From wet pants to vanishing views - hillwalking is supposed to be uplifting, yet so often the sunny uplands of our imagination turn out to be dank, dismal and uncomfortable. Why will no-one admit it? John Burns has uncovered the hard way the truths 'they' failed to warn him of.
I am utterly and profoundly miserable as I descend the Lairig Ghru, heading for the Linn of Dee in the heart of the Cairngorms. Snow has been driven into my face for hours and my chest is coated in a centimetre of icy slush. As I lose altitude the snow turns to rain and penetrates every crevice of my body.
Now I experience the ultimate in humiliation as water seeps into my underwear. For hours I have been trying to convince myself that, despite the conditions, I am dry. Now I am forced to admit, as my genitals are caressed by trickles of water like the icy fingers of the Grim Reaper, that I am soaked to the skin.
I passed a cattle-shelter an hour ago trudging towards the little wood that marks the car park which is my goal. Peering from beneath my hood I notice that, despite walking for an hour, the cattle shelter is no further away and the wood no closer.
What am I doing in this miserable hell? And why? Then I remember; I'm enjoying myself.
Forty years ago, I told my mother I was starting hillwalking. She was delighted, hoping that the outdoors would turn her psychedelic, long-haired, hippy son into the rugged lumberjack she longed to see. She rushed off to local jumble sales to find woollen underwear and other manly clothing, hoping that this would protect me from everything the weather could produce. Her eyes shone with excitement as she told me what good exercise it would be, how I would see dramatic views and meet exciting people. Family, friends and acquaintances all enthusiastically concurred. The hills would be the making of me.
Over the years since I have learnt, the hard way, that they didn't know anything whatsoever about a life wandering the mountains. Here are the things they should have warned me about.
Open any magazine or walk in to an outdoor shop and what do you see? Geographical pornography. Images of slim happy people striding through the mountains grinning like baboons. Oh, and they are dry, they are always dry so, so very dry. No soggy underpants for these jolly hill goers. Not one drop of that cold, wet stuff that at this very moment is tickling my unmentionables ever touches their skin. Whenever the pushers of outdoor equipment admit to the existence of rain, it's shown rolling like silvery jewels off the clothing of happy hill goers.
1. They never told me that, in forty years on the hill, I'd be wet most of the time.
I put on the woollen underwear my mother bought me from jumble sales and it itched like fury and every second step I took was punctuated by frantic scratching. I didn't know it at the time but those early days on the hill were merely an introduction to a lifetime of discomfort. Since then boots have ripped my heels to shreds and given me blisters on every toe and filled with so much water I could open a swimming pool. Rain has run down my neck, up my sleeves, condensation has soaked my back. Hillwalking has meant a lifetime of discomfort that continues even when I am asleep, turning my dreams into nightmares. I've slept in huts crammed with farting Germans, on bare floorboards in draughty bothies and been frozen solid on the concrete steps of remote railway platforms. All that, of course, only encompasses the periods I've spent enjoying the comfort of a man-made shelter, it excludes endless nights in that living hell that is camping. You wouldn't force your dog to sleep in a tent, and yet it's sold as a wholesome activity for hearty humans.
2. Why did nobody say that hillwalking is inherently uncomfortable?
'The scenery will be magnificent!' they said. Looking back, I remember the countless times I've slogged for hours up some hill to arrive, gasping and sweating, at a heap of stones which is the zenith of hours of suffering known as the summit. Desperately trying to gain some reward I peer into the distance, awaiting that fleeting glimpse into immortality known as 'the view.' It's at this moment that the clouds which have been lurking just over the horizon pounce, and the only view becomes a wall of mist. Even when the clouds part the only thing I see is another mountain almost identical to the one I'm standing on.
I now realise that one mountain looks very much like another. If you've seen one, you've seen them all. If you want to stare in awe at a great big pile of mud and rock there is no need to walk up it yourself, Google it. Get a photograph from someone else who has manged to capture the perfect image and done all that inconvenient walking business for you.
3. They forgot to point out what was staring them in the face: the only view from most tops is the grey mist before your eyes.
