Glen Affric

As these accounts usually begin (hence why I have not written one in a while), I had some spare time (a full 10 days in this case) and decided to fill it with mountains and empty it of thoughts. After a day of shadowing on Ben Nevis, I spent a week somewhat alone in the Northwest Highlands, out beyond Fort William. Before going, this area represented for me something of a boundary line: whilst there are of course many much vaster, more unexplored and remote places both to north of here and elsewhere in the world, in my necessarily limited view, I had never ventured as far into Scotland’s long drawn-out northerly dissolution into the sea.

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Naturally a fair amount of preparation was required for all this nonsense, in the form of logistics, food supplies, route planning and weather forecasts (which promised huge quantities of rain all over Scotland). Just before leaving, my mental state was admittedly unbalanced. I’d had two quite intense phone conversations, and had become starkly aware of the physical challenge and isolation of the upcoming few days, as well as somewhat concerned about the predicted downpour. I think there was also a good deal of restlessness there too, and I just wanted to stop preparing to go and go.

And so, early on Friday morning, I headed northwards, to drift temporarily in the vast, open beauty that I could sense lay not in waiting, but on the edge of my mind, whispering seductively. Directly upon leaving the door into the torrential rain of a dark, early morning, I felt something rise up to the challenge, making me set my face with good cheer and excitement. In Jack Krakauer’s words, I felt very much during the nine-hour downpour to be getting closer once again to “the raw throb of existence”. Then, as the distance between me and the hills dwindled, I found myself moving closer to my centre, feeling quieter, more awake and enthusiastic. It was as if in being drawn to my destination, lots of layers peeled themselves back like a bud shedding its petals in the sun, except that it was chucking it down all day. All the unnecessary clutter that piles up in the mind is no match for the demands of the mountain, which force you to be fully present in the moment and attentive to the tasks at hand, which are a constant.

The first examples of this upon arrival took the form of a two stage rite of entry into the hills: my phone disappeared (left on the bus, it later turned out), and horrific clouds of midges emerged in the evening. The phone loss kicked eliminated the last means of distraction left about my person, and the midges forced strategic, efficient movements to make camp and cook dinner without letting any of the little devils inside the tent, or the food. Once inside the former, with the latter inside me, I could finally relax, feeling the towering heights far above my bed.

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The next day the mountains continued to work their magic. Drifting upwards over the quiet, fractal land, everything came to be surrounded by cloud, a mustering void. And then the lurking bulks of the mountains loom distractedly as they rear out of the slowly broiling mass of clouds, which pour turgidly down their big sides, banking and coiling lazily in the wind. Up and over, through the reservoirs of the sky, the battlements of the citadel, to the inner sanctum. Entry had been gained, and the cleansing, dissolving, saturated landscape opened her huge arms.

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From their embrace came not a torrent of rain, but a slow and total immersion of wet air, itself sprung from the oozing web of moss, grass, reeds, heather and hidden pools the size of your foot and knee-deep. A pervasive, liquid aether that almost instantly seeped through every defence. Old boots that should have been thrown away months ago and somewhat holey waterproof trousers do not a dry rambler make, and before long, life was very much like that of a biscuit overly dunked in tea. Not to complain, however. The rain is such an inevitable and dramatic feature of the hills, that – especially given the state of my footwear – you are left with the decision to fight a lost battle and suffer, or to embrace the elements and be dissolved by the landscape. In a place as yearningly free and devastatingly beautiful as the one I now found myself, the price of awe is your dryness. A bargain.

Yet it seemed, at least for the first half of the next day, that this had just been an admission fee. Sunshine imitated the previous day’s rain, but from above, pulling a radiant veil through everything and undoing the water’s work. I lay everything out in the sun and went swimming in the river whilst it dried out. Now winding through broad glens, pinched every so often by closing flanks swathed with the returning forest, the way led round westwards, joining the Affric-Kintail Way.

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The ruddy green hills steamed in the heat, with a vast sky, crowded by gathering cumulonimbus, rearing above. Shallow river rapids dropped into deep pools and carved their way between graceful birch that had stood above their banks as if forever. Huddling cosily between their hoary trunks were humble clusters of blaeberries, and somehow they looked really cute, dangling their little fruits modestly for the fancy of any passerby.

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Rain came and went, the wind rushed past in fits and starts, and towards the end of the day, following the Affric-Kintail Way, I came upon the Camban bothy. Set on the lower slopes of Beinn Fhada (The Long Mountain), this humble red-roofed cabin was to be my home for the rest of the week. The final approach had it dipping in and out of sight behind the little hummocks that shape the floor of the glen, and the excitement of this elicited mad chuckles of glee and anticipation.

