I’ve recently finished reading Hell of a Journey: On Foot through the Scottish Highlands in Winter by Mike Cawthorne. This is a modern classic of mountain literature and the account of a landmark mountain journey in the late 1990s: the first continuous trip on foot over all 135 of Scotland’s 1,000m peaks in winter.
Without comment or further context, here is a selection of quotes that stood out to me as I read, and which I have recorded in my notebook. I hope you’ll find them as interesting and illuminating as I have. There’s a lot of wisdom in this book for the long-distance backpacker, especially anyone who aspires to huge journeys in the winter months.
In a technological age of great material comfort, we are still, incredibly, plagued by unease, a sense of disenchantment at the heart of things, however we define it… And, paradoxically, the greater our comfort the more profound our disquiet, our boredom.
A spell of inactivity quickly fills the mind with all manner of anxieties.
Road walking has little to commend it.
The torment was always whether I should continue, struggling on and up to the next peak, when common sense dictated an immediate retreat.
Perhaps in the short distance from An Teallach to Maol Chean-dearg are all the components of a perfect mountainscape, as if these ancient rocks have been weathered across some vast timescale to a kind of ripeness.
Some days are distilled magic, giving an experience far transcending the normal boundaries of expectation, and for a while, it seems, you exist in another realm.
The silence roared in our ears; it was centuries of heaped-up solitude.
Mountains awaken our memories and give shape to our emotions.
Somehow in the excitement of planning and expectation we became blinded to the reality of a West Highland winter… There is a mythology peddled by those with a commercial interest in winter, and our shelves are stacked with lavish photo books depicting ridges heaped in pristine snow set against flawless skies. We remember the extraordinary tales of W.H. Murray and the Aonach Eagach by moonlight, of untrespassed snows and rosy dawns, but we forget just how wet and nasty the weather is likely to be.
Bothy life is not for the idle.
An overdose of culture and countries, it seems, leaves us dulled, like an over-long visit to an art gallery, and undermines our capacity to be moved and slightly changed by the places we visit and the people we encounter.
Perhaps real journeys only really exist in the imagination.
I went north and, as usual, regretted it.
The sudden beauty allowed me to forget the tedium of the ascent; and I thought that perhaps this was ‘it’, the essence of winter, a day stolen from the high Arctic and smuggled south to the Highlands. It was what I had come for.
Given a conventional perspective on the element of risk that day, I might have packed my sack and headed home. But I had never felt stronger or more alive, and the ‘buzz’ afterwards had never been greater.
There was hardly a day when I was not reminded of how tenuous the line was between enjoyment and disaster.
There was a deepening self-awareness, a growing confidence, a selfish delight in freedom not experienced since childhood and a limitless future.
After overcoming the psychological barrier of the Cairngorms there was now a sense of anticlimax and disillusion.
Weather forecasts had long ceased to have any meaning. No decision was ever based on one. If, according to the weatherman, a band of rain or snow was ‘expected’, then it came, giving me a soaking or a hiding or forcing me down, but its arrival was completely out of my control. I carried on until it became too dangerous or unpleasant to continue; I knew my limitations.
It is not possible to describe the experience of crossing unmarked snow to a high summit in the West Highlands. For hill-walkers this is simply the greatest joy.
Perhaps because of the intense variability of weather conditions and scenery, any walk through the Scottish Highlands seems always to be remembered as a collection of remarkably distinct days, each day burning a place in your memory when much of the repetition of life blurs to nothing. And often, much later, you recall vividly these events as if they’d occurred just yesterday.
There is a thin line between a merely miserable day and one fraught with danger.
Most environmental issues boil down to questions of landownership.
Does it really matter how long it took? … Racing over the hills is a kind of blasphemy, for surely the degree of enjoyment and personal fulfilment are more relevant; whether you observed dotterel, golden eagle, or wild cat, lingered high to see sunsets, rose early for dawns, stayed up late with strangers; did it nurture love and respect of wild places, provoke your anger at continuing disfigurement of the wilderness? These things matter; speed, by comparison, doesn’t. Only when I arrived home did people ask why on earth I had done it, to my mind a more interesting question. Beyond the lure of freedom, travel and escape — none of which depend on mountaineering — there are no real answers; for why should an activity demanding huge investments of time and energy, that on any economic or social measure is utterly unproductive, that puts you through considerable discomfort, even danger, be worth while?
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