This is the 26th post of a series introduced here.
Saturday 29 September
Thinking that my cancer might be back my friend Mel and I planned to do her final Munro. In spite of both of us being anxious to get it done quickly opportunity did not present itself – work, cruddy weather and appointments got in the way so it was relief in more ways than one when I received news from hospital that biopsy test results were clear. It felt like I’d been given my life back – again, and with the rest of summer sprawling ahead of us the need to get the last Munro done seemed slightly less pressing.
I don’t just have my life to be thankful for. Jenny Brown – Edinburgh based literary agent who had taken an interest in the memoir I’d written – had been in touch to say a publishing deal had been offered for my book. I’m monstrously chuffed that these literary experts think my story is interesting enough and written well enough to be put into print. I recall a memory of my grandad, ‘Sarah, you’ll never win the Nobel Prize for Literature but your letters home come like a breath of fresh air.’ I wish he was here now so that he could be proud of me and know I’ve done something good – at last.
August comes and goes.
‘How long did it take when you climbed Beinn Sgulaird?’ Mel asks in a WhatsApp message. I go upstairs and am sitting cross-legged on the drafty wooden floor in the bedroom. I slide my walking diary out of its space in the bookcase and leaf through its pages. I find the entry. There is no note of timings other than ‘set out at 10am from Druimavuic’. It’s a short write up so I read on and refresh my memory of the hill. There is no mention of precipitous drops, narrow ridges or battles with the elements – it had been an outing that was straightforward and uneventful, but nonetheless the date and day are poignant. I pause for reflection.
I eventually reply to Mel’s WhatsApp telling her I have no clue how long the walk had taken. A LOT of messages are exchanged but we come to an agreement to get the hill done before September’s end, ‘whatever the weather’. At this juncture we’re still hopeful we’ll make our summit camp on Beinn Sgulaird (translated from Gaelic it means hat-shaped hill, but it’s better known to the local shepherds as ‘the bastard’ – and man was it going to live up to its nickname).
The Munro lies solitary and steeply above upper Loch Creran in Glen Etive; the mountain is indifferent to the increasing impatience Mel and I feel over our desire to traverse its rocky ridge and three summits.
September draws to a close.
Although our diaries have been cleared of all other engagements it’s sod’s law the West Highlands forecast continues to be pish on days we have off work, and the sense of urgency to get the bastard hill done resurfaces. We have no choice but to put our money where our mouth is. The summit camp is abandoned but, by choice, we meet up to do the walk in the worst weather that has been forecast for the last three days of the month.
Mel’s bright orange jacket is in cheerful contrast to the moisture laden sky over Druimvuich. She is standing poised with phone in hand. My boyfriend Paul opens the car’s window. ‘You can put the phone away Mel. We’re here. No need to text. It’s only two minutes after half eight!’
It’s straight into uphill walking along an ATV track which we soon leave. A small cairn marks the start of a good path that ascends the mountain’s grassy ridge. I’m slower than the others and soon lag behind. Mel stops to wait. Ahead of us the men are enthusiastically engaged in conversation about electric bikes…Mel and I are pleased because it means we can talk by ourselves about whatever shit we like. I tell her about the texts I get from my eldest son when Paul and I were on our road trip.
Marcus: What do I do with this ‘vaginal applicator’ thing in the bathroom sink? Lol x
Me: Lol. Um. Give it a good wash and rinse in warm water 😀 x
Marcus: Uh-huh, and put it where?
Me: Lol lol lol. Get a tub from downstairs and pop it in there. Not the good tupperware tho. An unusual treat for you today. Lol. Eat carrot cake if you are traumatised x
Marcus: Hmm yes. A real treat! x
Mel chuckles and I laugh so hard I clutch my belly (I’m still in horror-awe – that my boy should have seen the bit of plastic kit used to help the old sexy time along, and that he was mature enough to deal with it without fuss). ‘He’ll make someone a great husband one day,’ Mel says.
We’re over the first small top and are ascending straightforward slopes toward the first of the three summits when I finally find my sea legs and pick up the pace. Inwardly I’m relieved and have to remind myself again that my body is still in recovery from the cancer treatments that only finished at this time last year. It’s easy to dwell on the bad things so instead I think about the progress I’ve made; I’ve lost weight through better diet and exercise, I’m not bald and can in fact tie my hair into a tinsy-winsy ponytail and, though it doesn’t happen often, even sex isn’t painful anymore. I’m in my own little world as I plod on out in front but then I notice I’ve lost the thread of the path. Oops.
Progress on the hill halts. We realise we should be on the ridge, heading for the first of the three summits, not traversing the slope underneath, but it’s no biggie. We take a bearing and contour round to the col between it and Meall Garbh. The wind now blows fiercely and visibility is limited, but I catch a glimpse of two walkers ahead who quickly disappear from view. ‘Yay! Other humans!’ Mel shouts at me over the wind. When we catch up with the boys and round some crags they point out our people – two dopey looking sheep that scarper off again into the enveloping mists.
