The Best Worst Summit Camp

© Sarah Jane Douglas

We may run to the hills to escape the drama of daily life, but it doesn't always work out that way. For Sarah Douglas, momentous news from home casts her idyllic winter camp in a whole new light.

I'd been watching pre-Christmas forecasts for the last three days – local ones were predicting that most places toward Scotland's west coast were looking decent, but not so great over in the east. A cold weather system was moving in from Norway, dragging with it plummeting temperatures and huge dumpings of snow (in fact it got so bad on Shetland that telegraph poles were brought down and islanders were without electricity for a week).

The peace of my solitary camp is about to be shattered by a text from home...  © Sarah Douglas
The peace of my solitary camp is about to be shattered by a text from home...
© Sarah Douglas

After a bit of grovelling I managed to wangle my last day of work off as annual leave. And so, with a renewed energy, I raced home after my killer 5am shift ended. 'Oh aye, what you up to now?' my partner Paul queried, walking in on a frenzy of flying feathers as I, down on two knees, forcibly squished my sleeping bag into its stuff sack. His early arrival startled me, and while I felt a look of guilt sweep across my face he, surprisingly, lacked the withering, pained expression I was so used to seeing when he realised I was off on another camp. Interesting... and good; very good! I thought.

Sunglasses and headtorch - a classic winter combo  © Sarah Jane Douglas
Sunglasses and headtorch - a classic winter combo
© Sarah Jane Douglas

What was happening at the hospital? Why did I have to be here, on top of a freezing mountain, on an island miles and miles away?   

'I'm going to Mull first thing tomorrow and then a couple hills in Ardgour on Sunday night,' I replied. (It had been my plan to summit camp the Corbett, Dun da Ghaoithe, a month earlier to celebrate my fiftieth birthday, but the weather had been so crap I'd sacked it off.) Because of the snowy conditions I waited for the warnings about taking it easy on the roads, but Paul said nothing. Stern words are because he cares, but his silence also pleased me – an indication he perhaps now trusts me to travel safely. Or maybe he's just given up?

To be fair I do have a bit of a track record when it comes to car calamities. I've crashed a couple of times when ice has literally spun me off the road. I once also managed to fully embed my ice axe into a tyre when, of course, I was alone in an isolated glen with no mobile reception. Then there was the time I returned to my car and it refused to start at all – not much fun when you're a shivering drowned wretch over two hundred miles from home. And only last week I lost my wing mirror in a ding (not my fault) and was in such a flap when I arrived home that I reversed straight into my neighbour's car (OK, sorry about that).

Looking over to Ben Cruachan on the Mainland  © Sarah Jane Douglas
Looking over to Ben Cruachan on the Mainland
© Sarah Jane Douglas

Roads from the village where I live on the Moray Firth, and down the A82, were pretty grotty; there'd been enough snow followed by freezing temperatures to make progress slow on the slushy surface, but tree-lined sections were a winter fairytale, every branch of every tree white and sparkling, and the dense fog that hung over the lochs was atmospheric. And, actually, with no cars either behind or ahead it was a dream drive. The Loch Lochy Munros held onto cloud and had good snow coverage but, in stark contrast, the closer to Fort William the clearer the sky and barer the hills. Pure joy surged through my heart as I drove off the Corran ferry and continued along the fast empty road to the next ferry terminal at Lochaline. And by the time I arrived at Craignure on Mull the afternoon was beautiful.

I grabbed my camping pack and headed off up the track at quite a pace; but why? Other than sunset being two and a half hours away, there was no real necessity for haste. Time was my own. The tiresome sense of urgency I've had to live with my whole life annoyed me. Stopping abruptly I turned and looked at views back across the water to the mainland. The racing sensation also halted. Twin summits of Ben Cruachan were swathed in cloud, but other peaks were outlined all the way to Ben Nevis. The track continued its zig-zagging route, large chuck stones underfoot welded together with the cold. To my surprise a trio appeared; a little girl between her parents, all three wrapped warmly with scarves pulled up round their faces. The man eagerly told me there were twelve or so eagles in the bowl near the second mast, and the woman asked, 'Are you camping?' I told her I was and she added, 'I wouldn't want to be walking on the ridge in the dark, it's pretty narrow and exposed.' I smiled in acknowledgment, and carried on my way. The wind was now brisk and cold, and I felt the weight of my pack as my legs pulled me up and up.

A serpentine ridge - and it's all mine  © Sarah Jane Douglas
A serpentine ridge - and it's all mine
© Sarah Jane Douglas

Leaving the track and the huge masts behind, I at last cut off onto the hill proper. The sun never climbs very high at this time of year, and though it wasn't quite three o'clock its golden light was lowering, reaching only the tops of the higher hills. There was a bit of a path to follow, footprints having packed snow into its groove. But, like the light, the footprints dwindled too and soon it was just me and the hill. I felt reset.

