Sometimes you have to put the family on hold and head for the hills with your cronies, writes Aidan Smith
Half-term with the kids had been three toerags clamouring for attention in impossibly high-pitched voices. Honestly, it was like being one of the hapless humans in the latest Alvin and the Chipmunks movie, but without the tolerance and the inane grinning – a situation compounded by a trip to the flicks to see … guess what? I deserved a small reward, so I did what I always like to do when granted a day off: dug out some smelly clothes, trudged up a Scottish peak and got nice and cold and wet.
It had been 25 years since I’d trekked the West Highland Way in the same gear with two good friends and happily all three of us were able to re-convene to mark a quarter-century of occasional communing with the hills. More and more, the pressure of work restricts our opportunities – these guys have both climbed to the summit of journalism and become editors and are way more important than me. So does being entrammelled in family life, however happily, chipmunkery apart. When the chance of a yomp presents itself, therefore, it is gleefully seized.
Not even my children guffawing at their father stuffed into his leg-warmers, or my wife effortlessly failing to be turned on by this vision in moth-eaten navy blue, could deter me. And last week’s tragedies on the mountains couldn’t stop me either.
I’m not pretending the deaths of climbers and hillwalkers didn’t prey on the minds of our small band or make us pause before choosing where to place a boot on a jaggy incline, some lively-looking scree or, further up, snow. They did, but so did every tumble we’d experienced on our previous expeditions. And in any case the creeping realisation we’re not quite as invincible as we thought – one of us now suffers from sciatica, two have varicose veins and all three need glasses – is its own kind of limiter to ambition and boldness.
But every so often we need to climb something. We need to be challenged by a considerable pimple and to conquer it. The mountains are calling us. They’re saying: “Come and have a go if you fancy wearing sturdy footwear for something other than an amble round a trendy market followed by an over-frothed coffee and a tedious conversation about home improvements and schooling.” Come and prove you’ve still got it, in other words. Show us you’re still men.
I don’t know about women but men are fairly straight-up-and-down when it comes to vertical pursuits. Yes, fairly simplistic and sometimes fairly pathetic. This begins in soft-play – though it was hard-play and sore-play in my day – and never leaves them. The top rung, the tallest branch. Men are macho and competitive about reaching the summit, preferably before the other guy.
It’s later that wanting to climb something because it’s there becomes a need. When your life becomes almost completely urbanised. When you can’t escape computers and smartphones and being contactable 24 hours a day. When your personal comfort-zone seems as crash-padded and safe and familiar as your kids’ favourite playground. That’s when the thrill of the hill can grab a hold of you.
The three of us like to recall, from that very first adventure, the mixture of fear and excitement presented by Glencoe. Because there were no rooms at the Kings House Hotel – and because although we had a tent, the poles had been left behind – Rannoch Moor and the Devil’s Staircase would both have to be crossed on the same day. Had anyone dared attempt such a feat before? Thousands, probably, but that didn’t stop us feeling magnificent – or peering up to the left at the hellish Buachaille Etive Mor and thinking: “We might be brave enough to come back for you one day, big man.” (We were and, surprisingly, it was a piece of Kendal mint cake). Then there was our coast-to-coast epic, a route marked out by the great Jimmie Macgregor no less, which began at Kyle of Lochalsh and seemed to take us right off the map. One stopover had no TV reception; we never knew such places existed.
You may suspect us to be Tiso-clad conquistadors whose fondness for a well-plumped pillow of an evening betrays our lowland roots. You may wonder why we get so boyishly excited by such modest sojourns. Well, that’s how it is if you have to be grown-up, precise and pretty much deskbound for a living. And if there’s anything more fun-packed than rolling down a snowy hillside practising your ice-axe arrest then I’ve yet to experience it.
Since we started taking to the hills, Bear Grylls has usurped Jimmie, I’m a Celebrity’s has-beens have pretended to live off bugs to revive their dismal careers and Leonardo DiCaprio has been savaged by a grizzly. It can seem like everyone is pitting themselves against nature but thankfully there was no queue to get to the top of the Eildons above Melrose last Friday like happens on Everest. We didn’t see another soul and indeed couldn’t see our gorse-pricked hands in front of our faces for the swirling mist.
That was all the excitement we needed. We like getting lost in the hills but would be too scared to ever risk disappearing from view. The highest Eildon is only a Marilyn, rather than a Munro (geddit?), although it comes with a decent back-story involving black magic, Sir Walter Scott and Thomas the Rhymer. We got closer to God, admittedly only by 1,385ft, but back in the town still felt it was worth drinking to our safe return.
Obviously some other folk who love the hills haven’t been so fortunate. This has prompted calls for them to be shut down but that would be another kind of tragedy. A counter-argument suggests climbers should donate money to cash-strapped rescue services, which sounds like a good idea. After all, I pay for gym membership down at sea level and never use it.