Natural Highs

BEN NEVIS, Britain's highest mountain, is also one of its most popular, attracting tens of thousands of walkers and climbers each year. But on a sub-zero day in early February, a walk up the Allt a' Mhuillin path in the company of Mike Pescod, a local mountain guide, is an isolating experience. Only once in almost three hours do we see another figure, and then it's just a black dot moving across the ice-cream scoop of snow and ice at the top of one of the many gullies that split the

I've come here to try to understand what lures so many people to these high and lonely places. The recent heavy snow has led to a flurry of visitors on Britain's mountains. Most have returned home safely, but an unlucky few have not. By mid-February, there had been 12 deaths, five of them in Scotland – three were in an avalanche tragedy on Glencoe's Buachaille Etive Mr last month. In 2008, Scottish Mountain Rescue teams were called out 386 times and there were 17 fatalities.

It's clear that people are getting hurt and killed regularly on the mountains. The most serious incidents usually make it into the newspapers, yet still people come to climb. Why are they not put off by the deaths and near-misses? Could it be that those things are actually, on some level, part of the attraction?

Robert Macfarlane, a climber and the author of Mountains of the Mind, believes so. "One reason people are drawn to the hills is for the extremity of the experience, part of which comes from the long historical association of mountains with death and risk," he says. "Statistically, fishing, horse-riding and even gardening are more dangerous activities, but you don't step out into the back garden and feel that same sense of risk and excitement that you do on Buachaille Etive Mr. Especially in Britain, there's this tradition of glorious death on the hill."

Following both the Matterhorn disaster of 1865, in which three British climbers and their French guide were killed, and the deadly Everest climbing season of 1996, which saw 15 deaths, attempts to climb those mountains increased dramatically. Between them, Mont Blanc, Everest and the Matterhorn have claimed the lives of almost 2,000 people; if these mountains were people they would be mass murderers, but instead they are popular tourist destinations and magnets for climbers.

"All mountaineers work under the assumption that it'll never happen to them," says Macfarlane. "But the knowledge that it might happen to someone else lends a kind of allure to it all. Then there's that hovering, enticing possibility that something might go wrong and you might need to cope."

Pescod would be a good man to have by your side in the event of something going wrong. The 36-year-old is out on Ben Nevis two or three times a week over the winter, a brace of ice-axes strapped to his pack like steely pterodactyls. He believes this is the best place in the world for winter climbing. Fluctuations between thawing and re-freezing give the snowy ice here a quality climbers have compared to toffee and butter.

To me, the north face is frightening; a Mordor-like crag highlighted by snow. For Pescod, it's a playground, albeit one in which all possible safety precautions should be taken. He talks with great enthusiasm about climbing 0.5 Gully and standing on the front points of his crampons, effectively on tiptoe, on a thin, icy "smear" – a sloping foothold – with a 200m drop below. It sounds terrifying, but he found it exhilarating.

Risk isn't what makes him want to climb, though. "Climbing takes you away from everyday life," he explains. "It's almost like meditation because you are so focused on all the decisions you have to make. It's also to do with the beauty of the place. And then there's the physical challenge and endurance side of it. But I try very hard to stay as safe as possible."

Pescod knows all about danger. He has survived two avalanches, one in Peru and then, in late 2004, on Aonach Mor, in Lochaber. On that second occasion, he fell 30m, breaking his back and pelvis. "Physically, I was fixed in a year, but psychologically it took about three years to get some confidence back. I was walking in the hills in summer five months later, no snow anywhere, and I was really quite nervous."

He had to build his confidence slowly, until he got back to the point where he could climb in winter. But he never had any doubt, even while lying immobile in hospital for five weeks, that he would return to the glistening peaks. Why would you want to get over fear, though? Isn't being frightened a perfectly rational response to the thought of climbing in such high and potentially deadly places? "Yes," he says, "and I've often thought life would be a lot easier if I didn't have this drive to go up mountains." That's something I hear again and again from climbers. Mountaineering can be a compulsion. Climbers often talk about the freedom they feel at great heights, but they are not all, perhaps, at perfect liberty; something makes them go up there.