Wind dropped to nothing and the air was sharp and clean as I inhaled hard, working my way over a couple of rocky ribs and steeply up. And as I emerged onto the ridge I was suddenly awarded with sensational views across a frosty landscape to beautiful shapely mountains all covered in snow and light. Happiness coursed through me. This Corbett has it all – isolation, yet proximity to other hills, and its coastal location with views spanning as far as Jura. Or is it just the right conditions for a sunset in winter that makes everything look so magical and special?

Topping out onto the ridge I am rewarded with views that stop me in my tracks  © Sarah Jane Douglas
Topping out onto the ridge I am rewarded with views that stop me in my tracks
© Sarah Jane Douglas

By the time I reached the cylindrical trig point on Mainnir nam Fiadh, there were only ten more minutes to go before sundown, and the Corbett's summit is a further kilometre away along an attractive looking ridgeline.

As if from nowhere the wind kicked up again and was bothersome as I set about pitching the tent. To and fro to the gigantic cairn I went, dislodging whichever big rocks I could, to use as weights [returned to their places the next day - leave no trace]. Most were frozen firmly in place. The wind made it feel baltic, but as quickly as it had arrived it disappeared. I threw the fly over and secured it (snapping a peg as I stamped it into frozen terrain) before realising I'd chucked it over with the door on the wrong bloody side. And of course the wind decided to suddenly return. For crying out loud! A great battle ensued and it was a relief to at last throw myself into the shelter and onto my z-lite, a welcome additional barrier against the icy snow that crunched under my knees as I pumped up my mat, vigorously, to get warm.

Calm restored, I ventured to the cairn to get the stove going, delighted with myself because I'd remembered to keep the gas canister in my pocket so it ran better, and delighted to have both a hot water bottle and hot dinner – even though I had to eat with my cleanest fingers, because I'd forgotten my spork.

A night of mixed feelings awaits...  © Sarah Jane Douglas
A night of mixed feelings awaits...
© Sarah Jane Douglas

As I stood transfixed I received a message from my youngest son. He'd arrived at hospital with his girlfriend who hadn't been keeping too well during her pregnancy. An hour later another message let me know, 'shit is going down'. Panic swept over me. Caitlin's waters were being broken and the baby was coming. It was a month too early! The wind whirled, shaking the tent violently. My mind was in overdrive, and the sense of urgency back. I was overcome with all sorts of emotion – excitement, concern, anger and guilt for being so far from home. What was I going to do?

The wind died. I sat on my mat in the tent doorway, looking at mountain shapes and staring up at stars scattered across a clear sky. What could I actually do? The first ferry off the island wasn't until morning. And even if I was home I wouldn't be allowed into the hospital anyway. It would have to be enough that I was at least on the end of a phone. With that, I briefly wondered if mobiles are more a curse than a blessing.

Even with the aid of a sleeping pill and ear pops, slumber never comes easy in a tent and, on this night, even less so. With sound muffled and eyes shut I lay in the darkness, my thoughts as turbulent as the wind that swirled and turned back on itself in fits and starts. There was a thud on my legs. My lantern had blown out of the overhead loop. I worried about the tent poles a bit, knowing it's the wind that will break them. And what was happening at the hospital? Why did I have to be here, on top of a freezing mountain, on an island miles and miles away?

Shortly after 3am I received a photo of my son's girlfriend holding a tiny bundle. Little Ruben, despite being early, had arrived into the world safe and sound. There was no better news and with that knowledge a little sleep was snatched until, at 5am, fully awake, I packed up and set off into a pristine night. Moonlight reflected off the snowy surface and I reflected on how life is an adventure. For all our complexities, for all the ups and the downs chucked in our direction, there is always hope – in whatever shape or form that takes.

Mull's sole Munro, Ben More  © Sarah Jane Douglas
Mull's sole Munro, Ben More
© Sarah Jane Douglas

T'was the Last Camp before Christmas atop the Corbett on Mull,

Where a fitful wind blew hard, before yielding brief lulls.

Moonlight reflected on new fallen snow,

Illuminating the fine, shapely mountains below.

It was up here where I, two ferries from home,

Received a most worrying text on my phone;

My son's girlfriend with child was on a hospital bed,

Emotions overwhelmed, questions filled up my head.

All through the night I fretted 'til morn,

When at last there was news that the baby was born.

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23 Jan

A lovely read, Sarah. And welcome to the world, Ruben.

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