writing

Feature - A Challenge in the Round (& some news)

A friend pointed out this had gone up on Amazon for preorder the other day. After nearly six years, the book some said couldn’t be written, one or two said shouldn’t be and very often nearly wasn’t, is almost there.

 
 

Don’t feel obliged to buy it from the robot retailer - I hope to have some signed copies to sell direct later in the year, if that’s of interest. Back in real life, we’re at the Galley Proof stage, so there’s still work to be done. Second verse, same as the first.

I feel a tangential anecdote coming on.

Sadly, I’m old enough to remember the dubious wonders of streaming in education. Way back in them olden days, no-one told me dragging my sorry ass out of the M-band and hanging on for grim panic in the bottom set of the A-band might mean I’d be the first in my family to go off to university (though not the first to graduate - that honour goes to my hard-as-nails mum, who also had ideas above her station and got to wear a silly hat for her OU degree, two years before me). We all knew that the maths teacher who told us M stood for Median was lying. It meant Mediocre, not average. Education isn’t everyone’s answer, but it was the only way out of my personal cul-de-sac. I also saw that there are no rewards just for putting in the effort, and so it proved to be, despite plenty of advice from the men in the family on both counts to the contrary.

No one mentioned that the many subsequent years of signing on and labouring over four line verses for pop songs would creep up on me decades later in the habit of killing darlings and paring down until the least amount of words spoke the most amount of truth (at least to me). I can laugh about it now but at the time it was terrible. The stubbornness and devotion to creative pursuits over pound notes has helped with the going up of hills, too.

If you’re thinking I’m wanting to make hay from a bit less than salubrious beginnings, then this bit isn’t for you. This bit is for the misfits, the weirdos and the wrong’uns, who can’t seem to see straight but not for want of trying. Keep your head down and your chin up, and don’t worry about the posh accents here and thereabouts. Nobody likes a broken kid with ideas from the terraces, but eventually some might come to tolerate you. If you let them, people from every walk of life will teach you useful, positive things, even become the best of friends. Besides, we’ve all got our own luggage to cart around - seriously, have you seen the size of some of those Gucci bags?! Count yourself lucky. None of it matters. It’s all grist - fertiliser. Dig where you stand. Plant away.


It’s just an expanded guide book of sorts, so I’d best not get carried away. But to celebrate not having done all the work yet, but the darned thing having an actual cover, here’s a magazine feature I wrote in 2013. It describes a first, failed attempt to walk the Ramsay Round.

A Challenge in the Round

….Charlie Ramsay’s original route is actually an extension of another record. Meeting him before my attempt in an Edinburgh coffee shop, Charlie told me the development of his round was bound together with two other marathon runners - Phillip Tranter and Chris Brasher. Tranter was the first to join all 18 Munros around Glen Nevis in a continuous round in less than 24 hours. Charlie ran for the Lochaber club, and had successfully completed Tranter’s Round twice. On holiday in the Lake District he helped pace Chris Brasher (later the originator of the London Marathon), on his first attempt at the Bob Graham Round. Charlie started as part of the support team, but ended up finishing successfully. Chris challenged him to develop the first Scottish ‘24 in 24’ round. The logical place to explore that possibility was on home turf - his familiar training ground of Lochaber.

Could Tranter’s Round be extended? Indeed it could. On the 9th July, 1978, Charlie returned to his starting point at the Glen Nevis Youth Hostel with two minutes to spare. Ramsay’s Round was a reality. He travelled anti-clockwise along the Mamores, heading east then north to add the five Loch Treig Munros to Tranter’s Round, then west again over the Grey Corries, the Aonachs, and finally, finished with a flourish on the Carn Mor Dearg arête leading to Ben Nevis.

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These are no ordinary Munros - they include 10 over 1100m summits, with some of the most challenging ground in the country. Carl, a ski tourer and alpine mountaineer I met on the way, called it ‘mountaineering with a backpack’. It’s certainly a step beyond regular hill walking, and best left for a clear weather window and the long hours of summer light that bless the north.

