Updated: Apr 17, 2020
On a Friday morning in October 2016, I rented a car in Edinburgh, and headed north to the Highlands. Approaching Glencoe, I gained a bit of elevation, gazing across the vast lonely landscape of Rannoch Moor. Dotted with thick bunches of heather and pooled water, it takes on a different life when autumn comes and the blooming heather fades to muted orange, fall hues. I was starting to sense that delightful feeling of isolation that wakes up my soul and calls me to adventure. Nothing really prepares you for Glencoe - it is one of the most visited places in Scotland and for good reason. It is breathtaking. I had the valley to myself as I stopped and stood face to face with a huge, pointy mountain of rock. I searched my memory - I knew this mountain. Little did I know that I would be on top of it the next day. Buachaille Etive Mòr. Gaelic for The Great Herdsmen (or shepherd) of Etive. I was mesmerized, drunk on wanderlust.
My destination was Fort William, where I would spend the night in preparation for a hike with the delightful Dave Anderson of Lochaber Guides. That night, Dave and I were emailing about our plan for the next day. The original plan was The Aonach Eagach Ridge. I'd been dreaming of it since my first google search of hikes in Scotland. But I’m glad things worked out as they did. The Curved Ridge route up The Buachaille is so iconic. The reason for the change is that The Aonach Eagach is a committed climb - meaning once you are up there the safest way off is the end. In the autumn when there's so little light, you need to keep a steady pace all day - which equates to no stopping and smelling the roses or taking lots of photos. Dave knew just the right things to say though, dropping the words “iconic” and “challenging” and “amazing” and “quite the achievement” in his email suggesting The Buachaille. Well played Dave, well played.
And so it came to be that an American lass bagged her first Munro. For those unfamiliar with the Munro concept, who are likely scratching their heads (...”bagging a munro? What sort of scandal did she get involved in over there!?”), let’s sidebar for a moment to discuss Munros.
Ok - allow me to introduce a chap by the name of Sir Hugh Munro. Hugh was an active fellow. In 1891 The Scottish Mountaineering Club published his list of 283 Scottish mountains he surveyed that were 3000 feet and higher, and “sufficiently separated” from neighboring tops. (This vague language has led to some controversy with some feeling the need to add to the list. Others feel that if a Munro was designated by Munro and put on “Munro’s List”, how can one add to the list? But I digress…). Now, to make things more interesting, lesser Scottish peaks are also classified into Corbetts and Grahams. For more on Munros and a complete list, visit The Walk Highlands Website. Now, a word of caution - don’t judge Scotland’s peaks solely on their elevation. They are rugged, dangerous mountains. I would hear multiple stories of seasoned climbers who have died in the Highlands, and watch with my own eyes as search and rescue helicopters circled overhead in the Cairngorms. Mountains are mountains and they are not forgiving of distracted missteps and people ill prepared for the swiftly changing elements.
My first hike in the Highlands surpassed all my expectations. I wore a harness. I learned terms like scree, stob, munro, corrie, abseil. I sat above the clouds and dreamed about where my journey would go next. For the first time in my life, my body felt the fear of falling. I experienced complete dependance on another human being. Complete trust. I faced the transition from the girl who has never been afraid of heights, to a woman pushing her limits.
A bit of background on me. You might have gathered I'm a bit of an outdoorsy gal. I have a Bachelors Degree in Wildlife Sciences, I grew up hiking, I'm an expert skier, I've been in the mountains all over the US and Canada. Thanks to wonderful parents who started me out young, I've spent a lot of fun times on the sides of mountains. I have a healthy respect for the elements, I have learned from bad decisions, I am not bothered by heights and exposure. So you can understand why the first thing I wanted to do in Scotland was GET. ON. A. MOUNTAIN!
Dave was the perfect guide/pal for a day out on the Buachaille. He picked me up at my hotel in Fort William (which is a great basecamp for Highland exploration) and we had a nice drive up through Glencoe. It was a beautiful day - there was a shroud of shifting fog ominously hiding the summit. The bottom half of the mountain could be seen as well as the rest of the Highlands spreading out in every direction. We parked on a curve along the roadside on the A82. Dave joked dryly that the most dangerous part of the day would likely be crossing the road to start the hike. We went to work suiting up, and he let me pick which color helmet I wanted, thats just the kind of guy he is. I went with blue and stuffed it in my backpack.
