13 Mar Chasing Light
I had a dose of cabin fever brought on by a long winter, and the politics bouncing around the web were leaving me feeling a little down in the dumps. Though I was thinking a lot about adventures in the context of upcoming film projects for 2017, I wasn’t having any.
I booked some time away and packed the van. I had an idea of a destination but no agenda to speak of, just some time on my hands and a need to familiarise myself with the mountains again. Over the course of a long weekend I travelled through the Galloway hills up the coast to Torridon where I climbed An Teallach. I then headed over Applecross and through Glen Shiel to Glencoe and Glen Etive before heading home to the Lake District.
I grew up across the Solway Firth from Dumfries and Galloway and could see the distant hills on a clear day as I drove to school. My mum had friends on a farm on the far coast and I learned to Mackerel fish on long lines from Palnackie and took rides on the quad bike to bring in the sheep. Later, I had my first experiences of festivals run by the New Agers at Orchardton Hall.
All of these memories contribute to a scattered patchwork of identity, and gave me reason enough to head through the Galloway Hills and see them properly as an adult. They were much like the northern fells where I grew up on the edge of the Lake District with small well-kept communities tucked away round each corner. The odd tell tale sign of the ‘alternative’ folk living in the hills and woods was still there. And the trees, the trees are spectacular…….
An Teallach looked pretty friendly from that distance, on it’s own at the end of a long road. I had slept in the van and cooked breakfast in the sunshine before setting off again, keen to reach Dundonnell and start walking. I sorted kit and set off on the long slog up the adjacent valley.
I’ve done very little in the hills over winter so wasn’t feeling at all fit and I knew the ridge of An Teallach was a really big day in winter. With this in mind I opted to bivvy high up and split the walk in to two days, this would allow me to catch a sunrise on the mountain too which seemed too good an opportunity to miss.
I was turning over the classic ‘have I bitten off more than I can chew?’ monologue in my head as I trudged up to the col at the head of the valley. My bag felt heavy and the only person I had bumped into on the way up had informed me that it was going to be -10 during the night, not what my forecast had said. I worked hard to control my anxiety about the night time temperature, I wasn’t going back down so I would just have to deal with it. As I stepped past the cairns at the top of the col I felt a huge sense of relief, the sun was setting over the hills ahead and spreading orange light across the snow.
On reflection I realise that the contentment I felt related mostly to the presence of snow. Winter in the Lake District has been little to speak of, just a handful of hard frosts and one walk home from the pub through dinner plate snowflakes that would never settle. The loss of our winters has left me feeling subtlety unsettled, nostalgic for ‘no-school’ ski days behind the house and a little sad about the future. I have skied since I was 4, snow features in many of my fondest memories, from my seasons in the Alps to mountain days in the lakes. It’s hard to contemplate winters at home without it.
The sun set on one side and moon rose on the other. I found a suitable place to dig a bivvy spot out of the wind and settled in for a chilly night. There was no one else around for miles and miles and I watched tiny lights appear around Ullapool to the west and Inverness to the east.
I sat for a long time and looked out over the view, tracing chains of tiny islands out towards Stornaway……
I’d had very little to do in the dark and cold once I had cooked tea and made my bed so I finished off a hip flask of whisky and fell asleep by 7.30pm. I was warm enough but slept badly, as I do almost every time I bivvy.
I woke up around midnight having dreamed about slowly sliding off a precipice and being chased by some kind of large jungle animal. As I sat up I realised that my bivvy bag was covered in ice, and in the very unlikely occurrence that I wriggled off my snowy shelf in my sleep, I would slide like an iced torpedo down a snow bank, tumble through some rocks and possibly fall off the front of the mountain. I hadn’t thought about that the night before. I built a little fence with my axe and walking poles and tried, with only a degree of success, to sleep again.
I peered out of the tiny hole in my sleeping bag and watched my breath rise in the headtorch beam. It was still dark but I couldn’t sleep any more. Looking at the time on my phone I was a little disappointed to see that it was only 3am. I slowly unwrapped myself from layers of down filled warmth and put on all the clothes I had brought up the mountain, slipping my warm feet in to boots that were frozen stiff and glittering with ice crystals.
I hadn’t checked the sunrise time this far north but figured I could kill some time cooking pasta and packing up, I should start to see some light by 6.30am perhaps. It was cold enough to shut my headtorch battery down and I was surprised to see, when my eyes adjusted, that the whole mountain was illuminated by the full moon. I walked up to the summit of Bidein a’ Ghlas Thuill and the ridge stretched out glowing in front of me. It was ghostly and spectacular, but I had spent 11 hours in the dark and I was looking forward to some daylight.
After hours of pacing, jogging and bouncing on the spot to keep warm and sane in the darkness the sky started to get lighter and the sun began to burn through the clouds that floated around the summits. I had been hanging around for 5 hours waiting for the sunrise and was keen to get going, but the ridge was still buried in cloud.
While studying for my degree I lived in a little 2 up, 2 down cottage in Hesket Newmarket. The village has a well-loved pub, and a climbing club called the Hesket Spiders. Though many aren’t active any more the club has some fairly distinguished members, part of the first expeditions to mountains such as Everest, K2 and The Ogre. The Spiders became the subject of some of my Uni assignments and I was fortunate to interview Doug Scott, John Porter and Chris Bonnington as part of my dissertation. All of this stoked the fire I had for rock climbing and confirmed that I had little interest in risking my life and relationships on alpine expeditions.