The wind finds its way through the fabric of my outerwear; I’m wet and cold but now we’re back on the path we move faster. Up and down the undulating ridge we go. Paul isn’t happy and shouts at me not to go too far ahead. I wait. ‘My legs are totally heavy like I’ve no power to push up on them,’ he says. I think welcome to my world, but say that I understand. Descent to the next col is steep and rocky.
‘This is a very confusing hill,’ Andy states. Mel and I laugh.
‘How far is it to the top?’ Paul asks.
‘Another 1.04km,’ I answer. We lean into the wind to push forward, hoods up heads down. Horizontal precipitation drives into exposed skin like needles.
‘Christ. This is like extreme exfoliation!’ Mel exclaims.
‘About two thirds of a mile,’ I hear Paul call. ‘One thousand and seven yards,’ he adds. (He was nearly right.)
‘Paul’s back,’ I yell at Mel, laughing and totally bemused.
We go higher and conditions become more severe. It’s a skill to stay upright and I’m buffeted and blown on the scramble up and up. A mega gust knocks me sideways off my feet and I land hard onto a rock.
‘This is fucking nuts. It’s not fun,’ Paul shouts to me above the wind.
It is wild, but personally I’m enjoying myself. I think Mel catches my thoughts because she stops to say, ‘See, it’s because of times like this that most people think we’re fucking maniacs.’ I grin agreement and wonder if there could be anything more life-affirming than pitching yourself against nature and coming out on top.
Summit reached at 12.05pm…The boys are left out in the cold – literally and metaphorically – while Mel and I enjoy shelter, champagne and cake in the bothy bag…I, Queen in the North, on this most auspicious occasion of Mel finishing a full round of all 282 of Scotland’s highest mountains, bestow upon her my official Munro Compleater’s Badge and welcome her to the club…The frozen boys still manage a smile for a group selfie at the top (Mel and I are a bit pissed).
Retracing our steps we leave the summit. Andy is in front and drops down out of sight. Mel and I play in the wind. Its strength is extraordinary and supports our weight as we lean into it. I almost forget I need to keep walking.
Unexpectedly we cross paths with other walkers – two grim-faced blokes who exchange absolutely no pleasantries and a young woman who flashes a smile. We keep moving. I’m in the middle of thinking how glad I am that we’re battling our way down and not up when all three of us – me, Paul and Mel – are simultaneously knocked down like skittles by a ferocious gust. The wind momentarily pins me to the rock I’ve fallen onto and threatens to bowl me along like tumbleweed. ‘Thank fuck we aren’t on a narrow ridge being blown to our doom,‘ I think…and then my mind conjures images of proper mountaineers who have contended with way more serious conditions. I think about the hundred mile an hour winds that blast Everest. I think about my mum’s fiance (once a lion amongst Himalayan climbers) and I think about Chris Bonington who vaguely knew him. I think about the book I’ve written and the email Chris sent me only days ago to say he is reading it ‘with pleasure,’ that I ‘write well’ and that he will be ‘delighted to write a foreword’ for me. I feel good.
Dropping east down the leeward side of the mountain I feel even better – we are out of the wind and soon on the ATV track. My friend is feeling the good vibes too.
‘I’m so happy to have the bastard thing done at last,’ she chirps.
‘You know it’s almost exactly four years to the day since I did this walk,’ I say. ‘It’s funny how this was my penultimate Munro and it’s ended up being your last.’
‘I didn’t realise that,’ Mel replies, ‘I wonder why I didn’t do it with you?’
‘Dunno, but I do know that was the first day I didn’t feel ‘right’ and when I started using the expression ‘super tired.’ We walk back through the tree plantation and reach the cars by 4pm.
After a few post-hill drams and dinner in the gloom of the Clachaig’s dark but cosy interior, we retire to the mother ship where we melt against the walls in the instant heat that belches from the wood burning stove. Mel pops the cork on another bottle of champagne and we raise a plastic cup once more to celebrate her achievement, to friendship, to good health, to staying alive to see how Season 8 Game of Thrones ends and to all round epicness.
It can take an entire lifetime for some people to climb all 282 of Scotland’s highest mountains, but most people who set out to ‘bag’ the Munros, on average, take between 8 – 10 years to do a full round – although another article I read claims the average to be 23 years (12 Munros per year). Apparently climbing all the Munros is the equivalent of ascending Mount Everest from sea-level 19 times – that’s 550,869 feet and a total distance of approximately 1,690 miles. Mel and I have climbed more than half these mountains together. I wasn’t able to join her for the bigger hill days last year because of my bastard cancer, so to have been able to join her for her last is nothing short of fantastico (only actual death would have stopped me from doing it). She did say, ‘Now, what next?’ But that’s easy – the Corbetts!
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