Susannah Radford, a native Kiwi, reflects on why the company she keeps when hillwalking in Scotland is as important as the walk itself.
I walk therefore I am. I know, these are not Descartes’ exact words but I’m guessing he didn’t get the chance to walk up Driesh and Mayar on a Colin Prior day. A crisp December morning, no breeze and 360 degrees of visible snow capped peaks – there’s nothing like a beautiful view from a Scottish mountain to know that you’re alive.I’m not the first to fall in love with hillwalking and I know I won’t be the last, but there’s something about walking (particularly up mountains) that really gets under your skin; it’s a literal and metaphysical high. It’s a sigh of relief that moves through my whole body when walking again after an absence from it.
While I remember most of the views from the top, usually in connection with the weather experienced, be it clement or inclement, I also remember the conversations that carried me there. For me, I talk therefore I can walk is perhaps a truer maxim, for while the view motivates me it’s often the blethering that will actually get me up the hill.
I walk at talking pace. Any faster and I’m out of breath in both regards. Any slower and I may not have any companions to walk with. I didn’t always use to be this way. Walking in New Zealand, where we call hillwalking â€˜tramping’ because it’s usually a slow slog up a mountain, conversations were reserved for the huts we stopped in at night.
Over here, I could never understand why I talked as much as I do; however I finally gained some clarity when walking the Milford Track earlier this year. The paths in New Zealand are clearly defined and for the most part only wide enough for one person; general access and the well worn paths here in the UK mean that the path is wide enough for easy conversation.
People may want to give me a wide berth what with all that talking. I agree in part. Time alone with one’s thoughts and the silent contemplation of the landscape is wonderful and walking out one’s problems is very satisfying. But there’s a limit to my silent aloneness and while my breath is taken away by the views I’m just as happy to be out of breath from simultaneously talking and walking; sometimes I need it to distract me from the pain. Whole sections of my 2007 West Highland Way walk remain a blur, but I do remember the conversations that got me through those very long 95 miles of backpack hell.
What this means is that I mark the miles and mountains in varying ways from the mundane to the memorable. I will always remember Slioch for the Lochinver Larder pies we ate: leek, cheese and potato as we started the ascent, apricot and peach once at the summit. My thumping heart atop the pinnacles reminds me of Liathach. The bracing wind that whipped across the bleak, barren landscape captures the top of Mullach Clach a’ Bhlair and my leap of faith from Adam to Eve on Tryfan and spelling out YMCA on the Cantilever Stone at Glyder Fach call to mind a walking weekend in Snowdonia.
Loched in conversation
Other memorable markers are the conversations I’ve had. Recently, I can trace my walk up Beinn Eibhinn and Aonach Beag by the conversations I had at each point of the walk.
It was a glorious day; the sun was up before I was and Loch Ossian was a flat mirror reaching out towards the mountains. There was heat in the air and the foxgloves bobbed in the slight breeze. Walking alongside the loch I learnt that Matthew had spent a year abroad living in France during high school but his French is not what it used to be.
As we passed the gorgeous settlement at the head of the loch I heard about Nia’s exciting wedding plans and home renovations. At our first lunch stop (we’re like hobbits: first breakfast, second breakfast), T read from the back of the Montezuma’s 73% Cocoa Very Dark Chocolate packet: â€˜Creative Chocolate from Britain made with Imagination and Love’. On tasting it, we all agreed on its superiority in the chocolate circles we ate in.
I do remember the bog we encountered before walking up to Creagan na Craoibhe but more memorable were Mary’s experiences on the lift boat off the coast of New Jersey. Plus, I saw a baby bird and a frog. As we climbed Meall Glas Choire, Nia talked about the Duke of Edinburgh programme; she got the gold award, which goes a long way to explaining why Nia is our navigator this weekend.
The ascent to our first Munro of the day, Beinn Eibhinn, brings a discussion with Edward about his future plans to walk from Land’s End to John o’Groats. This boils down into a talk about generosity which has had me thinking for months on end.
As we march on up to Aonach Beag, T regaled us with her near miss of the National Express to Birmingham and we relax at the summit with a game of hacky sack in a hazy glow of 360-degree views of mountain tops. The talk moves to grandparents as we meander our way down Coire Ã¡ ChÃ rra Bhig and Edward talked about Freecycle – a group that allows you to recycle locally [in a more recent trip we were present when Freecycle UK became Freegle].
There are moments when the conversation naturally lulls as it did when we walked along the river Uisge Labhair: this is a time for reflection. After a day of sun, my skin is heated like a solar battery, which sustains me through the next unsurprisingly dreich day (against the bleak, unforgiving wind and rain I couldn’t think of four nicer people to spend a horrible afternoon with). The delicious pain of walking ten hours on a perfect day sets in as I succumb to trusting my body’s ability to carry me anywhere.
The colours of the landscape have more brilliance to my tired eyes in the early evening light; the startling green of the hills set against the dark blue of the water and the lighter blue of the sky. I love the Scottish hills for their worn out roundness, the beauty in their barrenness.
As we skirt the loch for the second time and our minds race faster than our feet towards our evening dinner at the Corrour Station House, I hear about Mary’s Norse ancestry. Yes, this great day is marked by conversation and reflection, great weather and of companionship with friends, nature and self. Not bad for a talk up Beinn Eibhinn and Aonach Beag.
About the author
Originally from New Zealand, Susannah Radford has enjoyed exploring Scotland over the past four years. Ever hopeful of that elusive Scottish summer, she was walking in Loch Ossian for the first time when she struck it lucky and experienced her ultimate walking triumvirate: great weather, great views and great conversation.