We successfully crossed the road and made our way towards the Mighty Buachaille. The first part of the hike was a traverse across a wide expanse of low plants which gradually gave away to loose rock known as scree. The steeper it gets the harder scree is to navigate. Here the valley floor starts to fall away, and the rocky towers and ridges start to loom temptingly above. This was the part where I had to face the fact that I wasn't as fit as I used to be. I struggled to keep a steady pace while my lungs said mean things to me. But where theres a will theres a way, and I wanted up that mountain. Dave kept us at a steady pace without any hint of impatience that I obviously was slower than a seasoned mountaineer such as himself would have been on his own.
Eventually, due to the risk of dislodged rocks from climbers above and the risk of a long fall down if we slipped, we stopped to rope up and put our helmets on. And I'll tell you what, when you want your head to stay in one piece, you really don't care how goofy you look in your bright blue helmet. I choose "brain staying in my head" over "fashion show" any day. At one point, another climber came up behind me. He was hot on my heels (literally, because I was climbing above him) and passed with a smile as soon as I found a spot to hug the wall and let him scooch around me. This was not a particularly safe thing to do. You should always give people space. Not just because it is the nice thing to do, but because it is the safe thing to do. The closer you are to my feet, the harder it is for you to dodge possible rocks I might dislodge. And if I were to slip and fall - odds are good that I'm taking you down with me.
Throughout the climb we were leapfrogging with another guide and his 2 charges - a couple that was preparing to do a more technical route up Ben Nevis (the highest peak in Scotland and all of the UK.) It was fun to hear tidbits of what they were learning. Later they would be an audience below me as I descended Crowberry Tower. No pressure....
Dave always told me ahead of time when change would be coming up. I always knew the plan. He was encouraging without being patronizing, and he never once offered me his hand. Hear me out! In my case this was a great thing - he knew I didn’t need it and he let me get myself physically up the route with just his coaching. A good guide doesn't just get someone there and back. They help them grow their skills. All day, Dave was watching the decisions I was making, watching my demeanor, listening to the tone of my voice. He saw my capabilities and confidence growing as the day went on. “Trust your feet”, “Your legs are longer than you think they are”, “Don’t worry about your hands, its all about your foot placement." Sometimes I asked questions, and sometimes I was silently focusing on piecing together the upward puzzle of hands and feet. Some spots involved straight up climbing. Other spots involved steep scrambling.
At one point, Dave handed me a rock to put on the back of my outstretched hand. The challenge was to scramble without the rock falling off. This was a brilliant bit of teaching. What had prompted this? My posture - I was spending too much time hunched over, using my hands to guide me when it wasn't necessary. This is a subconscious defense mechanism - my brain was saying "um excuse me, why are we here, you're bonkers, hug the mountain!" But this can cause fatigue over time and an improper center of gravity. Balancing the rock forced me to stand up and let my legs do the work. This exercise helped a lot.
As we progressed up, we became engulfed in the shroud of doom, and fell into a steady methodical climb. I was having a lot of fun, and my confidence was strong. One of my favorite memories is the ravens - as we got higher, they flew closer, making their throaty calls to one another. As we went higher still, they began flying beneath us - that was quite a feeling, to be looking down past my boots at ravens circling in and out of the fog below me. It was a friendly, encouraging omen. Dave said that sometimes they come right up to you but I wasn't lucky enough that day - maybe next time! They would disappear for awhile and then come back, checking on my progress and shouting encouragement. And probably shaking their little raven heads at all us less fortunate, wingless creatures clinging to the mountainsides, while they flew by effortlessly.
It was somewhere in this stretch that I found a bit of trouble in maneuvering my way up a wall. I found my next step, but was struggling to sort out where my hands would go once I stepped up. I had no choice but to bounce up with my best guess - and my fingers only found moss. I flattened my entire body into the mountain, quickly trying to figure out my next plan before the moss let go. My heart froze and I felt suspended in time and space. I needed to use my body to keep me from falling backwards, as my fingers were already clawing the shallow roots of the moss. Letting go meant falling backwards but I needed to let go to move up. "Dave is up there" I reminded myself, "if you fall, he's got you." I went through the cycle of split second physiological symptoms that accompany an adrenaline rush. There's a metallic taste you get in your mouth. Your body feels electrified. Your breath catches in your throat. Your heartbeat accelerates. Its true that Dave had me. My brain knew that, but my body did not. All my body felt was that if I fell, I would end up very hurt or dead, so it was frozen with this new feeling of fear. I had never felt fear on a mountain before. But I stayed calm and let my brain talk - "you're safe, Dave's got you, you will not die, now lets go ahead and figure out what our next move is going to be." I found my next move, didn't die, and kept climbing, dirt and moss lodged under my fingernails.
