The Last Hillwalker is a book by frequent UKH contributor John Burns that explores the relationship between man and nature, our evolving attitudes to the hills, and the way we push the envelope ever-further in a bid to know and understand these wild places.
The book is set against social and cultural background of 1970s and 80s; progressive rock, punk, Thatcher and John Lennon. Mountaineering may be seen as the antidote to all that, but memories of growing up among the hills are also intermingled with their broader culture. John Burns shares his years on the mountains, be that first forays in the Lake District, or a first trip walking the Pennine Way. There are tales of nights in the pub, drinking, and of the old 'lights out at 10' brand of hostel which has since disappeared from hill-going culture altogether.
The Last Hillwalker tells a series of stories from John's long and varied walking and climbing career, progressing to the Alps, ice climbing in Canada and his participation in the Cairngorm Mountain Rescue Team. To this end, the book title perhaps doesn't tell the whole story – the book is about more than just walking. It concerns somebody who first discovers hillwalking and then moves toward climbing - perhaps as a means of enhancing their experience of the hills. The book is a reflection of all of us who use the the hills recreationally, and develop a bond to them, sometimes so close it drives us to live among them.
For all the shared experiences and camaraderie, there is a deeper story being told. The book is a celebration of the hills, but it also asks what happens when life moves on and the candle fades? What happens when we burn out? What happens when we've accomplished our goals, defined ourselves, and in the process, lost the wonder of the expanding horizon that greeted us when we started out? It's a long sabbatical for John Burns, but in this book you sense a rekindled passion for his life long love.
Living and working, as he does, out of the Inverness area, the hills are never far away. And to those that have been entranced by them at some point in life, the connection never entirely breaks. Mountaineering, walking or climbing at their purest are an interaction with a nature greater than we can really appreciate. For all the goal-orientated ways that we organise our lives and our time on the hills, we may as easily walk into a remote glen at last light and find a spot on an open hillside upon which to spend the night. There we might find a sky ablaze with stars, a view unbroken to the far end of the Milky Way. Then to doze off; and awaken later to the dawn-flushed sky and skeletal hills.
This book takes you on a journey of discovery from early beginnings. As a school boy in the Lake District, John travelled on to make an early walk along the Pennine Way only a handful of years after this long-distance path was opened. From there he began exploring the hills in winter and journeyed north to the Scottish Highlands where he discovered a new world to explore.
There are encounters with ferocious ice climbs on the north face of Ben Nevis. There is an ascent of the highest mountain in Europe and accounts of his time in the Cairngorm Mountain Rescue team. There are also hilarious accounts of New Year's Eve riotous celebrations in Highland villages where time ceased to have any meaning.
Now John travels the remotest parts of the Highlands where he enjoys the tranquillity of bothies in the wildest areas of Britain. This book will appeal to anyone with an interest in the outdoors. It is the history of a whole generation's exploration of the hills.
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