Published 14th September 2021, 18:21

    WE were ploughing through the deep snow on a long winter traverse in Glenshee. It was hard going, and one or two of our party were struggling. Not the big guy with the tattoos, though. Steve Barnes was in his element. 

    It was the first time I had been on a big walk with Steve. It was also the first time that myself and many in the Grampian Club discovered the full extent of his life with cancer.

    Watching him stride along, it was hard to believe the disease had been with him for some 15 years. It had affected, at various times, his colon, liver, kidneys, lungs and lymph nodes. The treatment was constant, but he always seemed to bounce back from each treatment with a new zest. The outdoors was his passion: he always said that a day spent on the hills was worth the inevitable few days' pain that would follow. 

    We often hear the terms 'fight' or 'battle' associated with cancer. For some these are words of comfort to help comprehend the unthinkable, the unknown. Not Steve. He disliked them intensely. He reckoned they were words associated with choice, and having cancer would not be anyone's choice. Instead, he preferred to say he had learned to live with it, adapting his day-to-day routines to be able to do what he wanted.

    He managed to present his hospital treatments with gallows-style humour; sometimes we would be laughing at his observations while simultaneously feeling slightly guilty about doing so, exactly the effect he was aiming for.

    I remember him telling me that soon after his early diagnoses he had come to accept he could die any day, so his attitude was to ignore that thought and live every one as if if it could be his last. And there's no doubt he did that. His life may have been cut short, but he managed to pack more than most into those 44 years. He was an inspiration.

    I met Steve's partner, Sianhan, and his good friend Colin Leeming the other day to talk about his life. It was a bittersweet meeting, but mostly it was about laughter as we recalled fond memories of a larger than life character.

    He knew his local area like the back of his hand but he also racked up many of the big faraway hills including the likes of Ben Nevis, Buachaille Etive Mor and Creag Meagaidh, and in the Mamores and Skye. The high peaks may have been out of bounds for spells after hospital treatments, but he still insisted on getting out and about, often dragging his pals round castles and waterfalls.

    His story came to the attention of BBC Scotland's The Adventure Show and they twice featured his exploits. Climbing high with host Dougie Vipond, he explained his rationale for constantly pushing onwards against the odds: how getting outdoors meant his condition became a small problem in a big space, rather than sitting at home where it would be a big problem in a small space.

    Sianhan said that in some ways he reckoned he had had the best days of his life after discovering he had cancer. He felt he never wasted a minute, and had had experiences that before may well have passed him by.

    Colin told how Steve would piggyback on an idea and then expand it to ever greater intricacy. For instance, after introducing him to the Secret Howff in the Cairngorms, I happened to mention that I often came here in late December to have a late Christmas dinner on my own. You could almost see the light bulb going on. My meal had been a sandwich with leftover turkey: Steve took Colin there a few days later and proceeded to cook a full Christmas meal with all the trimmings. 

    The big cook-out became a regular occurrence. There were breakfast fry-ups in the hills every other weekend, even once on the top of Wolf Craig to catch the sunrise. And then there was the scone bagging. Steve loved nothing better than a good scone and the search for the finest in the country became a bit of an obsession. He even got annoyed when it was pointed out that someone already had a scone-bagging blog. “He's nicked my idea,” was the cry.

    He had been a talented tattoo artist, but that career had come to a halt as the cancer treaments affected his touch and subsequently his ability to do intricate work. His artistry shone through in a new vein, though – he was a superb photographer, and his images were constantly reaching ever higher standards. His nature shots, in particular, possessed a rare, detailed beauty and quality.

    His love of the natural world on his doorstep in Arbroath provided a much-needed outlet in his later days when the cancer moved into his bones and movement became more restricted. 

    Even when he was moved to Roxburghe House, the palliative care unit in Dundee, he was determined to get back into the hills, his eyes fixed on an all-terrain mobility chair. He was still joking with the nurses that he had already booked his parking spot for future appointments.

    His beautiful mountain images, meanwhile, adorn the walls of Ward 32 at Ninewells, and will bring some comfort to many going through cancer treatment. They were also on the walls of 'his' room there where he could imagine himself in a better place.

    Steve's parents, Walter and Pamela, and his three brothers and sister, can be proud of his life and his legacy.