ALL good things must come to an end, and it's better if that end can be brought about in a satisfactory and orderly manner rather than collapsing like an over-the-hill champion boxer who takes on one fight too far.
I had long known my night walking exploits couldn't go on with the same intensity.
When I started in 1994, it wasn't because I suddenly had a hankering to go traipsing over mountains in the dark, but rather that I was working long, erratic shifts, which started mid-morning and often didn't finish until after midnight. There were just not enough available hours or days. The night walks were born of necessity.
My first two books, Moonwalker and A Mountain Before Breakfast, focussed on past adventures, the years from 1994 to 2009 when I regularly walked during the wee, small hours. During that period, I managed to climb the best part of two rounds of Munros, and one of Corbetts.
When I retired from the newspaper industry in 2009, I no longer needed the night option. I could go to the hills any time. But after a few months, I realised I missed those nocturnal excursions; missed the walk in to the mountain by moonlight; missed the push up the slopes with the light changing minute by minute; missed the sunrise bringing the new day alive; missed sitting on a calm summit having breakfast with not another soul around.
Cue more night manoeuvres, this time more selective. I picked only the best conditions for long traverses in the likes of Fisherfield and the Cairngorms, often on assignment for outdoors publications. The method had changed, too. Now it was more likely to be a dusk until dawn walk, catching the sunset, the moonlight and the stars, and finally the sunrise.
I also led night walks as part of mountain festivals, such as Arran and Moray, and occasionally, if I was having trouble sleeping – and my sleep patterns have never fully recovered from some 20 years of erratic shift working – I would get dressed and head off to Glen Coe for a 4am ramble up Buachaille Etive Mor and wait for the sun to appear.
But there was always a feeling of unfinished business about it all. I wanted to find something that could close the circle, to bring all the night walking to a satisfying conclusion. I needed a project that would lend itself to a third and final book. The seed for Mountains of the Moon was planted.
Two years ago, after knocking a few ideas around, I had the thought of climbing a mountain on every full moon over one year. The more I looked into this, the more intriguing it became. For a start, I hadn't realised that every full moon had its own name.
Like most people, I had heard of the Harvest Moon and maybe one or two others, but not that there was a specific name for each one of the 12 months. Western society has adopted the names given by the Alconquian tribes of North America, but there are different names applied in other cultures. For instance, the Celtic ones are quite different, as are the Chinese.
As I planned for a start the following January, I made another discovery – 2018 would be an exceptional year of full moons. There were 13 full moons instead of the usual 12. That's not so unusual, it happens roughly every third year. But this was a year in which we would have not one, but two, blue moons. That happens only four or five times each century, roughly every 19 years. It hasn't happened since 1999 and won't again until 2037. The timing was extremely fortuitous. There was no question – I would have to go in 2018.
I decided to choose a mountain that reflected the name of a specific moon, each time and date set in stone. I also decided I would climb only Munros: it would be too easy just to make a quick dash up a lesser hill, and there had to be a measure of consistency. The weather would play a crucial role. It's a lot to ask for favourable conditions on 13 specific dates in the mountains in Scotland, some would say impossible, especially when you factor in aiming at one particular mountain on each of these nights.
I hoped there would be sensational nights; long, lazy walking, a constant rising in beautiful light on moonlit slopes to a summit cairn to wait for the sun to arrive for a new beginning. I hoped to juggle the timing of each walk as much as the self-imposed parameters allowed to catch either a sunset, the full moon or a cracking sunrise.
I knew there would likely be snow and gales and heavy rain. There would be nights where climbing a mountain would be regarded by some as foolish, even dangerous. I was ready for extreme conditions, but only to a point. I would not put my life at risk, nor that of anyone else. Mountain rescue teams are there to help those who desperately need it: they can do without anyone stupidly putting themselves in harm's way. If conditions got too bad, I would bale out.
If I managed to summit my chosen Munro and make it back down safely I would be happy. Anything else would be a bonus. I knew it was odds-on I would not get the perfect 13; one failure would be acceptable, two would be pushing it. Any more and the plug would be pulled on the whole project.
It meant a year of weather watching, a constant eye to the skies. I would always be on the look-out for weather windows, those calm, soothing moments between the storms. The ascents had to be on the day or night of each particular full moon, so a few hours' respite could be the key to success. I could time it so I avoided the wilder weather blasting over the higher regions, setting off in the rain and wind, watching it blow itself out and clear as I rose.
It would provide a fascinating snapshot of a year in our mountains; through the increasing and then decreasing length of the days, the changing of the seasons, the variations in weather patterns, the cycles of plant and animal life. It would also be interesting to see how I would cope physically and mentally with being a noctivagant again on a regular basis. I had to stick rigidly to dates and times. The one consolation was that there was a little leeway on the choice of mountain.
All the main areas would be covered; Skye, Torridon, Cairngorms, Lochaber, Affric and Knoydart, with a finish on the most northerly Munro, Ben Hope. I would try to find a couple of choices for each walk, ideally one in the east, the other in the west. This would mean I could switch at the last minute and head for the more favourable conditions.
