It’s Life Mel But Not As We Know It. Coronavirus and the Mountains (hill climbed: Beinn a’Chearcaill)

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Friday 20 March

Adhering to current NHS advice regarding social distancing Mel and I travel separately, to just north of Bridge of Grudie by Loch Maree in northwest Scotland. I jump out of the boyfriend’s silver jeep thing I’ve had to borrow and inhale the fresh, very cold air. I admire the blueness of the sky, and Slioch rising above the loch like a magnificent mountain fortress. It’s a beautiful day that feels . . . weird. ‘Heeey!’ I say with a wave, as Mel emerges from her car.

Despite the fact that we are following guidance it somehow feels wrong to be here, and to be together.

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Slioch. Blows my mind I can see this towering bastion of rock and snow from the humble Clava hills near my home in Inverness-shire.

We’re walking in an area that’s very familiar to us, and we’re walking up a Graham (a mountain that is smaller than a Corbett, which in turn is smaller than a Munro) which we consider low risk. But we both feel we are somehow stretching the goalposts of what might be acceptable in what are already unusual times. Conversation gears round the coronavirus outbreak and the lack of clarity on rules about what we should and should not be doing . . . until we come across a well-built cairn with a hat.

The hat reminds me of my good friend Christopher. I remind Mel about the time the three of us did the Aonach Eagach ridge. The day after that Chris and I went up Sgor na h-Ulaidh where he found a hat and kept it, years later taking it all the way to the Himalayas. 

For a little while longer we remain on the very good stalker’s path, before we traverse a patch of deep snow. A waterfall cascades noisily over rock higher above us. We know there’s running water somewhere underfoot, so I’m happy to let Mel go first. If she sinks I ain’t following.

We keep close to the main burn and reach a rough plateau. There’s a huge, flattish rock by a frozen lochan with a view to Beinn an Eoin. Joy of life begins to course through me. ‘Let’s do some mountain yoga on the way back down!’ I exclaim. ‘I’d rather face plant on the way off than on the way up!’ Mel laughs at me – from her two metre distance.

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 I LOVE making fresh prints in the snow. The hill is ours alone.

 

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According to the map there should be a small lochan here. There is. It’s just completely snowed over. We don’t fancy our chances going straight across (plus I’m in front, nooo danger I’m going for an unplanned swim) so stick to where rocks poke up.

It’s all just a matter of taking a bearing and going to the top. The snow is nice and consolidated so no having to wade up to our knees. The sun is shining and there’s barely a whisper of wind. Heaven. On. Earth.

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Here we have Beinn Dearg – a FANTASTIC Corbett, with a great fun scramble (centre). And Beinn Alligin (far right).
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North side of Liathach and Beinn Eighe – looking right into Coire Mhich Fhearchair with triple buttresses as seen from the rocky summit plateau. Dribble dribble drool.

I can understand why mountains are seen as being female. Three fannies – one slugging hot chocolatey goodness at the summit cairn, the other a giant gash (lol) and moi leaving the summit plateau.

Mel and I are happy little pigs. ‘It’s hard to reconcile such a beautiful day on the mountains with the awfulness that’s going on back in the real world. I wish we could just stay up here till it’s all over. It’d be a lot safer!’ I say. 

‘It would actually be a great place to camp . . . but not at this time of year. Brrrr!‘ Mel replies. She’s so right.

On the way down the snow is too sticky for a glissade but, to quote Mel, we don’t have to dig too deep to release our inner child. We end ourselves laughing as we cut crazy shadow shapes cast long by the sun, pretending we’re shagging. Before long we are back at the lochan. Heat from the sun has unfrozen its surface water and small waves gently ripple. We eye up the large Torridonian sandstone slab, all scored with cracks.

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Lightning fast reactions from Mel capturing my crow before the old fizzog hit the rock.

We linger at the lochan. Taking in the views. Not really wanting leave. But having to go. I daydream about having my tent and expedition sleeping bag, wishing I was camping out. 

Conversation about coronavirus resumes. We talk about the inevitability of a lockdown situation. We talk about the impact it will have on all aspects of life as we know it – and burst into song (you know, the one about Klingons and Captain Kirk) ‘It’s life Jim but not as we know it . . . ‘

The initial patch of snow we crossed first thing this morning suddenly snaps our attention back to the mountain and the here and now. I’ve just lost my entire leg up to my arse through the sugary snow, straight into the earlier unseen watercourse made by the waterfall. I struggle to free myself while my friend looks on in amusement. Fairplay. Cow.

At the cars we agree today’s walk is the last one we do together – till the health crisis is over.

 

AFTER POST

Only days after our walk lockdown was announced by Prime Minister, Boris Johnson.  There has since been a lot of uncertainty and debate as to what we can and cannot do with regard not just to hillwalking, but also whether it’s acceptable to drive our own vehicles even short distances from home to quieter places for a walk. We now finally have clear guidance and advice from the British Mountaineering Council (BMC) and Mountain Rescue Teams.

Read the BMC and Mountain Rescue Teams advice based on government guidelines by clicking here.

On a personal note, as someone who has come to rely on walking in the mountains – for my mental health as well as the physical benefits – not being able to head out kills my hillwalking soul. But I know that not going is the right thing to do. This is a time of national emergency, when Mountain Rescue’s ability to respond to incidents may be reduced (and nobody wants to have to scoop up their innards and drag their own broken limbs back to safety). Not forgetting the additional strain an accident would put on an already overwhelmed NHS. Now is the time even more than ever for social responsibility and moral integrity.

The hills will still be there in a few months, I can and I will wait.

In the meantime, if YOU are bored as fuck in lockdown why not order a copy of the book I wrote. The paperback edition was published yesterday and you can order it by clicking the link in pink. The cover of the book itself is a thing of beauty.  Aaaaand it was shortlisted for two awards! Can’t believe I didn’t blog about that.  Just Another Mountain by Sarah Jane Douglas

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