Published 27th November 2023, 19:39

    WE were snaking our way up the customary Skye scree path to Sgurr nan Eag when our guide Gerry Ackroyd suddenly came to an abrupt halt.

    He was studying the ground carefully. Something was bothering him. One rock in particular had caught his attention.

    Then we heard him musing: “Hmmm, that rock wasn't there yesterday.”

    We found his musing very amusing but he was off in a world of his own. It was no act. He wasn't playing to an audience. He was genuinely puzzled that a piece of the landscape – a minute piece – had changed position since his most recent visit.

    We were aware his many years of guiding in the Cuillin meant he knew every inch of this intricate and complex terrain like the back of his hand, even in the most testing conditions, but it had never occurred to us that he would know individual rocks to such a small, near insignificant, scale.

    Most of us are familiar with certain mountains and individual route features but no matter how much we think we recognise our home ground, few can claim to possess this extent of intimate knowledge. The danger is that familiarity – or at least the over-riding belief in it – can throw up more problems than a cautious approach. The preparation should always be the same, no matter whether it's your first ascent of that hill or the 30th.

    Every once in a while there's a rude reminder of how quickly things can go south when you relax on the assumption you're in for an easy day. It happened to me last year on Bruach na Frithe, one of the less serious Cuillin peaks, when a series of little glitches added up to a create a fraught and ultimately punishing day out. 

    My previous ascents had been straightforward and I thought I knew the mountain and the Basteir Gorge approach well. But although the overhead weather was favourable, the run-off from the relentless rain of the previous days meant I had to make a few diversions and I found myself pushed offline.

    A heavy shower brought visibility down to zero and suddenly the familiar became the unfamiliar. My passage through the rocky chaos was unsure, the doubts that I was in the right place rising to the surface. 

    I safely negotiated my way through with a few interesting moments but I felt weaker, the stress of this unexpected turn of events taking a physical toll. The climb to the summit was without further incident but it now felt like a slog rather than a pleasure. The raised anxiety levels and accompanying weariness probably explained why I also managed to go wrong on the descent out of the corrie where a few interesting down climbs were needed. 

    There was a similar situation a few years earlier during a night ascent of Bla Bheinn, another Skye Munro which I had climbed half a dozen times before. This time the familiar disappeared in a cloying, freezing white mist which rendered every reference point invisible. The deep freeze also played havoc with my gps, phone, camera and watch, and it was with some relief that I reached the summit trig pillar courtesy of paper map and compass.

    Over-confidence is a common theme in navigation snafus. On a traverse of the Grey Corries with an experienced group of six, we found ourselves on the top of a crag having gone awry due to the fact everyone assumed someone else was leading when in fact no one was.

    The simple rule is to treat every walk as if it is the first and check and re-check the route the night before. There's no gold-plated guarantee this will ensure a trouble-free outing but it certainly swings the odds heavily in your favour. It's something I do religiously, even with the likes of our annual pilgrimage on Buachaille Etive Mor which has seen some 30-plus ascents since the 1990s.

    And despite the Angus glens being my home territory, a map revise is always undertaken before I head out. There are still so many corners that remain unexplored even after many years' wandering, and the recent storm damage has highlighted how much a landscape can be dramatically altered overnight.

    Always remember that in the Scottish mountains the familiar can so quickly become the unfamiliar. And always be wary of anyone who says: I know the way.