Tag Archives: Nan Shepherd

Walking out of the body and into the mountain

Lugnaquilla, January 2015. Pic: Cormac Looney

Lugnaquilla, January 2015.
Pic: Cormac Looney

By influence habitual to the mind
The mountain’s outline and its steady form
Gives a pure grandeur; and its presence shapes
The measure and the prospect of the soul
To majesty; such virtue have the forms
Perennial of the ancient hills; nor less
The changeful language of their countenances
Gives movement to the thoughts, and multitude,
With order and relation.

So wrote William Wordsworth, a man familiar with the ‘ancient hills’ and the trudge of a long hike (he would reputedly think nothing of walking 30 miles across the Lake District to visit his pal Samuel Taylor Coleridge).

Walking nine miles across Glenmalure to the top of Lugnaquilla last Saturday my mind was void of such majestic thoughts. I had arrived at the mountain, as often happens, with a garbaged mind – too tired or preoccupied or unmotivated to look beyond the top of my boots.

Lacking order and relation what mountain thoughts I had concerned only with the sub-zero wind and the best route up over the loose snow and rime ice on the slopes above the Fraughan Rock Glen.

An hour will surely fix me, I thought.

But that hour passed and most of the next. And still Lugnaquilla, a boon companion over the years through all weathers and moods, did not work its magic. Racing, my mind remained back in the city.

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Descending Djouce Mountain, February 2008. Pic: Cormac Looney

Descending Djouce mountain, February 2008.
Pic: Cormac Looney

Before I began climbing mountains I had little conception of the mental silence that could be achieved amidst freezing wind, driving rain, searing bright suns and movement ever, ever upwards.

This was something that rose slowly, within; a silent, solitary realisation, it came in marked moments: descending Djouce as a February sun set behind Scarr mountain; turning to look back at the summit of Mont Blanc as the sun rose over the Col de la Brenva; standing alone on the summit of Carrauntoohil.

Years after I first ventured into the uplands I read Nan Shepherd’s ode to the Cairngorms, The Living Mountain –  which provides a true account of this effect.

Here then may be lived a life of senses so pure…that the body may be said to think.
Each sense heightened to its most exquisite awareness is in itself total experience.
This is the innocence we have lost, living in one sense at a time to live all the way through.

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Had I lost this? Last weekend, amid doubt and disillusionment, I suspected so.

Until, cresting out onto the summit plateau onto a field of ice, it rose through. Perfect focus descended, my body and mind and breath were one.

I was thereHere I was.

Shepherd called this “walking out of the body and into the mountain”.

Wordsworth wrote of peaks whose “presence shapes, The measure and the prospect of the soul, To majesty”.

To majesty, eventually. For now: to clarity, to peace, to silence.

Summit plateau, Lugnaquilla, January 2015. Pic: Cormac Looney

Summit plateau, Lugnaquilla, January 2015.
Pic: Cormac Looney

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Ben Nevis : whiteout on the Red Burn

Close to summit of Ben Nevis shortly before a whiteout, May 2011.

Close to summit of Ben Nevis as visibility falls.

And then the world disappeared.

Where seconds earlier there had been, metres ahead, a cairn all was suddenly white.

Up, down, left, right, forward and back, a complete blank.

My companions P and J were behind me but the fierce wind rendered shouting useless. Coordination was difficult and not simply because of the westerly headwind we were battling.

Our body temperatures had also plummeted in the 15 minutes since we stepped off the summit and the blizzard had hit.

Edging on through the whiteout I was dimly aware that losing the route, marked by cairns, could see us walk into the notorious Five Finger Gully, which threatened drops of hundreds of metres.

We were descending from the top of Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in Britain, by the Red Burn track. It was May 24, 2011 and we were at 1300m when the blizzard blew in.

It was the first time on the mountain for all three of us.

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Few things offer a more immediate mental and physical challenge than experiencing a whiteout.

Whiteout on Ben Nevis, May 2011

Whiteout.

For seconds (if you’re lucky) or minutes (if you’re not) your senses are scrambled. Of the five only sight is useful – hearing, smell and touching are all drastically limited by the conditions, and taste long forgotten.

Even with good navigation doubt is constantly present, not least because of the ferocious weather. Stopping, or changing course, is not an option.

Faced with a situation where the ground, air and sky all appear identical and perfectly desolate – and the threat of simple white panic is blowing all around – a feeling of movement is vital.

It is a foremost a test of composure, skill and physical fitness. There can be few better proving grounds for a hiker. And so you keep going.

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On May 24, 2011, after three or four minutes battling our way down the Red Burn, we came through. (And shot the video below).

Luckily for us it was summer and the storms blowing over the West Highlands that day lacked the length and ferocity of the Scottish winter tempests.

Within 20 minutes we were below the snowline, scoffing bread and chocolate and packing our away our Down jackets.

Having come through even the briefest of whiteouts it’s hard not to feel grateful. Grateful that you have emerged safely but also thankful that you have experienced such a situation.

'The risk is the lure' Summit of Ben Nevis (1344m), May 24, 2011.

‘The risk is the lure’. Summit of Ben Nevis (1344m), May 24, 2011.

Many would argue that climbing with the risk of such conditions is reckless. But such mental and physical tests are an intrinsic part of mountaineering – though few willingly put themselves directly in the way of such events.

But the risk is a lure. It’s one that seems distant in these summer weeks, when the toughest challenge facing hikers is usually cloud or rain.

After I had returned home from Ben Nevis more than one pal questioned my soundness of mind for even venturing on the mountain in such conditions, concluding that I had had ‘a lucky escape’.

The late Scottish writer and mountaineer Nan Shepherd provides the best response to such a view.

Writing about the deaths of two young hikers in a blizzard on the Cairngorm plateau on January 2, 1933, Shepherd argued risk is an inherent – and necessary – part of the mountain experience.

“They committed, I suppose, an error of judgement, but I cannot judge them. For it is the risk we must all take when we accept individual responsibility for ourselves on the mountain, and until we have done that, we do not begin to know it.”*

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*Nan Shepherd, The Living Mountain (Canongate Books, 2011), p 40.

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