Sometimes the names of the moon and the peak correlated perfectly. For instance, Cairn Gorm, the blue mountain, with the Blue Moon. Sometimes, it might be a feature of a specific mountain that matched such as Toll a' Mhadaidh Mor, the big hollow of the dog (wolf) on Beinn Alligin for the Wolf Moon.
On the odd occasion when there was nothing that directly matched, it was a case of picking a mountain that invoked something like a specific method of travel or nearby location or event that best linked the name of the moon. Each of the chosen mountains would have to be climbed on the actual date of the full moon as it fell here, even if that meant just a matter of minutes after midnight. The moons that reached their fullest during the middle of a day gave the best options: I had the luxury of choosing from the nights on either side.
The big get-out – short of calling it off altogether – was to accept when it seemed impossible or downright suicidal to be on the hill on the requisite date, and go up instead the night before or after. This would be a last resort, to be used sparingly. If it was getting to be a habit, then again I would call a halt to the whole project.
I now had the names of the moons and the mountains. I decided to add two other factors – music and alcohol. Music has always played a massive part in helping pass the time of long night drives, and it has been a staple of my every walk, day or night. Just as certain songs trigger memories in any walk of life, my mountain treks always have a piece of music running through them, deliberately or otherwise.
I spent hours on various playlists making sure that each mountain and each moon pairing would have a theme tune. The same applied to alcohol. The drink-drive limits in Scotland have drastically changed the culture over the past few years. It used to be that everyone went for a pint or a dram after coming off the hill. Now, it tends to be straight home unless you are travelling by train or coach.
I wanted to toast every successful ascent in this new venture, so I conducted considerable research (ie. I drank a lot) into different tipples that summed up the moon or the mountain. The happy result was a decent selection of music and drinks for every occasion.
Everything had moved faster than expected. The first full moon, the Wolf Moon, was on January 2, and not long after the Bells had tolled, I was heading up into the belly of Beinn Alligin with a storm coming in right on my tail. I never made it to the summit but I did get into the corrie which was the main objective, and I did get to howl at the moon as the blizzard raged around me. I was greeted by gales on Cairn Gorm for the first Blue Moon, and an eerie white-out on Bla Bheinn for the second. In between, the Beast from the East brought my only failure.
So far, not so good, and I had been having thoughts of calling a halt to the whole affair if the Pink Moon walk in April was also a disappointment. It proved to be the turning point, a stunning, clear night on the snow-packed slopes and ridges of Beinn Eighe, sensational views over to mighty Liathach glowing red with the sunrise as the moon sat overhead.
The next three were equally successful; Ben Lawers with the BBC Scotland Landward crew for the Flower Moon, the Strawberry Moon on a heatwave round of Glen Affric (above Strawberry Cottage, of course) and the Buck Moon in July on the mountains along the Kinloch Hourn road.
August's Sturgeon Moon needed a bit of left-field thinking to find a match, but with help of author Patrick Baker, I settled on Ben Starav and an approach by canoe across Loch Etive. There had been one notable and surprising omission so far – rain. We caught a couple of hours' of drizzle on the way out, but it was only of nuisance value and merely highlighted the anomaly.
September's choice for the Harvest Moon was Beinn a' Ghlo, a second pick because the western half of the country was being lashed by gales, and high winds were again the main problem for the Lochnagar walk in October. November produced the darkest night, one glimpse of the moon then lights out for the rest of our circuit of Ben Cruachan.
The final mountain was always going to be Ben Hope. It was the Cold Moon, so any Scottish hill would have done, but I thought it would be fitting to finish the year on hope. Rather than getting caught out again as I did in March, we travelled early and settled down for a few days. We need not have worried – the ending could not have been better scripted.
As we approached the frosted summit on a benign night, the cloud curtains parted and we were treated to the moon in all its glory lighting up every ice crystal around us. It had been an exceptional finish to an exceptional year. My Mountains of the Moon had been completed.
Setting myself a target of walking a Munro on every full moon was like stepping back in time to those years of regular night walking. Except, as I had expected, it was harder. Much harder. I was ten years older. The knees had ten years more wear and tear, the eyes ten years' further deterioration.
I had been going against regular sleep patterns as opposed to when they were streamlined with my working hours. A strict commitment to a certain mountain at a certain time was tough. There were times in the past when I had planned to go out, but when I reached the end of the shift, I was too tired to make the effort. I would leave it for another day, or night. I couldn't do that now. Everything was in the moment.
The one advantage I had was experience. I had climbed around 300 mountains at night, including most on the 2018 schedule. I knew the routes, I knew the potential hazard points, I knew the escape routes. I also had a maturity that comes with many years walking the mountains.
A few years back while delivering a talk, I was asked if I always chose to go out on nights with a full moon. The answer was 'No'. I went with the weather rather than the lunar cycle, but I now wonder if that was when the seed for the full moon project had been planted.
I won't be saying goodbye to the night walking, but it will be more selective. As far as the Moonwalker books go, however, the tale has been told and the circle closed.