ONE of the great satisfactions of mountain walking is the constant learning curve. Experience merely leads to a flattening of that curve.
No two days in the hills are the same: different seasons, different weather, different routes. There is always something new to discover.
Familiarity is no barrier to enjoyment but nothing compares to the excitement of those early days, the first ventures into virgin territory and all the anticipation that involves. The next best thing is seeing it through fresh eyes.
When we started going out regularly some 30 years ago, we had older colleagues with a wide variety of knowledge and experience to lean on for advice on routes and best practice. Recently, I have been seeing this from the other side by helping my nephew Lewis start out on his mountain journey. This passing of knowledge is of great benefit to both parties. It also serves as a reminder as to how we all began.
It's often said the past is a foreign country. Trips down memory lane are viewed at a distance through rose-tinted glasses, the bad bits more likely buried in favour of better episodes. The truth is that in retrospect, everything is obvious. Mistakes are made, but this is vital in the learning curve. You seldom learn from getting everything right, and once you start looking for mistakes you will see them everywhere.
I would never have pegged Lewis for a budding mountaineer. He's a talented musician who is active on the local circuit. His skills earned a role in the film What We Did on Our Holiday alongside Billy Connolly. But with the live music scene particularly hard hit by the coronavirus pandemic, he's had to turn his attention elsewhere, and there's nowhere better for physical and mental well-being than the hills.
His first ascent came out of the blue, a long but simple walk up Mount Keen from Glen Tanar. He followed that with Mayar and Dreish, a natural progression: you do one then you want to do two. So far, decent weather days with good views, nothing to worry about, and so the enthusiasm and the ambition grows. He asked me about doing the Lochnagar round of five. I persuaded him this was something to tackle with a bit more experience. It's not a difficult circuit, but there's the possibility of navigation challenges in thick weather and once committed to the round tiredness could be a major factor.
Instead, he went up Ben Vorlich at Lochearnhead, and this is where the Lochnagar decision was vindicated. The cloud was down and it was wet. He had planned to go on to Stuc a' Chroin but wisely chose to retreat from the col. For a relative novice these were intimidating conditions but it was encouraging to see he made the right call.
It didn't put him off. He was keen to go further and I was keen to help him get there. We met for an ascent of Ben More and Stob Binnein, more height and rougher terrain than he had so far encountered. The reward was a stunning inversion day, the high peaks pushing into an azure sky from a sea of cotton wool. There was even a Brocken Spectre.
It was also an opportunity for a kit inspection. I was mindful of the early days of painful boots, inferior waterproofs and home-sewn gear, and cotton tops which stayed soaked once wet. It takes time and money to build up decent kit, but good boots and waterproofs are a must. You think you can get away with cheaper gear and equipment but it soon becomes uncomfortably obvious that's not the case.
His boots lacked ankle support and were starting to let in water. He asked how much I would pay for a pair and was left a bit speechless. Not long into the climb, one of his poles came apart. They appeared to be for gentle walking rather than mountains.
There are things that will improve over time; stamina, confidence on the downhill and over boulders, navigational skills and how to read the terrain. There's also the need to examine the mountain weather forecasts in more detail, to check out not just the rain but the possibility of spate river crossings, not just the wind speeds, but which direction they are coming from, how exposed you will be to them on your route and the summit windchill factor.
Serious winter walking is out of the question for the moment, but lower-level walks will help build self-assurance. We didn't venture out on big snow slopes until our second year. We were self-taught with axes and crampons but now there are so many winter skills courses available.
It will come together in time. He's managed a few more Munro days, and will benefit from the experience. No one becomes an expert overnight. We all have to build and keep building, no matter how good we think we are. It's easy to forget the stuttering beginnings.
The Czech author Milan Kundera wrote: “We pass through the present blindfolded. We are permitted merely to sense and guess at what we are experiencing. Only later when the cloth is untied can we glance at the past and find out what we have experienced and what meaning it has.”