(Eleanor Jane Mair, our daughter, died on the 21st April in Ninewells Hospital, Dundee, as result of trauma caused by alcoholism. She was a beloved and loving person, who cared for everyone except herself, bringing joy through what she was but also sorrow through what she was doing to herself. She is with God.)
M: So, are you there? Maybe we can meet on a hill, seeing we climbed so many together?
E: Here I am on Ben Cruachan. Do you know why I’ve chosen it?
You’ll tell me.
Because the first time we were on it, we only managed a few hundred feet and it almost put me off hills for a lifetime. Probably I was about 8 years old and mum was with us too and it was pouring rain and cold, but you wanted to climb. It took about an hour of me girning and shivering for you to admit defeat.
And the second time, thirty or more years later, the hill was covered in soft snow, and for the only time I can remember, you couldn’t keep your feet too well, and gave up, although I was managing all right.
I was knackered. Let’s move to a more successful one. Do you remember Ben Avon? You and Mark had been camping and climbing….
And we met at Invercauld estate, and trudged over miles of moor into Glen Slugain, then up a steep corrie, past the Clergyman’s Stone, to a high bealach…
By which time it had got very misty and wet, but you insisted you knew the way from map and compass….
Yes, we were headed north east to the summit, which was called in Gaelic, the Couch of the Yellow Stag, or something like that, and we knew that it ought to be a huge granite tor…
But in fact the broad summit was a series of granite tors, and we couldn’t tell if one was higher than another. We eventually agreed that the stag had selected this one, and declared it the summit. I haven’t been back so I still don’t know if we were right.
It’s almost impossible to tell people who don’t climb what the pleasure is. Sheer remoteness is part of it. In this case you walk ten miles into a wilderness of rock, before you start climbing. And the remoteness is marked in your muscles; you’ve gone that distance. We saw no other people all day.
However well you know your climbing companions, there’s a respectful comradeship towards people whose bodies make the same effort and whose minds develop the same skills. As happens in all sports.
And you’re walking on the crust of the planet. These mountains are the worn stumps of vast peaks thrown up by a collision of continental plates millions of years ago, gradually reduced to their present state by wind, snow, sun and rain, not to mention sculpted by huge glaciers during the ice ages. You can see all this if you know how to look, the shattered lava- flows here, the ice scratches on the corrie there.
Yeah, you used to tell me all kinds of geological stuff and I never knew whether it was fact or bullshit. But it points up the importance of what’s said on a climb. When I climb alone I see for example a twisted ridge; but if you point and say, “see that twisted ridge,” an event happens which binds you, me, and the ridge together in some kind of disclosure.
You may remember, if you paid attention to your theology classes, that Herr Fuchs, a German theologian invented the term Word-Event for this experience, and used it to explain what we get of the historical Jesus: not the bare fact, but a Word-Event by which the Gospel writers say, “Behold! Jesus!”
Do you remember our last real climb, in France?
The Canigou, in the Pyrenees? Yes, for the weather first of all. A day of Mediterranean sunshine. Then the 4×4 journey up half of the mountain to our starting point at a Refuge. It was more terrifying than any climb ever. Then the size of the hill, just about 10,000 feet, of which we climbed I suppose 4,000.
We climbed from an upland meadow where cattle were grazing making their bells tinkle flatly as they moved. With the sun on our backs.
I’d been ill off and on, so this steep climb was painful, breathing hard, back sore, but legs OK. You didn’t speak about it but you didn’t hurry. And the summit was amazing. You could look eastward to Perpignan and the sea, south into Spain, west and north into ranges of huge hills. A younger part of the world than Scotland.
The highest hill you climbed. And you said, it was good.
We had this fantasy called the “Climber’s Pint” , the image of a pint of beer which appeared to the descending climber, luring her towards ground level and the promised reward. Well, in this case we returned to the Refuge (at 6,000 feet) to find it had an open bar where the mythical pint was served. We sat in the sun, and awaited our transport. A good day in my life.