The hill at the end of the decade

Tue, Dec 31, 2019

Evening light on Beinn na Cro, looking towards Blaven, Isle of Skye

Walking up Beinn na Cro, a strong sun at my back, it felt like 4am on a midsummer morning. The softness of the light, the mildness of the air, the quiet road receding behind my bootsteps. It was weird.

Midwinter on Skye. The hills were quiet, the sun was warm as was the wind lower down the granite and gabbro slopes. There were some streaks of snow, like desperate vampire hands clawing the sheltered faces on Blaven, trying not to be melted into oblivion on this midwinter day. It just didn’t feel right, physically or emotionally. Something was wrong.

Winter clouds climb the butresses of Blaven, Isle of Skye

I had some sport on the wet crags, precision the key to steady ascent and a wonderful feeling of commitment on uncertain rock. The feel of my body in balance with the mountain, moving in shapes demanded by the orientation of the holds. Not a long route, not a sonnet in rock, starting with risk, doubt and uncertainty and ending with a volta of delight but rather a series of short walls and slabs, each with their own character, their own glimpses of a different life. Vertical haiku, or more appropriately, gaiku.

Blaven and Clach Glas, Isle of Skye

Topping out on the broad, windswept, boggy ridge, wispy waifs of cloud skimming the summit of Beinn na Caillich and the wind-cropped slope leading up to a clear blue sky. Some more rocky interludes among the prostrate juniper clinging to the hillside and I slanted across to the top of the steep drops into Loch na Sguabaidh with the hazy ridges and buttresses of Blaven rising into cloud that sat on her summit, moving among the dwindling snowfields. A huge high pressure system was centred over Wales and southern England, playing havoc with Freeview signals apparently as it was creating an inversion from which distant signals were bouncing in from the continent, creating inteference. From the summit I could see the inversion layer, which I reckoned to be around 3500 feet. Turned out it was more like 3100 feet as Bidean Druim nan Ramh and that part of the Cuillin ridge occasionaly peeped above the clouds, with Sgurr nan Gillean briefly appearing but only for a few seconds at a time. Spectacular to watch nonetheless.

The Cuillin ridge cloud inversion

It was blowing a freezing gale on the tiny summit and I lay low behind the small cairn and contemplated the wild landscape of black rock and white racing clouds. A truly elemental experience, lying low to the ground, barely out of the wind, watching the grass at my nose dancing in the gale then looking to the horizon where everything was in motion too, just slower, bigger, wilder. It was a wonderful day to be out on the hill.

Contemplating the Cuillin from Beinn na Cro, Isle of Skye

With the wind being squeezed up Abhainn an t-Stratha Mhoir from Loch Slapin, cats’ claws queuing to be raced up the narrow glen and blast up the sheer walls and over the summit ridge, it was screaming at around 50mph but I was wrapped up in my buff, covereing my face with only eyes showing, taking it all in, whooping with delight as the light changed with the movements of the clouds. A white-tailed sea eagle shot up the glen from the corrugated loch and was lost in seconds among the furrowed sides of Belig. I waved my arms in delight. Waved at the mountains, waved at the weather, waved at life. Then three ravens came up the ridge, cronking and playing in the gale. One flew down the ridge to inspect me. I waved and it soared up the ridge on an updraught to rejoin the others. I wondered if it was the Belig raven I’d met, eye to eye, my reflection visible in its black eye in the photograph. I came down to Clach Oscar and got the wee stove out for a brew but the meths wouldn’t light and as the sun dipped behind Slat Bheinn the temperature dropped like a gabbro boulder down the steep glen sides. Back home, get the fire lit, a hogmanay dram and a toast to my 40th year climbing mountains, arriving in a few hours. Bliadhan Mhath Ur, Happy New Year. I hope the next hogmanay is less weatherly weird.

Evening light at Clach Oscar, Isle of Skye