Within minutes of beginning my attempt, I came up against the first of the difficulties Charlie had warned me about. Forestry Commission trees brought down by gales made for some uncomfortable bushwhacking through deadfall and earthworks. Once beyond the obstacle course of logjams and tree stumps, I made for the first tops of Mullach nan Coirean and Stob Bàn, with shadows lengthening in golden evening light, and then a late camp at Lochan Coire nan Miseach. I had made a late and inefficient start, but I was on my way.

I had chosen a weekend of dazzling summer weather to make my modest walker’s attempt, and even at 9am the following morning the heat on the Devil’s Ridge towards Sgurr a’ Mhàim was intense. The two spurs that make up the ‘horns’ of the Ring of Steall add a good distance to the route and should not be underestimated. Today though, the scrambling was easy on dry rock, with barely a breath of wind to trouble my clambering, and at least I was able to leave my bag at each bealach and hop along unencumbered. Water was going to be more of a challenge and meant close attention to the map, as well as to the early signs of dehydration. After the easy summit of Sgorr an Lubnair (now demoted to a subsidiary top and not a Munro, but still officially on the route), a long pull up to Am Bodach was followed by a steep descent on loose rock and earth towards Stob Coire a’ Chàirn.

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Water is next available below the bealach between this summit and the ridge towards An Gearanach, and I collected this on a vague trod that contours around towards Na Gruagaichean. I climbed slowly, with the mid-afternoon sun reflecting uncomfortably off the quartzite on the path, and almost lay fully down on the top, tired and very thirsty. How many tops was this - seven? Eight? The next hour or so was easier, along a wonderful narrowing ridge that led towards the grandstand rocky jumble that is Binnean Mor. The views here across the entire round were phenomenal and the heat of the day had begun to dissipate. Descending on the northern spur was initially easy but dropping into the corrie on steep grassy slopes towards the first of three lakes was plain uncomfortable. I was still overheating and needed to stop.

The lochan under the outlier of Binnean Beag is simply a beautiful place to camp. I again caught up with Carl, who was recovering from mild dehydration and had decided to abort his two day attempt on Tranter’s Round. Discretion being the better part of valour, I put up my shelter, ate and took on fluid. I tackled the outlier after dinner and saw the sun go out over Ben Nevis. That, incidentally, is one of the joys of this trip - you get to see the UK’s highest summit from so many different angles and really appreciate its scale, before tackling it as the final top on the round. Later that night we heard fell runners coming in and bivying at the lake. Many had chosen to bail due to dehydration, and even the support teams were suffering in the heat.

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The following day and together with Carl, I headed out on a beautiful switchback track and then tackled the slog up the scree slopes of Sgùrr Eilde Mor. Type 1, followed by type 2 fun. At the 680m contour we parted company, and I headed for an early lunch and a wash near the ruins at Lùibeilt. This can be a difficult river crossing, but after weeks of dry weather there were no issues. I made reasonable progress through a hot dry glen towards Loch Treig, down past picture-perfect waterfalls and outcrops of native woodland, a wonderful window into how less intensively grazed highlands might look.

At the derelict Creagauineach Lodge, I wavered. I began to walk east but turned back after a few minutes. I simply didn’t have the time - or was it the energy? - to complete the full round in four days. I also knew I wanted to be on the CMD arête early on day four to maximise the chances of clear weather and reasonable photos. Time to swallow my pride and head north, making this attempt a Tranter’s Round, albeit augmented with some rather lovely glen walking.

I followed a long and winding path alongside the Allt na Lairige. The glen was airless and horseflies made mincemeat of exposed limbs. The second Stob Bàn on the route and my tenth Munro so far was a joyless and exhausting ascent at the end of the day, and the weather seemed to change as I reached the top, but at least the bugs were gone. Coming down off the summit was steep over very loose rock, but the bealach reached soon enough. How on earth did people run this in 24 hours?!

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By late evening my high camp was utterly still and shrouded in cloud. After a slow start, I descended to collect water and then headed into the mists for what seemed like forever to the highliner Stob Choire Claurigh. From here, I was on compass bearings for an hour or two, checking progress as I went. The Grey Corries were indeed grey, but no less impressive for that. Wind howled over the ridge from the south, but lifted the cloud enough to expose the dramatic cliffs near Caisteil.