Dave Macleod, Britain's best all-round climber, acknowledges that the sport can become an obsession. "A daily routine of movement on rock is an essential part of my life, like eating or sleeping," he says. Macleod is 30, a self-contained and amiable Glaswegian living in Fort William. When we shake hands, I notice that his fingers thicken considerably from the middle joint, the result of hard training and climbing. Should circumstances demand, Macleod can pull himself up using just one finger. He believes, though, that his great advantage as a climber is not physical strength but strategic planning – he is able to find clever ways to climb difficult routes, and can do this in his mind's eye without needing to be present at the face. "I'm also really good at staying calm in a situation when I'm close to my physical limit and if I fall then it's a death fall."

Macleod began climbing in his mid-teens on Dumbarton Rock, and it was there in 2006 that he pioneered Rhapsody – a route that at the time was graded as the hardest climb in the world. He surpassed it last year with Echo Wall, a 60m overhanging cliff high on the north face of Ben Nevis. The rock there is steep, smooth and compacted; on the hardest part, there is a long section in which the finger-holds are less than 1cm deep. There are also very few cracks in the rock in which to place the metal wedges and other devices that climbers use to attach themselves to a face. So if Macleod had fallen from the hardest part of Echo Wall, he would have hit the ground and died. "You absolutely must be prepared for the possibility of dying on a climb," he says. "If you're not, the prospect of it will be all the more frightening when you find yourself climbing for your life. Then you will panic, and the chances of it happening will go right up."

He wouldn't take that kind of risk on just any route. Echo Wall was important because it allowed him to express all his skills at their limit; it was a self-actualising climb. I have tended to think of climbing as a physical challenge akin to running a marathon – a test of strength and endurance, albeit with added danger. But Macleod thinks in creative terms, and talks about "seeing an elegant line" on a cliff or mountain; creating a new route out of different moves means that he is using his imagination and then his hands in the act of composition. There's also the problem-solving element – you can only get to the top of the rock if you interpret correctly the possible hand-holds, and work out in which order to put them. So, for Macleod, climbing is a discipline somewhere between art and code-breaking.

Would it really have been worth it, though, if he had fallen from Echo Wall? "Yes, it would. I see climbs like this as my life's work. If I back out of them because of very small chances of falling and dying, where does that leave me?"

It's interesting that he describes the chance as small. He does so for two reasons. First, he isn't doing the sort of climbing where there's the potential for rock-fall and avalanche, elements outwith his control. Second, he considers his fitness and ability and his perception and awareness of danger to have reached such a high standard that what looks to an outsider like a huge risk is actually minimal.

This chimes with the findings of Dr David Llewellyn, a neuropsychologist at Cambridge University, who has conducted extensive research into the personalities of people engaged in risk-taking behaviour, including rock-climbing. He has found that climbers are usually emotionally stable, and that while they display a tendency towards sensation-seeking, they are not impulsive. They also score highly in self-efficacy – confidence in their abilities in relation to a specific task. "It's the people with high self-efficacy who actually take the risks," he says. "It's not that they don't understand the risks, but they've got it into their head that they've got away with it before, and that they've got the right background, the right skills and the right gear; the weather's terrible but they're going to go for it anyway. I don't think the physical abilities are very impressive compared with that mindset itself."

Llewellyn says that one important factor is that they've 'got away with it' before. In other words, every time they don't get seriously injured or die, it reinforces risky behaviour. But what about those who don't get away with it?

Karen Darke was 21 when she fell while climbing sea cliffs near Aberdeen, and was left paralysed below the ribs. Now 37 and based in Inverness, she has spent the intervening years engaged in tough challenges including crossing the Greenland ice-cap on a sit-ski. Her accident didn't make her less inclined to push herself; it just made her more attentive to the quiet voice inside that warns when something is too risky. It took until 2007 for her to attempt another climb, but the rock she chose could hardly have been more challenging – El Capitan, the iconic 915m monolith in Yosemite, California. Ascending over four days using a pulley system was "quite traumatic", and she broke a leg on the way back down, but the point is that she actually went climbing again. I suspect that most of us, had we been through such a terrible accident, would have preferred to remain on solid ground for the rest of our lives. "I've got friends who are very happy being at home doing the chores, and being housewives or mums," she says. "Sometimes I feel jealous that they seem content to do that. But it would never be enough for me. I'm always searching for something more. I want life to be about more than just surviving."

