I m utterly and profoundly miserable as I descend the Lairig Ghru, heading for the Linn of Dee in the heart of the Cairngorms. Snow has been driven into my face for hours and my chest is coated in a centimetre of icy slush. As I lose altitude the snow turns to rain and penetrates every crevice of my body.
Article First appeared on UkHillwalking
Typical ‘Gorms winter weather, Derry Cairngorm.
Now I experience the ultimate in humiliation as water seeps into my underwear. For hours I have been trying to convince myself that, despite the conditions, I am dry. Now I am forced to admit, as my genitals are caressed by trickles of water like the icy fingers of the Grim Reaper, that I am soaked to the skin.
I passed a cattle-shelter an hour ago trudging towards the little wood that marks the car park which is my goal. Peering from beneath my hood I notice that, despite walking for an hour, the cattle shelter is no further away and the wood no closer.
What am I doing in this miserable hell? And why? Then I remember; I’m enjoying myself.
Forty years ago, I told my mother I was starting hillwalking. She was delighted, hoping that the outdoors would turn her psychedelic, long-haired, hippy son into the rugged lumberjack she longed to see. She rushed off to local jumble sales to find woollen underwear and other manly clothing, hoping that this would protect me from everything the weather could produce. Her eyes shone with excitement as she told me what good exercise it would be, how I would see dramatic views and meet exciting people. Family, friends and acquaintances all enthusiastically concurred. The hills would be the making of me.
Over the years since I have learnt, the hard way, that they didn’t know anything whatsoever about a life wandering the mountains. Here are the things they should have warned me about.
Open any magazine or walk in to an outdoor shop and what do you see? Geographical pornography. Images of slim happy people striding through the mountains grinning like baboons. Oh, and they are dry, they are always dry so, so very dry. No soggy underpants for these jolly hill goers. Not one drop of that cold, wet stuff that at this very moment is tickling my unmentionables ever touches their skin. Whenever the pushers of outdoor equipment admit to the existence of rain, it’s shown rolling like silvery jewels off the clothing of happy hill goers.
1. They never told me that, in forty years on the hill, I’d be wet most of the time. I put on the woollen underwear my mother bought me from jumble sales and it itched like fury and every second step I took was punctuated by frantic scratching. I didn’t know it at the time but those early days on the hill were merely an introduction to a lifetime of discomfort. Since then boots have ripped my heels to shreds and given me blisters on every toe and filled with so much water I could open a swimming pool. Rain has run down my neck, up my sleeves, condensation has soaked my back. Hillwalking has meant a lifetime of discomfort that continues even when I am asleep, turning my dreams into nightmares. I’ve slept in huts crammed with farting Germans, on bare floorboards in draughty bothies and been frozen solid on the concrete steps of remote railway platforms. All that, of course, only encompasses the periods I’ve spent enjoying the comfort of a man-made shelter, it excludes endless nights in that living hell that is camping. You wouldn’t force your dog to sleep in a tent, and yet it’s sold as a wholesome activity for hearty humans.
2. Why did nobody say that hillwalking is inherently uncomfortable?
‘The scenery will be magnificent!’ they said. Looking back, I remember the countless times I’ve slogged for hours up some hill to arrive, gasping and sweating, at a heap of stones which is the zenith of hours of suffering known as the summit. Desperately trying to gain some reward I peer into the distance, awaiting that fleeting glimpse into immortality known as ‘the view.’ It’s at this moment that the clouds which have been lurking just over the horizon pounce, and the only view becomes a wall of mist. Even when the clouds part the only thing I see is another mountain almost identical to the one I’m standing on.
I now realise that one mountain looks very much like another. If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. If you want to stare in awe at a great big pile of mud and rock there is no need to walk up it yourself, Google it. Get a photograph from someone else who has managed to capture the perfect image and done all that inconvenient walking business for you.