Having noted my interest in the Spiders, one of the founders of the club gave me his collection of guidebooks and classic climbing films. He also gave me a pair of unused climbing ropes, which have been with me up almost all of the routes I have climbed since. He was ill and wasn’t going to use them again. He passed away a few months later, and though I didn’t know him well, I had chatted to him about his favourite mountain. It was this one……An Teallach. At the time I didn’t even know where Torridon was.
After waiting a long time for the sun to hit and the clouds to disperse I set off along the ridge. The wind was getting up and there didn’t seem to be anyone else on the mountain.
After all the drama of the past day and night I had retreated off the ridge of An Teallach, retracing my steps half way along. The wind was gusting significantly and I wasn’t able to stand up safely unroped. I had seen sunrise and made it to the highest point so was content with that, and I knew I would come back.
I slogged down to the van in Dundonnell and headed straight for the coast. From this little promontory I could see last night’s iced torpedo bivvy spot up in the clouds. I watched people on civilised wanders across the beach and laughed at the contrast a few hours and a drop in altitude can bring. I drank a cold beer in the sunshine.
After spending years obsessed with mountains I find myself drawn more and more to the coast. It offers the same sort of clarity and connection to landscape, with new possibilities.
I had gazed over the water from Skye once whilst on a film shoot, wondering what was in the distance. I was looking out towards Applecross, and in the years since I have heard the name mentioned lots of times. I drove along the coast determined to get there before the sun set, and secretly hoping there was some kind of establishment that would save me from another night of pasta and pesto.
I pulled in to the car park of the Applecross Inn just as the sun was dipping behind the Cuillins. After breathing the sunset in for a few minutes I jumped in to the back of the van to change and make myself look less like I had been sleeping rough in a snowdrift; an illusion of course. I picked a suitably comfortable corner of the pub; foreseeing a long, warm, indulgent exploration of the food and drink on offer. There was a photo of the land lady on the wall, she had won a ‘Land Lady of the Year’ award. As I sat and people watched I could see why people were fond of her. She made me laugh even from a distance. After an amazing meal I drove a little way up the hill on to a dark and ice cold Applecross pass, pulling in to a lay-by to sleep in my little van.
I woke and made myself breakfast with a view past Raasay and Rona and on to the snowcapped Cuillins topped by a gradient sky.
I made the drive over Applecross pass and headed towards Fort William through Glen Shiel, craning my neck up at the Five Sisters of Kintail. I must have driven that road 4 times and I’ve never actually seen those mountains, the northern clag always obscuring them from view. I made it to Glencoe just as the clouds grew dark and picked my way through Glen Etive with a long lens waiting for the light to hit.
I was close to the end of my trip and contemplating what to do next. Though I was eager to get back up in the hills the winds were whipping spindrift in huge columns from the tops, and I wasn’t convinced a mountain walk would be very successful. I pottered out of Glen Etive stopping in lay-bys to photograph the hills as the sunlight cut through windows in the booming clouds. Every time I thought I had the picture and set off driving, a new patch of light would appear and slide slowly over the valley sides. I had time so I just kept on shooting, working my way back towards one of my favourite places in Scotland, The Clachaig Inn.
Being able to write and reflect on why I love my time in the mountains has been really positive, and critically, I’ve had an opportunity to re-engage with the work I produce and the reasons why I still want to make it. I chose not to share anything whilst on my trip, and only afterwards decided to share the pictures.
In the age of the ‘Adventure Capitalist’, a world awash with screens, I often wonder what adventure is now. It seems to have entered the realm of pop culture, a fashion choice for the media engaged. The ‘A’ word sticks in my throat sometimes because it feels like a cliché when I say it. I guess it’s important to remember that as a filmmaker I have a part to play in pop culture, and that it has undoubtedly inspired many positive experiences. However, the drive to capture and share adds a degree of separation from any journey.
Adventures are moments in time, not badges to be collected and categorised. It’s ok to leave the phone behind sometimes, and its always more enjoyable when I do.
I parked up outside the pub, unable to pack away the camera until the last light skimmed the tops and was snuffed out.
I snuck into the climber’s bar at the back of the Clachaig and made a beeline for the bench beside the fire. My intention was to get established and not go anywhere for a long time, so I wanted somewhere comfy and warm where I could read and write and watch. People came and went with the hours; guides, clients, southerners, northerners, groups, couples, layby stoppers and munro baggers. Each one added to the din of muffled conversation that filled the room. I processed the last few days with pen and paper and thought about the moments and the photographs I had collected.
Though the forecast was far from good, my plan was to set out early in the morning and walk up on to Bauchaille Etive Mor for one last slog before heading home. I spoke to one of the people who looked like a climber, but I had been on my own for days and the words came out rusty and strained, ‘have you been up high today?’ He told me it had been wild, and I looked at the sting from a freezing wind still in his cheeks. Inspecting maps and checking the route I overheard one of the clients being asked if they’d had a good day climbing, ‘we had a good day surviving’ he replied, and that was that. I was content to call this the end of my trip and settled down with warm food as the folk musicians began to play in the corner of the room. The din settled around as I thought about all the times I had passed through Glencoe, the Clachaig being a feature of many of those memories, and what all these trips meant to me. Then one of the musicians began singing ‘Caledonia’ and the whole place fell quiet.