After the longest winter, spring has finally sprung in our chilly patch of the planet. And in spring, a young woman’s fancy turns to the great outdoors. It’s increasingly difficult to sit staring at a PC in an overheated office all day, gazing out at the blue sky and longing for the hills. Once I get used to the sunshine, I won’t be so restless, but not yet. The weather just now is absolutely perfect for hill walking; still a bit cold but with clear skies that would enable you to see for miles.
I rarely get a chance to do much proper walking these days. On occasion I have taken a day off while my son is in nursery, but getting far enough away to be remote, do a decent hill walk and get back in time to pick him up is not really possible. Our small Scottish mountains known as munros, really need a good six to seven hours for ascent, picnic and descent. The nearest one, Ben Lomond, is at least 45 minutes in the car from Glasgow, more if you get stuck in slow moving traffic. Today I can imagine the view from there. To the north the Arrochar Alps, to the south, less romantically, the high rise flats of Glasgow are just about visible on a day like this.
The top of a hill is my happy place. If I get stressed, I can close my eyes and visualise the jagged peaks covered in snow, sunshine gleaming on the white. No sounds but the birds and my own breathing. This kind of walking is good, strenuous exercise and so much more than that. It’s about mental well being; climbing big, steep hills is hard work and when you get to the top, you are not only relieved, but deservedly proud of your efforts. It’s quite literally a high.
I first got into proper walking about ten years ago. I was living alone for the first time after a relationship break up and a little bit down. With two new friends, I started going hill walking about once a month. The first time, I was ill equipped with trainers and a leaky cagoule and my feet landed in bogs more than once. I slipped and slid down the hill like a maniac and at the end my cheeks were flushed pink. I was soaked through yet happier than I had been in a long time. Each time, we got up early on a Sunday morning, made our packed lunches and drove out of the city. Sometimes we talked a lot on those walks, sometimes less so. Either way, we always laughed.
This period of walking culminated a year later in the challenge that is the West Highland Way; 96 miles of walking from Glasgow to Fort William in the highlands. Most people do it over six to seven days, which gives an average of about 14 miles a day. It’s a wonderful walk, not as hilly as you might think, although the further you go north, the more rugged and mountainous the scenery gets. It’s a popular route and you meet lots of people on the way, who congregate in the village pubs at night to swap tales of walking and share their battle scars.
I had many. On the second day of walking, I got my first blister. Our longest day of walking was the third day, when we had twenty miles to go. By that stage, I was in agony, with several blisters and dozens of midge bites, which are itchy and irritating. My feet were a pulpy mess, covered in plasters and with several toenails missing. Yet somehow, I was determined to finish the walk and I knew that I would. I found that for the first twenty minutes or so each day I was in real pain; after that I could get into a rhythm and keep going.
What did keep me going? My trusty stick helped, as did the occasional coffee with whisky. It wasn’t always the weather, that’s for sure. Scotland is notorious for its sudden downpours and mist that can appear on the hills from nowhere, leaving you unable to see more than a few feet in front of you. This can be highly dangerous; only a couple of weeks ago, two walkers died on Ben Lomond. The rain can make walking a miserable experience, ruining the views that make the whole thing worthwhile. All walkers have had days like these:
That week we had about half the time in the pissing rain. Sometimes, when the walking was slow and hard, the pleasure came purely from the absence of rain and a glimpse of watery sunshine. Other times, it was the companionship of a friend and lots of laughter. Most of all, it was the scenery and the joy of knowing you had nothing else do that day except put one foot in front of the other and get to the place you would sleep that night.
On our path we saw highland cows and feral goats with ancient curved horns; once we even spotted an eagle in flight. You are really no more than ten miles from a main road on this walk, yet it feels like you are far from modern civilisation. The sight of this beautiful mountain, Buchaille Etive Mhor, appearing from the rain soaked bleakness of Rannoch Moor, raised my spirits in a way I still remember today.
As humans we need to connect to this landscape and nature. For the city dwellers among us, it is hard to keep a sense of stillness and calm in the rush of our busy, hectic lives. For a week or so after I came back, I hated being among the noise and smells of the city. Now, I use these experiences to keep me sane, and I’m grateful than within an hour’s drive, I can be by a loch with a view that will lift my spirits, or climb a hill that will make me puff and pant and curse until I get to the top and feel alive again.
I often think that GPs should be prescribing a free bus pass and a hill walking course alongside the antidepressants they are so ready to hand out. I have a free weekend in the middle of April and initially thought of going to visit friends in London. But pondering the idea, I realised that I don’t want to be in another city and that what I really needed was to take to the hills.
It’s hard to find people to do the same things that you want to do, at the same time. So I have decided go by myself, up to Glencoe for a couple of days, where I can read, write, and most of all walk. A colleague amusingly asked if I was going there to kill myself (we are a sarky bunch in our office). The very opposite is true.
On my own, I won’t do any challenging walks, but there are great walks at a lower level, with climbing and scenery that will take my breath away. Like the Devil’s Staircase, with its stunning views of Glencoe and possibly some crazy person playing bagpipes at the top. It’s just what I need and I cannot wait.
Some of the Spartan team want to do a 10k hill run over Conic Hill, which is a sharp summit of around 350m looking over Loch Lomond. I know it would be good training for the race but I am not sure; firstly, about my capacity and secondly, if I even want to. For me, hills are about walking, picnics and the pleasure of taking time in nature. And what I learned from the West Highland Way, was that I don’t really need to run about like a crazy woman to meet a challenge.
You just need to keep putting one foot in front of the other and believe that you can do it.
Until next time,