I'm beginning to wonder why anyone would want to go near hills. Well, many years ago, an ageing aristocrat, Sir Hugh Munro, who had nothing better to do, counted all the Scottish hills over three thousand feet. He discovered, much to his astonishment, that rather than the thirty odd he expected to find there were nearly three hundred mounds of earth sticking up above this imaginary line in the sky. All would have been fine if he'd kept the list to himself and gone off to shoot some defenceless animal, which is what most of his aristocratic friends got up to (and still do). But no, he publishes the damned thing - and once there's a list, well it just has to be ticked off, doesn't it? Just think of the hours of misery Sir Hugh caused his fellow brethren of the hills. If you complete all the lumps over three thousand feet you can actually have your name added to a list of other people who also had nothing better to do. That's right, you become part of another list. Achievement duly logged, it's then time to get stuck into your Corbetts / Marilyns / Donalds / Wainwrights / Humps / Trig points / county high points / hills beginning with A / seventh Munro round, and so on ad neuseum...
4. I was never made aware that there would be lists. Oh, so many lists.
When I think of all the hours I have spent travelling to the hills, walking up them and then walking down, I am struck by the colossal waste of time. In all that time I could have done something useful. Perhaps it would have been nice to recite the bible in Chinese; I could have studied to be an architect, I could have mastered the trombone and entertained my neighbours in the early hours of the morning. I might even have written a book. Instead of which I spent every weekend and holiday in the middle of nowhere doing something totally pointless. I trudged bogs, lumbered damply up mountains, only to end up back where I started.
5. Walking for fun is an almighty waste of time. Who knew? Well, everyone, secretly.
My mother told me hill walking would be good for me, that there would be fresh air and exercise. These days when I kneel down, there is a searing pain in my knee joint that reminds me of every faltering step I ever took on the hills. Years of plodding over mountains has reduced the cartilage in my legs to rubble. I had hoped that walking on the hills might keep me at a nice slim healthy weight. My mother didn't explain that after a day on the hills, the moment I reached any kind of civilisation (or Fort William - whichever comes first) I'd be heading for the nearest junk food outlet, and with the appetite of several starving lions proceed to shovel down my throat enough calories and cholesterol to kill half of Glasgow.
6. Someone should have admitted the obvious: hillwalking is bad for you.
You puff up the hill, sweating, swearing and grunting for hours. Suddenly there before you the summit beckons. Only a few more steps and you will have reached the sweet spot where you can, at last, sit down, and perhaps even experience the intense pleasure of eating a couple of squashed cheese and pickle sandwiches, safe in the knowledge that all that awful uphill climbing is over. You arrive at the summit you can see only to realise that, obscured from view until that very moment, the rest of the hill rises above you like a metaphorical perpendicular finger promising that hours of torture still remain. This soul crushing disappointment goes on interminably. By the time you finally reach the real summit itself you are already heartily sick of the whole expedition, and just long to be home by the fire.
7. The truth, to miss-quote Alastair Borthwick, is that it's always further than you think.
You've reached the top! Hoorah for you! Now all you have to do is get back down, and that'll be so much easier than all that uncomfortable climbing uphill business. Wrong! The reality is a knee jarring, ankle twisting, foot slipping nightmare that is every bit as hard as the climb up, and in many ways even worse. You never know when your next step will plunge you headlong into a peat bog or result in ankle twisting agony which ends with an unexpected helicopter ride. As everyone knows, most accidents happen in descent. That's because on the way down a great many people lose the will to live.
8. The enthusiasts always fail to mention that going down is worse than going up.
Another thing they omitted to explain is that, in the brief humid period between hurricane force winds and icy blasts laughingly called summer, every creature that can fly, walk, crawl or slither will do its level best to take a chunk out you. Midges alone have probably eaten my entire bodyweight several times over. There is nothing on the entire planet as annoying as midges. I would happily face a charging Rhino rather than encounter a swarm of those evil little spawn of Satan. And when the midges aren't biting then the next shift of deer flies, horseflies or ticks take over just to make sure that enough blood is removed from you to keep the Highland vampires well supplied.
9. It would have been nice to be warned: there is always something out to get you.
But let's cut to the chase. The last thing they failed to mention was that I'd become an addict to this game. That it would change my life. That all my friends would be hillwalkers. That my dreams would be full of hillwalking and mountains. That I'd fall in love with the outdoors and be compelled to return time and time again to the hills. They never told me that both the worst and the very best moments of my life would be amongst the mountains.
10. Nobody said the hills would enrich my life beyond measure. They knew I'd have to find that out for myself.
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