Published 17th July 2020, 18:24

    EVERYONE has their own comfort level on airy ridge walks: some take to it straight away, most grow to calm any nerves through time and experience. 

    There are those who never manage to get over those initial feelings of dread, but for the vast majority, walking along those high, twisting, rocky tightropes with plunging slopes on either side is one of great joys.

    The variety of exposure is vast, from the razor-sharp crests of Skye or the Aonach Eagach to the multi-peak links of the big chains where a relatively sedate traverse can suddenly be transformed by brief but testing sections. Different phases of life can be an important factor in how you feel. I've seen friends who have taken a break from the mountains for family reasons display a heightened anxiety on return, their previous confidence negated by new responsibilities.

    Advancing years can also take their toll. One seasoned mountaineer told me that after an ascent – or rather the descent – of Sgurr Alasdair, he decided to call it quits. He was 75, and the constant worry over his balance had spoiled his day. Another told how he turned back from the final climb to the summit of Sgurr nan Gillean – a peak he had been up many times – after feeling his safety and that of his rookie partner was being compromised by his uncertainty.

    All good things must come to an end, and calling time at the right time is something we will all have to accept at some point. That's perfectly natural, but it comes as more of a shock when the rug is pulled at a much younger age.

    Six years ago, our group was returning over rough, pathless ground after a trek out to Glas-charn, near Glenfinnan, when we met a small figure striding purposefully towards us, dog bounding along at her side. It's always a novelty to meet someone else on these less-frequented hills, so instead of the usual quick nod or hello, we stopped for a chat.

    A fitness instructor and swimming coach, Morag had completed the Munros and the Corbetts and was well on her way to finishing the Grahams (this was one of her last). It wasn't just list ticking – she had made multiple ascents of many, including the peaks of the Black Cuillin. Most of her hill days were spent solo, and some of these days were monsters.

    There was a fierce determination in her eyes, a steeliness in her approach. She seemed unstoppable, a force of nature, so I was taken aback this week to learn that Morag has been struggling with vertigo for the past few years.

    Vertigo is the sensation of dizziness that makes you feel as though you, or the ground around you, is moving or spinning. It is a symptom of a range of conditions, and it can strike at any age, although it is more prevalent among those 65 or older. Sometimes the feeling is barely noticeable, but it can be so severe that you find it difficult to keep your balance. It can last a few seconds, or it may last up to several days. It is often associated with inner ear infections, but sometimes there is no obvious cause. It's certainly not ideal for narrow ridges.

    Morag, who is her early 50s, first noticed there was something wrong eight years ago while on Garbh-bheinn on Skye, and she ended up having to crawl the last few metres to the summit. It's not that she had become scared of heights, more a sense of anxiety that she will suddenly feel her balance is about to give way. She said: “There's no telling when it can strike, but it has increased my anxiety and that can lead to panic attacks.”

    She suffered one on Beinn Bhuidhe at Loch Fyne and had to be coaxed along. Later, as she neared the summit, she broke down in tears. 

    “It doesn't take much. On the ridge between the two summits of Gulvain, one of the dogs jumped up and startled me, sparking another attack. And on the steep climb up to Beinn Sgritheall I suddenly felt uncomfortable about the gradient and had to retreat.”

    For someone with such a love of the mountains, these incidents are hard to take. There is no obvious catalyst. Morag thinks the death of her father when she was 15 and the subsequent loss over the years of her mother and sister may have triggered something but that's only one possibility.

    She's recently tried hypnotherapy and is hopeful that may help. She is also looking at going out on the hill with a friend but without her dogs to see if her anxiety levels drop by concentrating simply on her own position.

    Her immediate solution is to avoid the more pointy parts of the country and enjoy the likes of the Cairngorms, the Monadhliath and her home territory of Perthshire. After all, in her 35 years in the mountains, she has been there, done that. She has nothing to prove. 

    The important thing is that she can still indulge in her passion for the great outdoors.