She was encouraged to attempt the ascent, and assisted through it, by her partner Andy Kirkpatrick, an accomplished climber of mountains and 'big walls' – huge rock faces. For 37-year-old Kirkpatrick, mountaineering expresses the part of him that needs to struggle and fight. He could no more stop climbing than rip out his own heart. His ex-wife Mandy used beg him not to risk his life in the mountains, but he went anyway, and this seems to have contributed to their split. "I think it just came down to the fact that neither of us could fundamentally change who we were or what we wanted from life to accommodate the other," he explains, "and climbing was simply the manifestation of that difference in me."

At the start of the year, Kirkpatrick failed to solo-climb the north face of the Eiger, a route the Germans call Mordwand, or Murder Wall, after the dozens of climbers who have died in the attempt. On January 4, the day he decided to give up, he had received three e-mails from his seven-year-old son asking if he was safe. "If I was single and had no children, I'd probably be dead," he says. "It does affect what I attempt. I tried the Eiger in a way that meant I was 99% assured of not having a horrible accident, but that resulted in me failing because I had far too much equipment and was going too slowly.

"But I don't want to stop. Climbing really defines me, and has given me a career. I don't think I'd be a very nice person if I gave up this passion. It is like a love affair. Giving up one of the loves of my life for my kids would not be a very healthy thing. But I can find some middle ground, where I promise them that I'm not going to die doing it, and they promise that they'll let me carry on." It's often said that climbers are selfish – they spend all their time away from the people who love them, and risk leaving them with nothing but the pain of loss. That was said about George Mallory, who left his wife Ruth behind in England while he made three long expeditions to Everest between 1921 and 1924, perishing on the final attempt. And it was said about Alison Hargreaves, who died on K2 in 1995 when her children were aged four and six. Now, when a newspaper reports a mountaineering death, it isn't long before outraged online comments accuse the deceased of irresponsibility. You might expect, then, that anyone widowed by a climbing accident would feel angry and resentful.

Caroline Fanshawe is a good person to ask about this. In 1992 her husband Andy, a leading British climber of the time, died in a fall from Eagle Ridge, a rock face on Lochnagar in the Grampians. He was 28. They had been married for almost two years. She was a climber too, and indeed continues to climb. Although Andy had been badly injured in an avalanche on Ben Nevis in 1987, an incident in which his best friend was killed, he and Caroline did not discuss the prospect of his death, so it was a complete shock when the police came to her door at three in the morning. "There were times afterwards when the mental pain became so great that it was actually physical, and I wanted to roll up in a ball and disappear," she says.

"I think in a relationship where one person didn't understand why the other wanted to go mountaineering and then they died, there might be anger, but I never did feel angry, because Andy and I were devoted to each other. Of course that makes it hurt more too."

What about the persistent idea that climbing is selfish? "Andy was the sort of climber who goes at it in the fast lane. But with that came this total passion and intensity, which was applied to every element in his life. Yes, mountaineering could be seen as selfish because of the debris climbers leave behind when they die. But for me that is compensated for by the type of person you get. Andy was on full power all the time. I wouldn't have wanted to be married to someone who was just a spectator. The person I loved threw himself into life, and as a result I had so much more out of the relationship."