I made a bad route choice at Stob Coire Easian and decided to ascend rather than tackle the scree. This took me around the back of the hill and wasted valuable time, but by then the weather was clearing and I descended on blocky slabs under clearing skies towards the lovely narrowing ascent of Sgùrr Chòinnich Mór, a truly beautiful mountain. I rested there for a while, chatting to a forestry worker on her day off. The steep scree slopes before Stob Coire Bhealaich were hard work, but the exposed muddy scramble directly afterwards was vertiginous and a little uncomfortable, even in this fine weather. This was quickly followed by a slow and simple walk to the summit of Aonach Beag, reached at 6pm. Descending the horribly eroded path off Aonach Mor (16, or was it 17? I’d lost count) to the headwater of Coire Guibhsachan, the last of my high wild camps awaited. I ate soupy couscous and watched alpenglow rise and fall on the Ring of Steall.

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The home stretch is in what feels like genuine alpine territory. I climbed above the inversion that had swamped my camp and was up onto the easterly ridge of Carn Mór Dearg and the summit by 8.30am. The infamous CMD arête stretched out in front of me, cloud again billowing over from the south but much clearer today, the shattered ridge snaking up to Nevis, a summit I’d be saving for just this occasion. The next two hours I spent in pure mountain bliss, relishing my slow daunder along this spiny dragon’s back, then up over talus to the tallest place in the UK. Nevis is big – if this were an alpine journal I’d be obliged to call it a ‘snarling edifice’ or similar, but suffice to say it took a while and was strenuous! The summit was busy, with tourists either woefully over, or woefully under-equipped. Consequently the descent on the main track was a little surreal, but the last 82 hours had made it all worthwhile. It was a very fitting grand finale to a demanding, exciting, world-class route. And I wasn’t even running.

The book is out on the 15th August, 2019!

Thin Ice

I count myself lucky to tell stories as part of how I earn a crust. I love stories, I think they are as important as food and shelter, but then I would say that wouldn’t I.

I have a new story about a very special place in the April ‘19 TGO magazine - a hill called Streap. I get to quote Captain Beefheart and not have it cut in the edit - how cool is that?! However, there are always more photos than can be shown due to simple pagination limits, and so here’s a few that didn’t make it, including two of my personal favourites from 2018.

“My wintery perch overlooked Loch Beoraid, its blank headwall lost in matt shadows. Above that inky blackness, an orange fire reigned over Eigg and the Skye Cuillin.”

“My wintery perch overlooked Loch Beoraid, its blank headwall lost in matt shadows. Above that inky blackness, an orange fire reigned over Eigg and the Skye Cuillin.”

“Broader slopes for a while, light and dark as the skies above danced to their own tune…”

“Broader slopes for a while, light and dark as the skies above danced to their own tune…”

“The mountain drew me on, and I felt that curious sense of inevitability that high places can engender; a simple wellbeing, a rightness in being there, some kind of mountain blessing.”

“The mountain drew me on, and I felt that curious sense of inevitability that high places can engender; a simple wellbeing, a rightness in being there, some kind of mountain blessing.”

It's become quite trendy to talk about ‘thin places’ - places where earth and heaven meet. I like the idea, but it’s something I'd avoid in a magazine like the plague because it smacks of nature-writing-bandwagon- jumping. Who wants to go to a mountain party with a self important student rapping on palimpest or some such?

But that is what these places are: thin. We get to be gods for the day, we get to be protagonists in our own story. Yay, us.

The other thing about thin places is that they are delicate. Finely balanced. Our interaction with them is fragile, and they are acutely vulnerable to our follies. They exist without us, but we threaten them.

Thin places must be protected from the bulldozers and their greedy, cretinous drivers. We must descend from the land of gods, go down from the mountain and defend them.

“The middle ground bowed before rising to the final summit and the bottom corner of that big, beautiful Z. In here I was protected from the gusts, and that feeling of openness and gratitude returned.”

“The middle ground bowed before rising to the final summit and the bottom corner of that big, beautiful Z. In here I was protected from the gusts, and that feeling of openness and gratitude returned.”

“Streap is old school, its name expressive of more innocent times; before hilltracks and footpath erosion, before mapping apps and Goretex and Vlogging it all to death. It is pure mountain romance, a lifeboat of modernity in our otherwise complicated adult world.”

