DO THE HIGHLAND GLIDE

A Walk on the Wild Side: Robert Macfarlane catches a sleeper to the mountains of western Scotland

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, July/August 2012

Far up in the western Highlands of Scotland, on the north-facing slopes where snow still lingered in stripes and patches, we pioneered a new method of hill descent. It works like this. Climb effortfully but rewardingly to your mountain summit. Admire the view. Then locate your lingering snow-slope. Don your waterproof jacket. Check the slope’s run-out for boulders. Check the texture of the snow’s surface (granular is good for speed control, verglas is not). Check the angle of incline. Despise yourself for being preoccupied with health and safety at a time like this. Take a run-up and dive head-first and face-down onto the snow, landing on your chest and simultaneously lifting your arms and legs into the air, so that you whizz along on the near-frictionless performance-fabric of your jacket, like a Gore-Tex hockey puck. In this manner, slip down hundreds of feet in seconds. Arrest your descent by kicking in your feet. Stand up and whoop for joy. This is The Penguin, a specialist version of the technique more conventionally known to hill-walkers and mountaineers as “the glissade”.

Once a year, three friends and I catch the Caledonian Sleeper north from London to somewhere in the Scottish Highlands, and for a week or so we walk and climb for long days through the back-country, usually moving from bothy to bothy. If there is snow, we take cross-country skis and ice-axes. If there isn’t, we tramp and scramble.

The sleeper leaves Euston shortly after nine at night. You’re shown to your tiny twin-berth cabin. In the small hours, somewhere near Edinburgh, you’re woken by the clank and shunt of the train decoupling. Not long after dawn, you’re deep in the Highlands. As a means of travel to the mountains, it combines efficiency and romance.

This year, we got off the sleeper at Corrour—the remotest station in the Highlands, which lies two ranges east of Ben Nevis. If you’ve seen the film “Trainspotting”, you’ll know Corrour. It’s to Corrour that Renton and his pals travel while going cold turkey: they think a walk in the wild will help clean them up. But it doesn’t go well. They drink too much. The sublimity of the scenery fails to impress them, and the act of walking serves only to clarify their priorities: “At or around this time,” concludes Renton, “Spud, Sick Boy and I made a healthy, informed, democratic decision to get back on heroin as soon as possible.”

Our plans involved not much alcohol and even less heroin. We stayed in a cottage on the Corrour estate, eight miles from the nearest tarmacked road, at the foot of a mountain called Beinn na Lap, by the side of a stream that had carved the surface rock into complex rapids and elaborate plunge-pools, and a few hundred yards from the shores of Loch Ghuilbinn, into whose lucid waters we waded in the evenings to fish for brown trout as the light lessened.   

The second of our days there was the longest and the finest: a looping 18-mile round of ridge, summit and river valley that took in six tops, including the broad-shouldered Ben Alder and the sharp Sgor Iutharn, whose Gaelic name translates as Hell Peak. The walk began early with a crossing of the River Ossian and a rising traverse of a boulder field softly fleeced with moss and lichen. The traverse led us into a barren corrie out of which we climbed over crags and buttes to reach Beinn Eibhinn, the first true top of the day. Blue haze in the air, sun breaking through the cloud cover, and ranks of mountains—whalebacks, jaggy teeth, spires—receding in all directions.

From there it was eastwards, along a narrow and sinuous ridge whose southern slopes were blond with moor-grass, and over whose northern edges slumped cornices of silver snow. The sun was hot on my face, I was in the company of old friends and older mountains, and I felt sheerly happy—calmed by the hills
as I have been calmed by them many times before.

Early in the afternoon we were approaching the top of Sgor Iutharn across a tapering plateau when a man appeared from the east. He stopped me, looking wild-eyed and worried. “You’re not thinking of descending the Iutharn ridge, are you?” he asked. “Only…I’ve just come up it, and it was severe: not walking, not even scrambling, but crawling!”

We weren’t and we didn’t. Instead, we lazed gladly in the summit sunshine for an hour, eating sandwiches and passing round a hipflask of Talisker, before picking our way down a subtle path to the watershed between Iutharn and Alder—a place whose elegant symmetries reminded me of a pass I had crossed in the Himalayas several years earlier.

From there we climbed Alder itself, choosing a steep line up a high corrie, kicking steps into the snow, scrambling our way through the cornice-line where it was broken by a buttress of rock, and celebrating the ascent with a snowball fight on the plateau. We reached the top, admired the view, and then we penguined down Alder’s north-eastern snow slopes, laughing and whooping and skidding our way head-first and face-down towards the valley, where the river ran gold in the afternoon light.

Picture: the Ossian river flowing along the Amar Strath Ossian valley

Robert Macfarlane teaches English at Emmanuel College, Cambridge. He wrote the award-winning "The Wild Places"; his new book is "The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot"
Photographs Ian Winstanley