THERE are memorials scattered throughout the mountains but the one dedicated to an Edinburgh student who was lost in the mountains above Loch Cluanie many years ago always makes me pause for thought.
Those heading for the Sgurr nan Conbhairean trio of Munros may have seen it: a three-foot high granite boulder perched on a small heathery rise at the side of the Old Military Road near Lundie.
The years and the elements have weathered the small bronze plaque, and many will have passed it without noticing that it is not just another rock, but time and memory are the very reasons I feel drawn there on every visit to these hills. The inscription reads:
TO THE MEMORY OF JOHN DUDLEY SANDEMAN DEARLY LOVED ONLY SON OF THE LATE R.K. SANDEMAN AND MRS. SANDEMAN, EDINBURGH, LOST ON THE MOUNTAINS ABOVE THIS POINT ON 3RD JANUARY, 1960, AGED 19 YEARS AND 6 MONTHS
John Sandeman was in a party of Edinburgh University students who visited the area during their Christmas break to go climbing and hillwalking. They had arranged accommodation at the dam construction work camp as the workers were away for the festive season.
The party split into smaller groups and John was one of four whose route took them towards Bealach Coire a' Chait which connects Sgurr nan Conbhairean to its equally sprawling neighbour A' Chralaig, but he soon found himself struggling to keep up. As the short winter day drew in, he started to fall behind his companions, and as they pushed on across a false summit they failed to notice he was no longer behind them.
At first they assumed he had dropped out and gone back to the road, but when they failed to catch sight of him, they retraced their steps to the bealach. When there was still no sign, they went back to camp and raised the alarm.
The whole party went out after dark searching but returned at 5am with no success. John was said to be well enough equipped to survive a night in the open, but on their return they received the tragic news that John's father, Robert, had died suddenly the previous evening.
The search resumed next day but by now the weather had taken a turn for the worse and despite a massive effort by the RAF Mountain Rescue Service, police, gamekeepers and local volunteers, there was no sign of John.
The following day's search had to be abandoned early because of the weather and further searches over the next few days proved hopeless. The whole exercise was called off, but for about six months parties of climbers kept looking. About a year after John's disappearance, his mother was given permission by the landowner to erect a memorial stone.
Then on September 21, 1962, a shepherd saw an ice axe sticking out of the ground behind some boulders at the top of Glen Fada. The axe was inscribed with the initials JDS. Closer inspection revealed some human remains along with a watch, cigarette lighter, spectacles and boots.
John had been found after more than two and a half years, more than nine kilometres from where he had last been seen. It must have been a long, lonely journey over complicated terrain to this remote spot.
It was thought that after losing touch with his group and with light fading, John had realised he had to get to the road but turned into the wrong glen and in his exhaustion started to walk with the snow and wind behind him. Eventually, overcome by his exertions, he stuck his ice axe in the ground, sat down and died of hypothermia.
There are so many elements that make this a particularly poignant tragedy. The first time I looked at the plaque, I wondered how old John would be now, what he would be doing and how his life would have played out. I have done the same ever since, but this time I realised he would now be 80.
The story highlights the difficulties faced by search parties in these vast areas of complex terrain, where a body can be lying just feet away from searchers but still unseen. Even with modern technology and increasingly improving methods, there is no guarantee of a successful outcome in difficult conditions. Sometimes the mountains will take their time to give up their secrets.
A few years ago, one of our club members went missing during a solo walk, and despite continuous searches over a period of months there was no sign. Deep vegetation had hampered the efforts and in the end he was discovered by chance by a dog walker.
Next time you are heading for these mountains, take a minute out to look at the memorial and think of this lost boy. I'm sure it will have a sobering effect.