Friday 27 October 2017

Sixty Years in the Mountains

The author (left), John Proom, Iain Robertson and another, JMCS Glencoe bus Meet, 1957.Image RNC

My first acquaintance with mountains grew from flight from the dullness of weekends at home, especially Sundays, and fed on the romance of exploring unvisited crags and finding a place in a small history.  I began with camping/hill-walking trips with friends in the Scouts, then learned to climb rocks on Craigie Barns, the little hill above Dunkeld, and soon joined the local mountaineering club in Perth. This functioned through day meets mostly. A Sunday morning bus collected us from points around town, took us to the mountains, and returned us in the late evening. Our far point on these excursions was Glencoe. 

As petrol rationing eased, and cars could be afforded, we added weekend outings to Derry Lodge in the Cairngorms and to the SMC Hut on Ben Nevis. In the school holidays I was able to reach Arran and Skye. I recall a week in Glenbrittle Lodge there in 1960 for 6 guineas all found. The publications of the SMC, and W.H. Murray’s Mountaineering in Scotland and Undiscovered Scotland defined the world I sought to master, and taught me how to behave in it.
After a few years of activity, I knew our mountains tolerably well, summer and winter, and loved them all. In a very small space, we found a great range of types of rock to climb, and mountain forms of all sorts, book-ended by the prickly Skye peaks and the rolling Grampian hills.

I felt a strong sense of ownership – a common feeling among mountaineers. It has its drawbacks. We find it difficult to tolerate others who presume to own mountains. There is always some new enemy of beauty, solitude and free movement: deer-stalking, crop forestry, hydro-electric plants, ski facilities, and now giant pylons, electric fencing, and wind-farming. How dare these ignorant Barbarian users of mountains, animated by greed rather than love, intrude and despoil!

But if you take your place in this history, you are soon drawn in to the 'politics of the environment', as Malcolm Slesser put it. I passed my 40s and 50s in Committees, Councils and Trusts, and began to see the mountaineer in a different light – the user who takes the greatest pleasure from our hills, but who pays the least for the privilege; the user who demands free access, free carparks, free footpaths and bridges, yet deplores any financial easement granted to commercial use of mountains; the user who inveighs against wind-farms, but who built the first mountain wind-turbine at 700 metres in the bosom of Ben Nevis; the user who deplores the ugliness of other mountain uses, but who – in the recesses of his garish clothing – carries a phone that defaces hilltops with masts, and a GPS navigator that pollutes the skies with satellites.

Although my perception shifted during those years, so did mountaineering. There has been a loss of virtue. We were once an elite, which embraced Percy Unna's doctrine – 'the mountains shall not be made easier or safer to climb', which preached and practised self-reliance, and accepted the price of long approaches, river-drownings and deaths from hypothermia. We are now a mob, and the mob counts life as sacred, demands deliverance, and expects to pay no price, expect perhaps the price of a Guide who will ensure our safety, and carry our luggage up the hill.

Much has changed since I started climbing mountains, but the mountains are more or less the same, and the principles that regulate acquaintance with them haven’t changed unduly: boots, anorak, map, and compass work as just as well today as they did sixty years ago. The climbers – increasingly pagan, selfish, and hypocritical – still like to hear the 121st Psalm at their funerals. They get something from the hills that other parts of their life fail to provide. For me, and for thousands of others, our regular pilgrimages to the hills remind us that there are some things that don’t change, and that shared hardship and dependence on others for company and assistance still have a place in a world dominated by easy comfort and independent living. 

The puzzle, of course, is to know how and for how long can this kernel of lasting virtue withstand the crushing effects of universal prosperity and instantaneous global communication? And how and for how long can our mountains – invested by legions of climbers, baggers, boulderers and bicyclists, and ploughed, mined and built on – retain the beauty and mystery that drew people to them two centuries ago?

Robin N Campbell: 2017

First Published in The Geographer