“Streap is old school, its name expressive of more innocent times; before hilltracks and footpath erosion, before mapping apps and Goretex and Vlogging it all to death. It is pure mountain romance, a lifeboat of modernity in our otherwise complicated adult world.”

Achadh nan Seileach

In February 2018, Stef and I spent 3 days in Achnashellach. Stef’s piece on the trip has just appeared in the March 19 issue of The Great Outdoors, alongside some of my photos. I’ve included some more below. Stef is a good writer, I’m a fan, an advocate and I hope a friend.

Everything coincided for us - timing, weather, conditions - to make this an unrepeatable trip in a remarkable place. I’d not long buried my stepdad, so it was good to be reminded of who I am when I’m myself. It felt as though I’d come up for air after 6 weeks of holding my breath.

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Within 24 hours of us getting home, news spread of a man that had gone missing in the same area. His name was Stephen Mitchell. I’ve told some of this story in another article (BMC Summit, winter 18). For all my ambivalence, even antipathy towards social media, in this case it was a boon. While it didn’t save Stephen’s life, it did allow myself and one or two others who’d been walking in the area to connect with each other, Stephen’s family and the police.

We shared information via a Facebook group and then privately. For a week or so, I became very caught up in the information exchange. We had walked very literally in Stephen’s footprints for much of the weekend. We had been so close. I felt personally responsible when the search came to nought. After the BMC piece was published, a reader emailed to tell me he was the one who had eventually found Stephen, in the spring.

These connections matter. I know Stephen will have been full of love for life, pinching himself at the beauty of it all, just as we were and just a few hours ahead of us. I know because his daughter told me he took great comfort in the mountains, that he’d be called there all his life. And I know his family took some comfort in knowing that although we were strangers, a wider family of stravaigers got involved and gave support where we could.

My friend Stef doesn’t do social media any more. He became disillusioned with it - the straw men, the backbiting, the jealously, the endless distraction. Certainly a wiser man than I. Then again, it’s not really us, it’s the machinery talking. At it’s best, the medium isn’t the message and it’s a means, not the end. It allows us to share the stories we forge out of ourselves and these breathtaking places. New alloys and allies are made from these raw elements, even the sadness, that sustain us when we return home. If we don’t look after each other and these places, then who else will?

For Stephen Mitchell, 1961-2018

Feature - The Angel's Share

This story was originally published in the March 2017 issue of The Great Outdoors Magazine. I was pleased they kept the whisky reference intact and retained the title!

At the end, there’s a link which takes you to the John Muir Trust’s web page about the hydro developments planned in Glen Etive, around which the story is set. Many people had originally made objections to some or all of the schemes on the basis of significant landscape and recreational impact with little or no carbon or energy saving benefit, but two of the schemes with the most objections were recently resubmitted with small changes… meaning of course that the public’s concerns were lost, and now need to be made again if the area is to be protected.

To my mind, the area is really significant - the site of a drove road, dozens of ruined shielings, songlines like Duncan Ban MacIntyre’s ‘The Song of the Ewe’ and the much older Deirdre of the Sorrows… and ‘the Robber’s Waterfall’, a place from where bandits would ambush drovers… now one of the very places development is planned. All this indigenous cultural heritage should surely be treasured, but in Scotland we sometimes seem to cringe at our historic riches.

It’s still a relevant place. Close to the urban centre of Scotland, accessible and yet with a feeling of remoteness, and valued by everyone from day-trippers wanting a James Bond selfie, to first time family campers, photography tour operators, climbers and kayakers… not just solitude seeking winter mountaineers or the other usual outdoor suspects, but also people who can’t access the high mountains but can and do value the experience of being surrounded by them; a casual stroll, a ‘wild’ swim, an open car door, fresh air and calm.

Please make your voice heard before the 6th January, 2019 - the deadline for comments. If you feel strongly about it, I’d appreciate your shares too - either of this article or of your own objections and the deadline, or both. I’ll be submitting my own objections, again, over the Christmas period.

Thanks for reading and a have a great break when it comes.

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Drinking my fill on the Glen Etive Five.