Now it is worth noting, lest you think I'm over dramatizing - a roped fall could still have been painful even if not all the way down. The point is, when your body goes into survival mode, you have to face those feelings. And one day, I may be in a situation where the stakes are a lot higher. There is no replacement for learning to deal with panic than by feeling it. I have always been calm under pressure, and for the sake of any future mountaineering exploits, I was relieved that I handled this well. I'd felt this rush a few times, once when my car was sliding towards a cliff in a snowstorm, another when I started having seizures in college, another when I had to pry open the jaws of a large aggressive dog who had his teeth around the throat of a little dog named Rascal whom I loved dearly. (It wouldn't be fair to leave those stories unfinished, so - growing up in Maine honed my snow driving skills and I did not slide off the cliff - I have been seizure free for 10+ years - and I was able to free Rascal without serious injuries.)
One of my favorite moves is what I like to call the bouncy foot shift. Its when your lead foot is on a small foothold and you need your other foot to be there too so you can free your lead foot up for the next step. All there is to do is this awesome little bounce move where you hop your lead foot up and switch it out with the back foot. Thats right, for a split second, you have no feet on the mountain. Its exhilarating! The bouncy foot shift - try it out sometime!
We basically talked the whole way. Up and down. I'm as comfortable in silence as I am in conversation, but if you match me with someone else who has the gift of gab, there will be a lot of chatting. Dave was up to the task. He is a great conversationalist, and very knowledgeable about his country and his profession. He pointed out flora and fauna, gave me a great introduction to the world of mountaineering. He spoke fondly about his wife and kids, and how his wee boy was starting to follow in his footsteps. He told tales of his own journey into mountaineering, about his triumphs and injuries, about the deaths he had witnessed in the mountains. While grim, these conversations are necessary - if you don't respect the mountains, if you are arrogant, or distracted, you will make mistakes, and they may cost you dearly. They will also risk the lives of the mountain rescue folks who have to come after you.
As we worked our way up the curved ridge, I could see climbers across the way making their way up some of the truly technical climbs. I'll tell you what, I was really glad Dave knew where he was going - I certainly did not, and based on the gentle advice he gave a couple different groups we met, neither did multiple other people on the mountain. (I believe the route spanned by the long rope below is Agag's Groove.)
Another challenge I encountered, at which I'm afraid I did not gracefully excel, was how to go from a straight up wall onto a flat shelf of rock. Its awkward I tell you. I got my knees up onto the flat spot but had nowhere within arms reach to grab and pull myself up, and no momentum from an upward step. So I turned into some sort of crab-spider-lizard thing and had to grip the flat rock with my knees and hoist slowly up with the lovely feel of tiny rocks being ground into my skin. Note to self: rock climbing takes some serious muscles. All those times you work out and the instructions say "engage your core".... do it. A strong core gets you places, and protects your body from injury. Lets face it, you just never know when you might need to be a crab-spider-lizard.
“Your skills have proven good enough to go up Crowberry Tower, would you like to?” I didn't know what Crowberry Tower was, but I did know I had an expert offering to take me there. Yes please! I'd never been up a tower before. So up we went! It was similar to the rest of the climb with the big difference of daunting levels of exposure on all sides. After my initial delight at standing on the top of my first tower, I took a good look around and said "So, Dave...how do we get down from here?" His face broke out with his signature grin and he said, "I was waiting for you to ask that!" Dave would later tell me in an email "I'll remember the look on your face when the cloud cleared on top of Crowberry Tower and we got a peek of where we were, up on an fantastically exposed pinnacle up a mountain!"
The descent down the tower is a very direct one, and I soon came to a point I had been wondering about for awhile- what happens when you're trying to go down and your legs aren't long enough? I had a looooong step to take. I looked down, willing my long legs to be longer. But they stayed at their current length (rude), and no amount of blindly tapping around found my foothold. So I took one last look above me at the rope attached to Dave. "You just have to go" I told myself. So I trusted that Dave had me, angled my toe as best I could to catch the foothold when it came, and let gravity take me. I don’t remember if I felt the rope grab me or not - I just remember the intense relief when my foot made contact with rock again, what felt like 2 years later (ok it was 2 seconds.) And then that was it, the tower (pictured below with another climber) had been conquered. It wasn't much longer before we were in the final stretch to the summit.
