I SHOULD have been standing at the summit of Buachaille Etive Mor at some point this week as I have done for the past 23 years.
The only blemish during that time was a freak summer event of torrential rain and storm-force winds which meant a last-minute switch of days. Even Covid failed to prevent the walk going ahead, albeit in a reduced form.
It started in 1998 as a birthday walk, morphed into an initiation ceremony for potential new club members, then became a memorial trek after the tragic death of a friend on the mountain in 2004. The first walks were always on July 7 – I share my birth day with the late, great Hamish Macinnes – then they switched to the nearest Saturday to that date, then the nearest weekend day to July 9 for our annual pilgrimage.
The number of participants has ebbed and flowed over the years: at times there have been upwards of 30 taking part, at others just a handful. Sometimes those who couldn't manage on the day made their own ascent a day or so either side. Last year I made the journey alone, Covid making the logistics for a group outing too problematic. I went up in the evening and had the mountain to myself, social distancing at its finest.
But this year the annual ascent has been put on hold. The virus is still around, but the reason for the delay is nothing to do with the mountain being on a red, amber or green list, nothing to do with vaccination passports or group sizes. It's simply down to timing.
A few months ago, I was given a date for a long-awaited minor operation on my right leg. It was short notice, but turning it down could have meant another lengthy wait. I've now had four weeks of recovery. I always knew I would be sidelined from the big hills for between two and four weeks, but six is now looking more sensible. As with most injuries, the healing process may be speedy but the precautionary measures and confidence to get back out there mean a longer time frame.
I made the most of my hill days pre-op, keeping the fitness to a good level and counting down the remaining Munros for my latest round. I was encouraged by the instant pick-up after last year's three-month lay-off due to Covid restrictions, and hopefully this restart will be even smoother.
Apart from the Buachaille, July is no big loss. It's my least favourite month for getting out on the hills; too many people, too many midges and clegs, and generally disappointing weather. I would prefer to be fully fighting fit for the autumn and winter.
I have been fortunate during my mountain life: this is only the second time injury has forced me to sit it out. The last time was in 2003 when I damaged ankle ligaments after a slip on Tryfan. I was only on crutches for a week but it took me three months to have the confidence to venture out alone again, and when I did I made sure it was in familiar or popular territory until I was sure my ankle would hold out.
The Buachaille is certainly familiar territory. I have come to appreciate it in all moods; the vagaries of July weather, rain, gales and blazing sunshine; the deep snows and avalanche danger of winter white; the sunrises and sunsets from the highest point, Stob Dearg. This magnificent lump of rock has shaped my mountain life, and I expect/hope it will continue to do so for a long time to come.
There is a lot of whisky still to pour into the stream as a toast to our lost friend, a lot of Freddo Frog bars to hand out to all those who reach the summit on the day. The next ascent will likely be another solo effort. And no, it's not a cunning scheme to save myself a fortune on Freddos: it's simply down to practicality. For that same reason, it is also likely to be another outing in the quieter hours.
When life returns to a semblance of what we called normality, we will ascend the Buachaille together again, old faces and new. I want my daughters and my granddaughters to enjoy the experience at least once, I want more special days on this special mountain.
It would also be nice to think I could have a special party on 7/7/77. Why not? I'll only be 123.