Desert Island Peaks: Chris Townsend

© Chris Townsend

If you were marooned alone, with only a few hills for company, which would you choose? To help pass the time while we all sit it out in isolation, we've posed this question to some well known hill folk. With apologies to Radio 4.

Asked to take part in this fun idea I thought it would quite easy to select a few peaks. And it was. But when I took the peaks out of their settings in my mind I did begin to wonder whether I'd like them so much if they stood with just a few other mountains surrounded by sea. It's hard to imagine a cold wet Scottish hill on a desert island! I guess I'd still love them though and be happy to climb them again and again.

On Ben Macdui  © Chris Townsend
On Ben Macdui
© Chris Townsend

Ben Macdui

When I first visited the Cairngorms, far more years ago than I care to remember, I walked across the Cairngorm Plateau to Ben Macdui and was entranced with the vastness and wildness. I've since been to  Ben Macdui well over a hundred times, summer and winter, and the magic has never dimmed.

Sprawling, complex Ben Macdui would make ideal desert island peak material  © Chris Townsend
Sprawling, complex Ben Macdui would make ideal desert island peak material
© Chris Townsend

I can't imagine a year without at least one visit so it's my first choice to come with me to the desert island. Of course, the whole Plateau would have to come as well, it's all one mountain really, though I could do without the Cairn Gorm ski resort. I'd quite like the Lairig Ghru too and the view of Braeriach and Cairn Toul. Ben Macdui without those would feel rather odd. Given its stony nature Ben Macdui does have a touch of cold desert about it so I think it would be at home on the desert island. To keep it happy I think snow would be needed at times and some ptarmigan and snow buntings.

Beinn Eighe

After the Cairngorms, the NW Highlands is my favourite part of Scotland.  Beinn Eighe was the first peak I climbed in the area, many, many years ago on my first really long walk, from Land's End to John O'Groats.

Beinn Eighe - not a mountain it'd be easy to tire of  © Dan Bailey
Beinn Eighe - not a mountain it'd be easy to tire of
© Dan Bailey

I hadn't intended to climb Beinn Eighe. I was walking through the Highlands not over the summits and had got all the way to Torridon without climbing a single peak. I set off to walk round the north side of Beinn Eighe, but the day was so lovely and the mountain so irresistible that I found myself drawn into spectacular Coire Mhic Fhearchair and then up to the summit. I have loved Beinn Eighe ever since. I've been up many times since, nearly always in good weather (unlike some other NW peaks – looking at you An Teallach) and I always feel excited as the path rounds Sail Mhor and begins to rise to the lip of Coire Mhic Fhearchair. I also love that Beinn Eighe was the first National Nature Reserve in the UK and relish the mountain path through beautiful native pine forest to the Conservation Cairn. I'm not sure how the forest would fare on a desert island, but the mountain would be fine.

Meall a'Bhuachaille

For me, an ideal walk involves forest, water and open mountain. Little  Meall a' Bhuachaille, a Cairngorm outlier, (and only little in the Cairngorms context, in the Lake District it would be a major summit), has all three in a half-day walk, one I have done several times a year for over thirty years without ever tiring of it.

Windy on Meall a'Bhuachaille  © Chris Townsend
Windy on Meall a'Bhuachaille
© Chris Townsend

Through the pinewoods leading to Ryvoan Pass, a short diversion to lovely An Lochan Uaine – the Green Loch nestling under the steep slopes of Creag nan Gall – and on up to Ryvoan Bothy admiring the regenerating forest heading for the summits on either side. Then the steep path winding up the flanks of Meall a'Bhuachaille to the summit and a tremendous view. I've been here in sandals on hot summer days, on snowshoes in deep snow, in blizzards, and in torrential rain. I've lazed in the heather under a deep blue sky and cowered in the heather while hailstorms hammered over me. I could happily climb Meall a'Bhuachaille every week. On the desert island I'd probably have to.

Mount Whitney

Far from the Scottish Highlands in hot, sunny California  Mount Whitney, the highest mountain in the 48 contiguous US States, is much more like a peak you might find on a desert island than any in the Scottish Highlands. It lies on the eastern edge of the arid Sierra Nevada mountain range towering over the semi-desert Owens Valley across which rise desert mountains with beyond them Death Valley.

On Mount Whitney, 1982  © Chris Townsend
On Mount Whitney, 1982
© Chris Townsend

I've climbed Whitney twice, thirty-four years apart, once in snow, once in summer. On both ascents the sun shone hot and bright, as is the norm in the High Sierra. Both times I found the mountain glorious and challenging. Under snow it's an alpine peak requiring ice axe and crampons, when snowless a rock peak, harsh and hard underfoot. I can easily imagine Mount Whitney as the high point of a desert island, surrounded by a bright blue tropical sea, and perhaps with a band of dense tropical forest running round it, if that's allowed. I'd climb it regularly, sleeping out halfway up, exploring every aspect of this complex mountain.

Along the Divide  © Sandstone Press

Outdoor writer and photographer Chris Townsend has spent much of his life exploring wild places. Chris' most recent book, Along the Divide, charts his journey along the watershed of Scotland.

For more from Chris see

UKH Articles and Gear Reviews by Chris Townsend

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