I’M beginning to think I am the Rip van Winkle of the mountains, that I have just woken after more than 20 years asleep.
How else to explain the sudden realisation that all those years of climbing hills in the middle of the night between long shifts at work may have been just a teensy weensy bit bonkers?
The epiphany came last autumn on a long day out on the remote Bidein a’ Choire Sheasgaich and Lurg Mhor in the North-west Highlands. We were about five hours into the walk and, being a bit ahead of my two friends, I stopped for a quiet moment to drink in the surroundings. And then it struck.
I thought back to when I had done this tough mountain circuit in the middle of the night, all alone, after finishing a long day at work and driving the four hours from Glasgow. It really, truly hadn’t hit me before. I could not even imagine trying to do that on a regular basis now.
Sure, there were often days when I questioned whether it was a good idea to be climbing during the early hours, but they were swept aside in a heartbeat. Never once did I think of calling a halt. It had become routine, slotting in perfectly alongside the inability to sleep due to the adrenaline rush of my job.
You’d think it would have clicked earlier. Most people reacted with incredulity when they heard for the first time that I climbed at night, but I quickly became inured to the gasps of disbelief. I was almost blasé about it. It was my way of getting out in the hills, nothing more, nothing less.
When my friends caught up, I mentioned what I had been thinking about and they both reacted with amusement, the sentiment being: “The biggest surprise is that it’s taken you this long to realise you are nuts.”
Now maybe it’s a sign that I have finally been corralled into maturity, but the thought popped up again last weekend during a wonderful traverse of the three Munros at the top end of Loch Arkaig. The walk over the rugged peaks of Sgurr nan Coireachan, Garbh Chioch Mhor and Sgurr na Ciche is a classic, one of my favourite hill days. It was probably even more satisfying this time because early forecasts had suggested Hurricane Gert was about to pay a visit and we had all but abandoned any plans to walk.
However, Gert seemed to have stopped to have a pint and a fag and put her feet up, slowed and weakened by her earlier exertions, and suddenly we were back on. To make best use of the weather window, we slept in the cars for a few hours and then set off around 6.30am.
There was still a lot of water around. The streams were hard to cross and parts of the path were a quagmire but it was calm and warm with hardly a breath of wind, and the views were far better than predicted.
We crossed Sgurr nan Coireachan and reached the start of the huge wall which runs all the way along the ridge line of the Garbh Chiochs to the col with Sgurr na Ciche. The sight of this wall always produces mixed emotions; sheer wonder at the scale and construction on such impossible terrain, anger at the injustice of the feudal system which spawned such follies.
Amid this contemplation I once again thought back to my first circuit of these hills some 20 years ago, starting off in the freezing winter darkness, heading up alone on to the snow-covered ridge, not another soul around. Once again I tried to think if I would be capable of repeating the walk under these circumstances, after a long drive from work and then back again without sleep.
The added complication that day was the descent down the gap of Feadan na Ciche, the gully filled with snow, the waters turned to ice. It was a long, slow drop and I ended up overdue by a couple of hours.
It may seem like a lifetime ago, but the stark reality of those night adventures is starting to finally hit home.