In her writing, Sarah Jane Douglas explores love, loss and the redemptive power of hills. Here she gets re-grounded by a solo camp on Skye.
Life is a journey of peaks and troughs – peaks are easy, it's the troughs that are hard to navigate. Though I can sink to unfathomable depths of doom, being a mother pulls me back from the edge – my sons are instrumental in bringing out the happiness from within me. These boys give me purpose in life. But hillwalking sees me through too.
When problems begin to weigh, mountain walking and the views they offer remind me that the world is a beautiful place.
Serendipity. The weather is half decent. I've been itching to summit camp on Sgurr na Stri for ages, and decide the time is now. It's exactly twenty-two years since my Mum died, and two years since I finished my own cancer treatments.
I love the drive to Skye. Music playing through my speaker, I admire the presence of autumn as leaves swirl down from trees that line each side of the road. I suddenly feel an injection of joy – and I've not even started walking yet!
At 1.30pm I heave on my pack and leave the parked car. It's not long before noise and civilisation is behind me on the walk deeper into the glen. All I now hear is my feet connecting with the stony trail and the creak and groan of my pack. Inside it is my down mat, sleeping bag and silk liner, a spare top, winter down jacket, food, 2750ml of water and 500ml of milky hot chocolate, my headtorch and spare batteries, she-pee, wet-wipes, map, compass, gloves, ipod, ear-plugs, a pen I'm not going to use, my good Nikon camera and my two-man, four-season tent. It is a veritable shit-tonne of weight. I'll feel this in the morning.
After several kilometres I reach the end of the watershed. On my left, Blaven's Western face looks impregnable. To my right the Cuillin Ridge, Sgurr nan Gillean's spires and Am Bastier's tooth looking all Tolkienesque.
Ahead. I contemplate the path winding uphill and think, aww maaan.... and then I laugh, because, actually, I'm in my bloody element.
The route is straightforward and it's awesome to be on a good path. Although I haven't caught sight of another human I'm spotting pretty fresh looking footprints in boggier stretches. 'I really hope I'm not sharing the summit with someone,' I say to myself. In fact, I say this out loud every time I spot a print and make up stories about whose they could be. I stop for a bar before starting the up. It gives me an extra boost to reach the Druim Hain ridge – the view from here down to Loch Coruisk is finger-licking good and another surge of joy courses through me. What excitement. I yap away to myself.
'No doubt about it. Fresh air and exercise help alleviate depression, stress and anxiety. Like, the slog up is hard, but once I get the ridge and reach the peak – man those endorphins, what reward! A natural high!' I say. It's absolutely true. All trace of internal conflict is erased. Up on the hills I don't seek out acceptance or feel the need to be understood. I'm just happy being here.
The path leads up to the col below Sgurr na Stri's western summit. It's 5pm and I'm delighted. The mountain is mine alone! I relieve my back of its load and spring about the top looking for a suitable place to pitch.
There's a small stone wall beneath the summit – perfect for a bivvy, but not big enough for my tent. However, I throw my tent up close by. Pegs drive into the ground securely which makes me feel happy that I won't blow over the cliff if the wind picks up. Organised. I take my dinner and sit on the edge of nothing in the stillness. Darkness isn't far away.
Life is about balance. Without the rough there can be no smooth
Looking out over the water I see stark outlines of Eigg, Rum and Mull. I see the flash of a lighthouse (I think?) and I feel totally separated from life below. From the summit the last of the setting sun's rays cast their warm glow on the tip of Blaven and outlying hills. Loch Coruisk and the Cuillins appear otherworldly in deep shades of indigo and blue.
The tent is my shelter but this whole place feels like my own personal sanctuary. It's as close to heaven as you can get. I take my flask to the summit and raise a hot chocolate toast to my mum. Aero bubbles dissolve in my mouth and warmth rushes into my core. I'm immersed in the beauty of the natural world around me, feeling grateful to be fit enough and healthy enough to appreciate all this wonder.
I'm mucking about on my phone in the tent when I hear a plaintive cry somewhere out there in the dark, dark night. A noise that sounds like a wolf-bird or something. It would have creeped me out if I'd been anywhere else – well, anywhere near humans.
Wind outside makes the tent fabric flap loudly. I listen to tunes on my ipod. Lies. I listen to Lost Without You on repeat and think about Mum. The lyrics resonate and memories flash. Wrapped in my sleeping bag I shuffle to the tent door and unzip just enough for my head to stick through. I stare onto the mountain shadow shapes and I look up into the inky night. The hills are my safe haven now, and my memories keep me company.
I feel a drop of rain on my face and then another. I suck my head back inside and lie down. Sleep comes but I wake at midnight. I poke my head out the tent again. Too cloudy for stars but I breathe in the night air and enjoy being here. I feel incredibly present on the mountain. This place has captured my heart.
At 6am I see Orion and the Plough, then a shooting star and a satellite. Perfect.
Light doesn't begin to creep in from the east till well after 7.30am. I tear myself away at 9.30am, descending the ridge carefully. Aware of my heavy pack. Aware I didn't sleep much. Aware I'm distracted by the Cuillins and loch. Aware I could stumble more easily. Black rock is wet and I skid anyway. Jaysus! I don't want to end up like Captain Maryon, I think. I take a small detour to check out the memorial built by his friend. I read that the Captain's dead body lay here, on this spot, undiscovered for nearly two years. Still, if you're gonna die, what a place to go. I wonder about the Captain, and then I leave.
Trekking back along the glen I pass a lone walker, then two. In total I count sixteen day trippers. I feel lucky and privileged to have had the mountain all to myself for as long as I did. Leaden cloud smothers Sgurr nan Gillean's spires. I see the rain coming and feel luckier still – I'm going to get a bit wet, but nothing near the utter soaking the poor sods I passed are in for. Haw haw. 'But feeling uncomfortable is a good thing,' I say out loud, 'because then you appreciate it even more when you are comfortable.'
Life is about balance. Without the rough there can be no smooth. When problems begin to weigh, mountain walking and the views they offer remind me that the world is a beautiful place. Nature gives me hope. Nature reminds me what is really important in this world. And I think the best things in life truly are free: exercise in the fresh air, family love and laughter, good health, memories, seeing the sun as it rises and sets – and tonight a good night's sleep!
Just Another Mountain
Sarah Jane Douglas
In 1997, at the age of 24, Sarah lost her mother to breast cancer. Alone and adrift in the world, she very nearly gave up hope - but she'd made a promise to her mother that she would keep going no matter what. So she turned to the beautiful, dangerous, forbidding mountains of her native Scotland.
By walking in her mother's footsteps, she learns to accept her own troubled past, finding the strength to overcome her grief - and, ultimately, to carry on in the face of her own diagnosis twenty years later. Searingly honest and utterly relatable, bringing the exhilarating triumphs and challenges of mountain walking to life with wit, charm and raw candour, Just Another Mountain is a story of hope and redemption, of a mother and a daughter, and of how we can learn both to live and to love. Sometimes all you can do is put one foot in front of the other... and just keep walking.
- The paperback is out early 2020. You can buy the book here