I wasn’t expecting to be here, but here I was. Walking up the north ridge of Ben Starav at 8.30 in the morning, fresh snow underfoot on the 5th day of spring. My other plans hadn’t worked out: The weather window was wrong, I was full of a cold (I have a 2 year old – I’m always full of the cold) and it looked as if winter was over. But as the saying doesn’t go - if life gives u lemons, make gin and tonic. A few day’s before, Storm Katie swept in bringing fresh snow and now, with a brief lull in her wake, I spied an opportunity.

Over the past year I’ve been focussed on exploring the mountains closer to home in Glasgow, and Glen Etive is somewhere I keep returning to. The glen itself could use a good deal less plantation forestry in my view, but it’s still an almost shockingly beautiful place that feels really remote given how close it is to the central belt, and is surrounded by the most incredible mountains. Corbett’s, Munros and a host of unnamed tops… broad ridges, narrow arêtes and deep chasms, wild waterfalls and craggy bealachs, easy walking through to mountaineering and complex climbing routes – there’s something for everyone here, even those who don’t stray from the road at all, and come just for a car camp or a ‘Skyfall’ selfie. We came for the first time with my daughter on her second wild camp in the Autumn, and got to within 100m or so of the top of Ben Starav. The final section of boulders were just too slippery with frost for us to continue safely, and we turned around, still having had a fantastic day on the hill in glorious weather.

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Ever since then, that hill had been a stone in my pocket. I wanted to come back, and in winter if possible. There’s a group of 5 Munros that adjoin those on the Loch Rannoch side – the Black Mount – but are much easier to access from the head of the Loch Etive. I kept on studying the maps, kept making plans for Nigel, but was convinced I’d missed the season. If that sounds as familiar to you as it is to me, then let me assure you (and myself!) there’s a logic to all our frustrated weekends and missed chances, when the rest of life makes other plans for our time and attention. I guess if there’s a moral to this story it’s that if we keep watching the skies, keep keeping the faith, our number will come up on those outstanding projects in the end. As I climbed on, I became aware that this was one of those times. I’d been granted special dispensation, and the mountain was welcoming me back.

There was barely a breath of wind, but still the clouds swelled silently behind me, rising on the thermals down in the glen. All was quiet and still, my only company the sound of laboured breathing and snow giving away gently underfoot. I’d arrived late and plodded up to about 600ms before camping just above the snowline, trusting to the weather forecast and was proven right – there’d been no rustling of tent fabric on the ‘hill of rustling’. I had, however, forgotten how long it took to melt snow for food and water, and was glad I’d brought extra fuel.

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My half way camp wasn’t the most comfortable – I hadn’t made it to where the ridge flattens out a little - but it did mean a good early start for the hill the following morning, which was valuable. The north ridge of Ben Starav is long - really long. Rising from sea level to nearly 1100 metres, and all in one direction, it seems to go on forever, at least until at least the top is in sight. Shrouded in cloud, veiled then revealed, suddenly the sun alit on bouldered shoulders and I was back in the magic of the present moment, back in the white room with a full heart, my weekly worries dropping irrelevant like a stone into the Loch to my right. I don’t need that weight now, as I plunge the axe into the convex slope a few metres from the summit cairn. As I gently tap the cairn with my axe, I’ve turned a key in a lock.

The route takes me in a sweeping south-easterly arc to the sharp ridge leading to Stob Coire Dheirg. On the map this is a minor top en route to my next Munro, but in the flesh there’s an exposed decent to an airy, snaggle toothed spine of rock that joins the two. It’s not technical scrambling, but I’m glad there’s no wind. I stop to stow my other pole and some of my clumsiness along with it, and engage with the rock – axe, crampons, hands, the occasional a`cheval and alpine knee. The weather opens up as I make my way along. I stop for first lunch under the summit and ditch the crampons as a snowshower comes and goes, then slip and slide east, past impressive crags and gullies, down to the bealach under blue skies and a warming sun.

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Beinn nan Aighenan is more off route than on, but the bealach that joins the ‘hill of the hinds' to the round is, for me, the treat of the trip. A sandy single track cuts through Cairngorm-like pink granite, shot through with ruler straight lines of quartzite, which also lies in seemingly random piles inbetween glacier smoothed bowling balls. The hills grow dark with more snow, but this undulating plain is illuminated with a fiery winter light that gives a lie to the recent equinox. I leave my bag at a prominent rock and set out with axe, camera, sweets and map for the top.

