It’s well over 300 miles from our base in Sheffield to the West Highlands of Scotland, a seven hour drive to Fort William “Outdoor Capital” of the UK. Over the years I’ve made this journey many times for winter mountaineering. Crossing the Peak District on the great drive North, I begin to leave industrial England behind. Green expenses stretch out as I make my way towards Cumbria, motorway carving a way between the Lakeland hills and Wainright’s “sleeping elephants” of the Howgill Fells. Excitement builds as I drive through, and then beyond England’s greatest mountains for the greater ranges of the Scottish highlands. Failte gu Alba “Welcome to Scotland” shouts the giant blue sign as I cross the border, I can’t tire of seeing the sign, though I’m only half way to the highlands here. I feel a pang of guilt as I drive though the beautiful but ignored rolling hills of the Scottish southern uplands on the perpetually deserted motorway. My guilt comes from knowing that these hills warrant a lifetime of exploration, but the draw of the highlands pulls too strong to for me to turn off of the motorway at picturesque Moffat. Pass the central belt of Scotland and the landscape seems to age, to widen and roll. And onto the A82 where the first time visitor can be forgiven for thinking they took a wrong turn at Greenland and ended up in North America. Vast wild spaces with expanses of land that look as if no human has ever trod there, save for ancient Scots clans. And then into the atmospheric Glen Coe, with its giant brooding cliffs where ghosts of the 1692 massacre peer down from caves high in the cliffs.
Many times I’ve made this journey to the highlands, with their endless promise; only to be disappointed by weather. Highland weather can be as savage as her bygone warring clans, who seem to still battle in the winds between the summits. Seven, eight, twelve hour drives I’ve endured on snow covered roads with equally motivated friends, only to set out for a climb in pre-dawn blizzard, before turning back after a few hours having only advanced 500m towards our objective. To drive all the way back to Sheffield having achieved no climbing and with a sore head from the previous evening’s consolatory whiskey is hard to take.
The epic journey, the bad weather, the great disappointments – what then has kept me returning to the Highlands? Because when the weather is good there is no better place in the world to be. These mountains, with their atmospheric ancientness, their sprawling glens and their lack of humans are majestic on a world scale. Climbing Trips I’ve made in crisp snow winter weather have been some of the most defining and most memorable days of my life, as good as any Alpine climbing day I’ve had. A spell was cast upon my by the Highlands after an early trip across the great ridge of the Aonach Eagach in perfect blue winter weather. I once spent three days in Torridon, where the oldest rocks in the world are exposed and the Eagle soars between mountain and sea, my climbing companion and I met only two other climbers during the hole 3 day trip. I would guess that most Brits are not aware of the true wilderness that we have in the North of our small island.
On my recent January 2018 trip with my old friend Nigel, we were blessed with perfect winter weather (pictured), I savoured the moment as I stood atop Ben Dorain. No wind, no clouds and minus 10 Celsius with deep glens plunging below me. Air as clear and clean as air can be. This is why I keep going back despite disappointments of previous trips, and I’ll keep returning.