Weighed by the heavy burden of climate change, and the ecological poverty of the mountains he loves, Alex Roddie takes a long walk from despair to hope.
These days, when I go hillwalking or backpacking in the Scottish mountains, I can't help but see the damage. Was I happier all those years ago, enjoying those magical first few seasons of mountaineering almost completely oblivious of the ecological degradation, the vanished habitats, the impact of climate change? To be honest, yes. In the intervening years I've acquired a bit more of an ecological education. Would I go back to that state of blissful ignorance? No, even though knowledge of what we have lost can be a heavy burden.
In May 2019, during a heatwave, I found myself on the summit of Stob a' Choire Odhair about an hour after dawn, roasting under a fierce sun. Below me, heat haze shimmered and danced over Rannoch Moor's countless lochans. This backpacking trip over the Munros of the Blackmount west towards Glen Etive was supposed to be a shakedown hike for my upcoming Pyrenean Haute Route, so I'd come equipped for hot and dry conditions. My incredibly stylish desert-style hat was already proving its worth in protecting my ears and neck. I've never quite been able to wear it in the UK and keep a straight face, but for once it felt like the right hat for the job.
I should have been leaping for joy. I was high on a Scottish peak in flawless early summer weather, with a long, classic traverse over some of the finest hills in the West Highlands ahead of me. And I was looking forward to it – especially to the wild camp on the ridge that evening. But my head buzzed with anxiety, doubt and confusion.
Although I'm wary of glorifying pristine wilderness that has probably not existed for thousands of years, I find it hard to hike in the Highlands without a constant sadness
Heatwaves, of course, do come along every now and again, even in soggy Scotland. This time felt different. This time I had started to notice a pattern coming together over my last few trips to the mountains, and though this was far too patchy and circumstantial to mean anything at all, anxiety doesn't care about logic.
In February, I'd hiked the Cape Wrath Trail, the classic long-distance hike from Fort William to Cape Wrath. Winter is a hard time of year for the CWT. I'd gone equipped with ice axe, crampons, snow shoes, and winter camping gear, but winter vanished after the first few days and it never came back. On the 12th of February I sent my snow shoes home. On the 15th I was hiking in sunglasses and sweating in my base layer. On the 27th, after a week of summery conditions, my camp was invaded by hundreds of ticks. I started to wish I'd packed gear and clothing more appropriate for summer than winter. Most of all, though, I felt desperately alarmed. Although the plural of anecdote is not data, I knew that something was wrong.
Route notes: A big multi-day walk with lots of up and down, some straightforward ungraded scrambling, and much steep rough ground. A few pathless sections will test nav skills in poor visibility. Most walkers will take two days in summer conditions, but this is a perfect route for a backpacking weekend – once up high, there are almost limitless opportunities for wild camping spots. In typical summer conditions there are several places where it's possible to collect water. In winter it will be a considerably more serious undertaking.
Transport: This is an ideal walk to do by public transport (which is how the author did it). Bridge of Orchy, where the route starts and finishes, is served by regular trains and buses. For more information see Traveline Scotland.
Back on the silent ridges of the Blackmount, after a brief siesta I decided to crack on. The Aonach Eagach is arguably the best bit of the whole ridge – no, not that Aonach Eagach, but the shorter, less difficult one attached to Stob Ghabhar, the next peak on my itinerary. Approaching from the east, this scrambly ridge offers a great route to the summit with plenty of easy scrambling interest. It felt good to reach for holds and feel the dynamic poise and balance of scrambling once again. There were even a few decent snow wreaths hanging on beneath Stob Ghabhar's east face, which helped to keep my anxieties at bay for a little while. Despite the unseasonal heat, it looked like a May day in the Highlands should look: snow, sun, scrambling. The good stuff.
My positive mood didn't last. After taking in those incredible views from Stob Ghabhar's summit, the real work of my route began: a very long, not particularly interesting ridge west towards Meall nan Eun. The heat kept building. Barely a breeze stirred the grass at my feet, which was so dry that with every crunching footstep I picked up fragments of dead vegetation that clung Velcro-like to my socks. I'm usually one to appreciate silence in the mountains, but this time it unnerved me. No wind, no birds, no life of any kind – not even midges. I paused and listened. Nothing. My own heartbeat thudded in my ears. Is this what a dead landscape sounds like? I wondered. The previous time I'd been on this ridge there had at least been a golden plover, keeping watch on my progress as if an emissary from the living world; this time, absolutely nothing.
Although I'm wary of glorifying pristine wilderness that has probably not existed for thousands of years, I find it hard to hike in the Highlands without a constant low-key sadness accompanying me now. Deer-nibbled landscapes support hunting lifestyles and few jobs. Grouse moors are even worse. Birds of prey are poisoned and shot over grouse moors, just one tragedy in a long, sad history of wildlife slaughter. There are, of course, places of great hope, such as the Beinn Eighe pinewoods, Glen Feshie, and a few other refuges. But on that day, walking through a treeless and silent landscape in the oppressive glare of the hottest sun I could remember feeling on a Scottish hill, the memory of a poor winter just behind me, my own hope for the future was at its lowest ebb. Bears and wolves be damned – at that moment I'd have settled for a single lousy blackbird.