It’s another long ascent on slippery fresh snow, with superb views east towards Loch Dochard and the wall of Rannoch, and once on top, the wind bites venomously hard and cold from the Cruachan range to the south. Back at camp on the bealach, I find a burn, and watch the snow showers come and go on the ridges around me. It’s a joy to stop early in this magnificent place, although I am a little concerned for tomorrow. I wake at 2am to stars and again at 7am with a fresh dusting of snow on my pillow.

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Dawn is of gold and rainbow trout hues, but evaporates as quickly as it arrived to leave cold, clag and a thankless trudge to Munro 3 - Glas Bheinn Mhor, which is exactly as it’s name suggests - 'big greenish-grey hill’, with an emphasis on the grey. A freezing wind blew hard but not hard enough to blow the cloud away. With a compass bearing and careful footsteps I found my exit in the whiteout, convinced that I would bail out at the col below. There seemed little point in the remaining 2, when the weather wasn’t co-operating – surely it was better to come back and do them justice another time?

I sat and ate lunch, waiting to see if the weather would improve. I’m a little too good at prevaricating at moments like this. Then, with cloud and hail still billowing over the crest of the ridge, I took one last look at the map, and to my own surprise started up a vague zig zag footpath. I’m not sure what motivated the change of heart, but 15 minutes later I was so glad of it. As I reached the plateau which forms of the bulk of Stob Coir' an Albannaich, the cloud blew through and mountains, boulders and snowfields alike were set alight. Cloud scudded fast across the tops, casting great shadows on the plateau as I slowly postholed my way to the cairn, perched high on a dramatic coire ledge which must be the source of this hill’s name - the 'peak of the coire of the Scotsman'. I leant into the howling wind as I stood on top the shelter stones, resisting the vertigo to soak up the panorama. Our world: So majestic, so surreal and dreamlike. So easy to become inured by everyday life, wonder blunted and run dry, spirit taxed and evaporated by the daily grind… but solo mountain travel is rehydration for the soul.

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Back in the here and now, getting down looked tricky. I hide behind a boulder and donned crampons, stow my poles and take a few, ginger steps on thin, sketchy ice to the reach the relative safety of deeper snow. Down via the easterly ridge - doing its very best impression of a highland sand dune, sharp light casting deep shadows in it’s lee and snow crystals rattling in flurries along a scissor sharp crest. Then down again, deeply into that Scotman’s coire, another silent, watchful, majestic corner of these Etive hills, to walk between massive Henry Moore erratics perched on ungainly plinths, and static pools of grey water ice, monuments to solitude and the elements.

Second lunch and another snow shower, which clears as I begin the steady incline for the final hill - Meall nan Eun – and then descend again for the summit. It’s as if the best of the day’s weather has gone, and the ‘hill of the birds' is cold, undistinguished and barely a top at all, with neither views nor wildlife. I venture to it’s north-westerly end to try and find a way off, but feel sick just looking at the corniced crags to the north, and head back to the gully leading to Coirean Riabhach, with hope of an escape there. Another, longer burst of gloopy, soaking snowflakes, but there… a few lopsided, collapsed footprints mark the way down to the head of a waterlogged coire.

For the next hour, I handrailed the burn cutting an ever deepening line into the rock. It sometimes found fault lines and then bands of strength, sometimes spilled over broad terraces and frothed over precipices. Lower down, a deep gorge with silver birch clung to its chiselled sides. Low sunlight spilled in through the gullies from the west, vast javelins of psychedelic orange cast on saturated deergrass – diagonals that grew, changed angle and aspect, traversed slopes before pulling away and evaporating into the fizz of dark grey snow and cloud that now hugged the tops.

The glen kept watching me. My pointless internal circles I thought, the glen’s pointed cycles. My noise, its silence; my anxiety, its patience. I walked on - a little further than I wanted - to rest near a ruined shieling, my last night before returning to the city. I’d emerged, recharged by this embarrassment of riches and giddy with the experience of wildness.

Drunk on the Angel’s share. It felt like a secret.


Thanks for reading. Please help protect Glen Etive: www.johnmuirtrust.org/about/resources/1498-glen-etive-hydro-schemes