On the snowy flanks of Ben Nevis, amid the spindrift and scree, the waterfalls frozen into albino porcupines and the River Lochy glinting and winding far below, I can understand something of the passion climbers have for the mountains. But that's purely my response to beauty, with nothing of the heart-thumping, adrenaline-pumping arousal of a difficult ascent. Psychoanalysts once thought mountaineers were pathological for desiring such experiences; mountaineers now will tell you that the peaks keep them sane. Either way, and for whatever indefinable reason, from Snowdon to Scafell Pike, the Cotswolds to the Cairngorms, it seems certain that people will continue to take to the slopes. "High mountains are a feeling," wrote Lord Byron, and almost 200 years later they remain, for many, a sensation that nothing else can touch. r

Dave Macleod (www.davemacleod.com) and Mike Pescod (www.abacusmountaineering.com) are part of the Fort William Mountain Festival (www.mountainfestival.co.uk), which runs from March 6 to 14. Also check out Karen Darke (www.karendarke.com) and Andy Kirkpatrick (www.andy-kirkpatrick.com). The Andy Fanshawe Memorial Trust (www.andyfanshawe.org) offers grants to help disadvantaged young people experience the great outdoors

A tribute to a woman who loved the mountains

SIMON WILLIAMSON met the love of his life in the foothills of the Himalayas. For an experienced climber with a love of the outdoors, it could not have been more appropriate.

Teresa Conalty was an Irish girl with a beaming smile who shared his passion for the mountains. "The first thing that struck me about her was that she was extremely bubbly," says Williamson, a 32-year-old lorry driver from Lochwinnoch.

"We just clicked. She was into kayaking, mountaineering, rock-climbing, caving – all the things I've loved doing for the last 15 years."

The couple spent the early days of their relationship trekking through Nepal, exploring its culture and venturing further into the beautiful scenery of the Himalayas. For Williamson, who had grown up climbing in the Cairngorms with his father, and for 40-year-old Conalty, a psychiatric nurse who had trained as an outdoor leader, it was the trip of a lifetime. They were already planning to return to Nepal when they flew back to Scotland in January.

Williamson's father, Ronnie, drove them to Aviemore. Williamson wanted to show his new girlfriend the mountains that had given him his love of climbing. A group of 30 walkers – including some of Williamson's team from Cairn Ban Mountaineering Club – set off up the Cairngorms. The track was icy, so they were wearing crampons for extra traction. But this was a day out to see the mountains, rather than one for extreme adventure.

The group had only been out for a couple of hours when the accident happened. "The peak was Coire Cas," says Williamson. "We were on the windless side and we weren't at the top, but the gusts were strong enough to push you back. The gust that took Teresa away was very short but exceedingly strong.

"When I looked up she wasn't there beside me any more, and I knew if I looked down the hill I would see her – she was sliding down."

Conalty fell 180m, tumbling down rough ground that was not quite vertical. Williamson was able to run down to her, and was the second person to reach her. He says, "She was conscious when I got to her, but she was distraught. Even when I was beside her she was calling my name. She had a big swelling on her head, and I was scared.

"I was able to speak to her for the first minute or two, holding her hand and trying to reassure her. Then she slipped into a coma. She pretty much died in my arms."

Williamson made the difficult call to her family in Wicklow, in the Republic of Ireland, to tell them the tragic news. He met the family for the first time when he travelled over for the funeral."The only comforting thought for me is that at least she wasn't alone, and she was happy because we were together," he says."

After the funeral, Williamson climbed Conalty's favourite hill – one that she had described to him many times – with her mother and best friend Ronan, just south of Dublin. "I felt a connection with Teresa, but I feel a connection with her in every single thing that I do," says Williamson.

He says he will go back to walking in the Cairngorms and the place where the accident happened. However, Williamson says he cannot contemplate going back to the Himalayas without Conalty. "We were planning a trip back there, but there is not a chance I could possibly do it. It would just be too difficult."

Williamson's father accompanied him to Conalty's funeral in Ireland. "If it had been an Irish wedding it would have been fantastic, because there were so many cousins and family members there," he says.

"Simon spent ten years looking for someone with the same love of the outdoors as he had, and Teresa was that person."

It is a difficult time for both father and son, but they both insist they would never give up on the mountains, the passion that brought Conalty and Williamson together.

"Why do we do these dangerous things?" asks his father. "Because standing on the top of a mountain makes you feel so wonderful, and you can't explain it to someone who has never done it."