Roger Cox: A toast to adventurers and campaigners

Long-distance kayaker Nick Ray
Long-distance kayaker Nick Ray
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One of the occupational hazards of interviewing adventurous types for this column is that once I’ve spoken to them about what they’re up to, and once some of their enthusiasm has rubbed off on me, I have a tendency to become a little over-invested in what they’re trying to do.

At times, post-interview, when things don’t seem to be going too well for them, it can all get a bit stressful. Granted, it’s probably not as stressful for me as it is for them – they are, after all, the ones risking life and limb. But still, like a mother hen who’s lost sight of her chicks, I worry.

Two of my favourite interviewees this year were the long-distance kayaker Nick Ray, who set out to paddle a staggering 2,015 miles around the coast of Scotland to raise funds for the RNLI, and ace climber Robbie Phillips, who decided he was going to have a crack at some of the toughest routes in the Alps, including the fearsome line on the North Face of the Eiger known as La Paciencia. When I interviewed them both in July – Nick as he was mid-way through his journey, Robbie as he was still in the early stages of his – things seemed to be going well. A few weeks later though... well... not so much. At about the same time that high winds and heavy seas were causing Nick problems off the north coast of Scotland, Robbie had the closest of close calls when a sudden downpour kicked off a rockslide on La Paciencia that could easily have killed him. (When I caught up with him again later in the year, he described how “a boulder the size of a mini” missed him and his climbing partner Willis Morris by a matter of metres.)

Fortunately, there were happy endings in both cases: Nick went on to complete his epic journey while Robbie and Willis managed to nail La Paciencia at the second attempt. For a while there, though, they had me worried.

The mountains on the north shore of Loch Tay, collectively known as the Ben Lawers Range, are among my all-time favourite places to go snowboarding, so I was chuffed to discover that the Scottish Freedom Series, Scotland’s nascent extreme skiing tour, was scheduled to visit in April, with an event rather dubiously dubbed “The Lawers of Gravity”. On the day of the competition, the snow cover was a bit patchy and the conditions somewhat breezy, but still – I had a ball sitting on a little island of turf and rock in the middle of the competition face, snapping pictures of some of the nation’s best skiers and snowboarders as they zipped past.

It was good to see other backcountry ski and snowboard events taking off too, notably Peter MacKenzie’s Dividing Line Invitational, in which the best freeriders from the east and west of Scotland locked horns bang in the middle of the Highlands, in the dramatic setting of Drumochter Pass.

Meanwhile, out on the water, Scotland’s surf team continued to represent the nation’s hardy and ever-growing band of waveriders on the international stage, with partially crowdfunded appearances at both the World Surfing Games in Nicaragua in June and at the Eurosurf contest in Morocco in September. There were signs, too, that a new generation of Scottish surfers might be breaking through, with 17-year-old Andrew Robertson from St Andrews winning both the men’s and juniors divisions at the Gathering of the Clans in Thurso in October, 18-year-old Max Ferguson-Hook putting together a string of impressive results, including a third-place finish in the men’s longboarding division at the Scottish Surfing Championships in March, and super-grom Ben Larg from Tiree blowing minds, at just ten years of age, with an incredible second-place finish in the under-18s at the Clans event.

Speaking of Tiree, the organisation of the island’s famous Wave Classic windsurfing contest was taken over this year by local legend Willy Angus Maclean, head honcho of Wild Diamond watersports. It was the first time in its history that the Classic had been run by somebody based on the island, and when the week long shindig took place in October the local community were involved in every aspect, from meet and greet to beach barbecues. Expect next year’s 30th anniversary edition to be a belter.

And finally, a word on windfarms. Thanks largely to the efforts of wild land charity the John Muir Trust, proposals for major developments at Stronelairg, Allt Duine, Glencassley and Sallachy were all defeated this year. So next time you’re up a hill and enjoying the view from the top, raise a mug of tea to the people who fight to preserve our wild places.