‘I felt consumed by an enormous sense of joy, and it seemed no time before we’d reached the col between the two Munro tops – only to have to begin another steep climb upwards.’
Extract taken from Just Another Mountain: A Memoir
By Sarah Jane Douglas
Published by Elliot & Thompson
In the same way I had once used the bottle and blow to bury all the hurt, I now found salvation in the freedom of wide, open spaces. Among mountains I enjoyed a natural high. And I wondered, momentarily, if it was a similar pain that my father had tried to blot out when he chose to drink himself to death. He chose drink and drugs. I had chosen to live, to find a more positive outlet for my turmoil, and to be there for my sons.
As Marcus and I climbed out from the dark confines of the corrie on Beinn Alligin and topped out onto a fairly flat plateau, we were rewarded with sudden and extensive views over sparkling waters to Skye, Harris and the low-lying profile of Lewis. We were standing high on the north-western edge of Scotland, with nothing between us and the islands of Skye and the Outer Hebrides, dark, angular outlines across the Minch. Behind and now way below us, Loch Torridon glinted in still, blue perfection. Rising steeply above its southern shore stood Beinn Damh, smaller than its neighbours but stark and prominent with endless peaks sweeping gracefully away behind it. We couldn’t help but keep stopping to admire the grandeur – while also enjoying some respite from the hot work. With a film of sweat across our foreheads we climbed higher still to reach the first summit, where we had a well-earned rest. We weren’t even bothered by the flies that buzzed around us as we ate some lunch. Liathach dominated our view to the east, that intimidating yet fascinating terraced sandstone monster. And behind us, almost five kilometres in length, was the rest of our ridgewalk. After our break, still feeling the heat, I whipped off my sweat-soaked vest before moving on.
We could admire our surroundings properly now, like a work of art, the sandstone ridge gently curving in a serpentine line all the way towards the second summit, Sgurr Mor, and beyond it the Horns. We carefully descended the steep, narrow ridge and the rock felt warm against the palms of our hands as we lowered ourselves over awkward drops that presented a stretch too long for our legs. Being with Marcus, and given the combination of good weather, incredible scenery and the challenge of the terrain, I felt consumed by an enormous sense of joy, and it seemed no time before we’d reached the col between the two Munro tops – only to have to begin another steep climb upwards. After ascending a smaller top, to our right a fantastically dramatic gash – the Eag Dubh gully – split the ridge. We paused momentarily to peer down and marvel at all the fallen rocks and rubble that had been weathered away and were now lying strewn on the corrie floor. I turned my face from the dark, shadowy confines of the gully and continued the trail, so brightly illumined in sunshine, to the height of Sgurr Mor. It felt good to be up here, to be part of nature’s glorious mountain canvas. We’d done it together, me and my boy, and we couldn’t stop grinning foolishly at each other, flushed with pleasure at our achievement.
From our second summit Liathach appeared even more imposing. My eyes remained transfixed on this isolated bastion with its precipitous walls. I knew one day I’d have to climb it, to satiate my curiosity. Beyond it were even more jagged tops. Land dressed in purple and deep-blue hues swept away into the distance to merge with the heated haze of the day and vastness of the sky, and I surrendered myself to the magic of the silence and beauty. Turning through 180 degrees, I gazed upon the Dundonnell and Fisherfield Hills, yawning off to the north. We sat quietly together, Marcus and I, tired but satisfied by the physical challenge.
We would have been content to stay there on the mountain’s peak, but we still had to tackle the three pinnacles, so off we sauntered towards the Horns, with Beinn Dearg and Beinn Eighe as their backdrop. Scrambling over the airy sandstone towers held an attraction of its own. It was basically easy rock climbing and added an element of real fun to the day. Finding foot and hand holds with natural ease, Marcus scrambled up and down the rocky architecture of the Horns, loving every second of it. The warm wind blew more gustily, but, unfazed, he continued his route-finding with the utmost confidence, and his beaming smile as we arrived on the final pillar said more than the spoken word – almost.
‘Can I call Dad?’ he asked.
‘Yeah, course you can,’ I nodded, handing him my mobile.
‘Dad was up here a few weeks ago, but he told me didn’t manage the Horns because his legs were too tired for it. I can’t wait to tell him I’ve done them,’ he said gleefully.
‘Dad! Guess where I am?’ sang Marcus. ‘I’m on the last Horn on Beinn Alligin.’
‘Well done, Son,’ I heard his father say, ‘I’m going to have to attempt it again then.’
Coming off the final ridge felt rough on my knees, but I watched with pride as Marcus skipped and bounced his way downwards. Stopping in his flight, he turned to look at me, his face all tanned. ‘Mum, I really enjoyed myself today,’ he said. I beamed back, and with that he bounded off again. Marcus and I had always been close, and it was wonderful to be able to share these experiences with him.
Left alone with my thoughts for a moment, my mind wandered back to a conversation I’d had with a random stranger I’d walked this same bit of trail with weeks earlier.
‘I want to climb Kilimanjaro. It’s the highest free-standing mountain in Africa. It borders Tanzania and Kenya . . .’ When he had said that I’d immediately thought of Mum. She had lived in Kenya as a kid. An idea started to take form.
As Marcus and I neared the bridge and the path that would return us to the car, I was convincing myself more and more that it should be me making the trip to Africa. If I felt released from the burden of my grief on the heathers and hills at home, maybe Kilimanjaro would expunge it for ever. I could climb that mountain as a personal tribute to Mum – and raise some money for charity too. It made sense.
‘Hey, Mum,’ Marcus called, breaking my train of thought. ‘I found a stone and it’s got a smiling face!’ He pressed it into my hand; sure enough, iron oxide within the rock had created the illusion of two eyes and smile. Perceiving it as a good omen, I took it home as a reminder of our day. I was now a woman with a plan.
Just Another Mountain: A Memoir by Sarah Jane Douglas is published by Elliot & Thompson, priced £14.99