We had our lunch at the top, a peak called Stob Dearg. The Buachaille actually has 2 peaks connected by a ridge. (The other is Stob na Broige, which was promoted to munro status in 1997.) I did say I have a great head for heights and I do love them - but it was nice to sit down and not focus on balance for a bit. We sat down at side of the summit and ate our lunch. I don't remember what Dave had, but I chowed down on some sort of tasty artisan bread thing from Tesco. And beef jerky. (I had to search hard to find that tiny bag of jerky by the way, in Scotland it doesn't take up half an aisle with 50 different flavors and 12 different brands...) And a Kit Kat. So there I was, only on my fourth day in Scotland, stuffing my face with jerky and Kit Kats, taking it all in from the top of one of the most iconic places in the country. Streams of light were coming down through the clouds, bathing the Highlands in a heavenly glow. "People at home aren't going to believe this," I said out loud.
Dave took the time to point out lots of different landmarks from the top - Ben Nevis, performing its signature "hide in the clouds and make you think I'm going to show myself any second but I'm not really going to" game. The Aonach Eagach Ridge. The Kings House Hotel. The Devil's Staircase on the West Highland Way (which I would end up hiking with some Glaswegian gentlemen a couple weeks later). The manmade Blackwater Reservoir. The endless views in every direction mirrored the endless possibilities that awaited me in Scotland. I could have soaked it up longer but Dave said we it was time to get going. As we made our way across the ridge towards the route down, the rocks started to take on orange and white tones. The landscape resembled the American Southwest. I could definitely pass this photo off as Arizona! But it was a little colder than my hikes in Arizona.
The hike down was a steep one, and a test on the knees. The route we went was through a ravine, known as a corrie. This was the Coire na Tulaich route. I quickly understood why Dave had told me earlier that this was not a wise winter route - it is the avalanche path. That scree I told you about earlier made for a challenging new stage of the hike. The descent was filled with more great conversation and awesome stories...Poor Dave probably felt like he was talking to a 2 year old with the amount of questions I asked.
Finishing up the hike we headed back across the open ground. I looked west towards the Three Sisters and it was easy to see why this area is such a popular location for film settings. Highlander, Braveheart, Skyfall, Made of Honour, Rob Roy, Outlander, The Eagle, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Outlaw King, Centurion and more...Hollywood is no stranger to Glencoe. It sees a lot of traffic particularly in the tourist season. But fortunately, it has managed to maintain its beautiful wildness.
After arriving at the car, Dave made good on his word to bring me to the Kings House for a celebratory coffee. King's House Hotel has been housing and feeding travelers through Glencoe for nearly 400 years. It was just about to close for its massive renovation, and has since changed to a very different look. Kings House is synonymous with deer, as the local deer have become accustomed to getting tasty treats here. This is a controversial topic, but I believe every effort should be made to keep wildlife wild. You have likely seen photos of people feeding or petting the deer in Glencoe, and like me when I first saw them you may think they are tame. But they are not - they have just learned to associate people with food, and this has potentially dangerous consequences for the people and the animals. My belief is that we should enjoy them but respect them. And part of respecting them is not doing anything that puts them in potential danger - including reinforcing human contact as a good thing. It is a sacred privilege to have any encounter with an animal in the wild, and if you are lucky enough to have such an encounter, let it remain just that - a wild encounter.
So there you have it. My first foray from hiking into mountaineering. I'm proud of myself for literally stepping up to the challenge. A commitment to transparency in storytelling means I have to be open and honest with readers. To be transparent in this story is to tell you that I had moments of doubt on this mountain. I'm not used to doubts. I've always been the fearless one. The one who made my parents nervous because the edges of the Grand Canyon didn't scare me. The one who people think is crazy for always being so close to the edge. And I love this comfort with heights. Heights give me a tangible adrenaline rush. Curved Ridge pushed my comfort zones - it expanded them. It gave me a level of exposure I'd never experienced before - the valley floor was so impossibly far away, and the sheer drop offs were on all sides of me. This was different than just being on the edge of a cliff where safety is behind you. Being on a tower - now that was a new experience. I needed to adjust, but I loved it.
I'll close with a very sincere thank you to Dave Anderson, a great guy and a great guide. Thanks to his help, I squared off with the Great Herdsmen and with great respect I bagged my first munro.
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