a day I had decided for my own good I really should not climb any mountain, on the day after I had climbed another. My condition is serious. I should not take lightly the effort of this body to keep me alive. I changed my mind because I felt confident that I would manage this lovely little mountain without doing myself any damage, so long as I started slowly along the zigzag track, rather than straight up the walkers’ path. And two days later, the sudden balance of bodily symmetry.

It is difficult to overemphasise the importance of balance and symmetry to the health of a body. Not only did I believe that my erstwhile pelvic asymmetries were a result of the disease, I did not quite realise the extent to which this in itself negatively affected many other bits and pieces of this life. It was not just the gait, nor standing strangely in the shower, though the details are unimportant now that I am symmetrical. There is a genuine balance here. It is like learning again to move in this body. Some miraculous spontaneous manipulation that took place in Wester Ross. I suspect the crunch as I stood up from waiting for Martyn to take his swim on the first day might have something to do with it. Other than that I really have no idea how this happened.

As the days pass since our road trip, the pain in the morning subsides. The realignment clearly involved this body moving bits about that do not ordinarily in the course of a day, or even on the way up a mountain, move about. And so it is not surprising that it was painful. That it is subsiding now simply means that I did myself no harm by climbing mountains on successive days. On the contrary, that I am healing; not only did I find my mountain fitness again, I am recovering as I would expect. This new symmetry is both symptom and cause of improving health, which in my condition seems miraculous, but which is undoubtedly supported by medication. All my movements are however now mindful of my new balanced frame. I am discovering too that having both feet flat on the ground has many other positive effects as I move forward into a future less reminiscent of a roller coaster, full of wonder and gratitude that this has happened, even more determined never to give up.

Many thanks to Martyn and Coll for good company, interesting chat and transport.

Thank you for reading.

Love and peace.

Author: Duncan Spence

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

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