After the big descent from Meall Odhar and the long pull up to the out-and-back summit of Meall nan Eun, I was starting to feel frazzled and thirsty. At my last water top-up, I'd scraped barely a litre from the shallow brown pool surrounded by cracked mud. I had about half a litre left in my reserve platy. The map showed small burns and a cluster of pools beneath the next peak, and I decided to fully tank up when I got there.
The barren and rocky hollow beneath the north face of Stob Coir' an Albannaich felt like a special place, touched by a hint of the fairy dust that seems to make certain crags, certain corries, light up in the memory. Vast slabs angled down from a frowning brow of rock where beds of snow clung on against the heat. The contrast was too dazzling to look at for more than a moment or two. As I dropped down to the boulder-strewn bealach, squinting for the flash of sunlight on water, I heard the footsteps of another walker nearby. Soon I saw a reddened face coming up the path towards me.
'There's a bit of water down there,' the hiker said. 'My Sawyer filter's clogged, mind. It's so shallow I keep scooping up mud.'
'What about the streams?' I said.
'Dry. Have a good one.'
Soon enough, after jumping over the empty streambeds I was clogging my own filter.
My halt for the night on the top of Meall nan Tri Tighearnan had all the ingredients of a fine wild camp, but I found myself troubled. Sunset's afterglow still filtered through the fabric of my shelter. With the door zipped shut, I could have been anywhere, and for a minute or two I imagined that I was already in the Pyrenees. But the illusion didn't come as easily as it had under the blazing sun earlier in the day. That silence had grown and grown. Not the rich, attentive silence of genuine solitude when immersed in nature, but the numb silence of a pillaged ecology – or so it seemed to me then. There are far more nature-depleted places in the UK than the Western Highlands, but that day it felt as if nature were holding its breath.
My first mission for day two was to find more water. Ben Starav, as good as it looked in the morning light, would not be on my agenda; I had sights set on Beinn nan Aighenan, an outlier from the main ridge that would act as a stepping stone back to Glen Kinglass and the long valley walk to Bridge of Orchy. The breeze felt cool on my cheek as I dropped down to the bealach and scooped up another bottle full of water from a shrinking pool. My filter was now so clogged with sediment that it took about five minutes to force the water through this time – quite the workout.
Beinn nan Aighenan's north-west ridge turned out to be a sporting little climb. The path was faint enough to add a feeling of remoteness to the ascent as it weaved a cunning route between outcrops. Looking back, Ben Starav looked like a Mountain with a capital 'M', while below me the River Kinglass trickled through a bare landscape of peat and heather, the erosion channel of every tributary picked out in sharp relief by the low-angled sun. I could see no trees at all. Everything was a faded sepia almost completely without colour.
Birch, rowan, thorn, diminutive oaks and ancient gnarled pines sprouted from the banks between overgrown cliffs – a vertical paradise that the deer couldn't reach
The descent from Beinn nan Aighenan's summit took me into pathless terrain. I descended east into a shallow corrie I imagined would be boggy in any other weather, and the small burn I began to follow downhill was silent and dry in its upper reaches, just a funnel of rock slabs lined by mats of desiccated moss. Eventually I picked up a faint stalker's path, and that's when I started to see evidence of life returning to the land. It started with no more than a dribble of water in the shade beneath boulders. Soon I began to see the curling lime-green tongues of butterwort poking out from patches of damp earth. Then I heard it: the call of a cuckoo.
The sound came from a blaze of green suddenly visible in the midst of the bleached and monochrome slopes. It was a gorge filled with life. Above the sporadic haunting call of the cuckoo I began to hear constant birdsong, echoing and ghostly yet at once hopeful, and as I looked into the treetops I saw branches shivering with birds of all kinds. Finches chattered. A raven croaked. Birch, rowan, thorn, diminutive oaks and ancient gnarled pines sprouted from the banks between overgrown cliffs – a vertical paradise that the deer couldn't reach. In the bottom of the ravine I saw water leap from pool to pool between beds of mosses, ferns and heather. Dead wood lay where it had fallen, creating habitats for invertebrates. I'd found an oasis in the desert.
As I walked on, my heart felt infinitely lighter. I carried that birdsong with me. As our climate changes and biodiversity faces mounting threats, it can be all too easy to feel hopeless from time to time – especially when alone on a silent hill in a heatwave, wondering if this is a vision of the world to come. But the future isn't written yet. Wildness still exists. If we make the right choices, we could help to turn things around and build a future with the needs of wildlife and nature at its heart. Perhaps in a hundred years hikers will wander along the ridge west from Stob Ghabhar and look down on a rich patchwork of regenerating woodland, browsed by elk, where lynx stalk deer in the shadows and capercaillies lek in glades that don't even exist today. So now, when the knowledge of what we have lost conspires with bad news about the environment to provoke anxiety or coax despair, that's the vision I try to hold in my mind. That's the future we could have – if we choose it.
About the author
Alex Roddie is an award-winning outdoor writer and professional editor who writes about mountains, long-distance backpacking, and the environment. He helps aspiring authors craft books about the great outdoors, and blogs at www.alexroddie.com. He's currently writing a book about backpacking the Cape Wrath Trail in winter, due to be published by Vertebrate Publishing.
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