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Until I left, there were other bothy users every night of the week, and each new set of folk brought a beautiful, isolated interaction that seemed to fit perfectly into the wider landscape. It is true that I had hope to be more alone, but this did not colour the arrival of other bothiers, it just changed the nature of the week.

The days, however, were spent alone, mounting the surrounding hills with a deepening sense of integration as time went past. Each step led further in, and the mind faltered and quieted in mute recognition of its inability to fold these experiences into a known, comprehensible ‘thing’. Instead it occasionally offered concepts or revelations that landed like boulders into the stilling lake of my consciousness. And yet they made no splash. The wind breathed through and focussed everything on what was immediately there. That in turn pulled me ever higher, creeping my way to the tops each day.

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Below the pyramidal, jagged ridges of this mountains was flung such a vast, lonesome expanse. Light pierced rolling clouds, scattering crepuscular rays that bounced lightly off distant waterfalls or got lost in dark corries, the shades and colours shifting slowly. And as far as the eye could stretch there lay mountains. I could see no roads, no built structures save the bothy, no people and for the most part no trees.

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These last two features (or lack thereof) caused a good deal of reflection on the history of this landscape. My sense as an ignorant outsider is of a rich, complex and painful history in which the bonds between people gradually loosened or were purposely destroyed. The Highland Clearances of the 18th and 19th Centuries saw the forced migration of half the population in just five years people. Before this was the Jacobite Rebellion, brutally crushed by England.

But another tragedy that lurks in the background, stretching over a much greater time period, is the disappearance of the ancient Caledonian forest. In the last 5,000 years, 96% of the Scotch pine, birch and rowan woods have disappeared. The land suffers still, with huge gashes in the destabilised peat (known as hags) out of which protrude the ghostly, skeletal forms of long-dead roots and branches.

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The remaining layer of flora is held in a perpetual state of stunted growth by the unchecked numbers of sheep and deer that roam the land, grazing everything to within 20cm. There is a well-established and effective move towards reforesting areas such as these, spearheaded mostly by the organisation Trees for Life, and indeed Glen Affric Forest is one of the biggest native woodland areas in Scotland, but in the main it is a post-apocalyptic landscape, mourning its unspeakable loss, a “loss so huge and irreparable that the mind balks at taking its measure” (Jack Krakauer, Into the Wild).

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Fence exclosures protect designated areas from the deer, and the difference between the two sides of these dividing lines is shocking. On the outside are some mosses, bog myrtle, grass, peat hags, all dwarfed. But inside the exclosures there are thickets of leggy heather clustering to thigh-height, the same cute blaeberry shrubs, wildflowers, small trees joyful at having been allowed to grow greater than a few inches, and much more animal life. Midges hang vaguely in the air and flies and bees busy themselves. Thrushes too dance jerkily around the place, and in short it seems like a different world. One can only imagine the incredible beauty of the vast forest in its prime, before it was cleared.

This silent grieving, as painful as it was, added an emotionally rich and powerfully beautiful layer to the entire week. In addition, what seemed to bring everything together, however, was that I had Jack Krakauer’s Into the Wild with me. For anyone who hasn’t read it, it is the account told by the American mountaineer and outdoor journalist of the true story of Christopher McCandless, who met his unfortunate end at the age of 24 in the Alaskan bush. Becoming obsessed with the memory of the boy and his life after covering the news story, Krakauer was inspired to piece together all of the parts that led to McCandless’ starvation, and retraced his steps, extensively interviewing the family and the friends Chris had made on the way.

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The Fairbanks 142, in which Chris McCandless lived for the best part of a year and then died. Source

Without glorifying the tragedy, Krakauer expertly recounts with beautiful eloquence the literary and circumstantial influences on Christopher, and the sadly recurring and common nature of his story. Krakauer himself had a very similar, but fortunately non-fatal, experience trying to complete a solo winter ascent of one of Alaska’s most unforgiving peaks, Devil’s Finger, and he includes in the books the stories of other people who have answered the call of the wild only to be met with death. The wisdom of the author and the quotations that pepper the short book provide anyone with a taste for adventure with many teachings that can help them avoid an unfortunate end. Things like balancing isolation with connection, respecting the land, being honest about your desires and the extent to which they are achievable given your capabilities. To become quiet and receptive, instead of asserting a braying idealism to the world. Further to this, the dense book reflected perfectly what I was feeling, and gave word to the abstract, inarticulate insights that the land holds in confounding abundance.

By the end of the week I didn’t want to leave. I now want to go back. Let this be an encouragement to any readers that happen across it to move yourself out of your usual circles, to get yourself closer to whatever it is that gets you going. You may be apprehensive at first, but it will surely be a rewarding and developing experience in the long run.

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