Thursday, 5 April 2012

The rocks of home

I was heading north now, and always most at ease when doing so, for Wester Ross, my summer paradise over forty years. Up there many of the mountains are so separate from their neighbours that they are as salient and single as Uluru or Gibraltar, Kata Tjuta or Square Butte or Masada.

So much so that Jim Crumley, most thoughtful of our wilder­ness writers, calls Suilven in Sutherland 'The Rock'. The best single Rock in all Scotland, the Soloist. . . ' The chief mountains of Wester Ross are virtually ranges, with multiple peaks — Beinn Eighe, Lia­thach, An Teallach — great saurians, or saurian families huddled against each other in their Precambrian sleep.

Beinn Eighe, a gathering of quartzite so blinding white it looks like permanent snow, is on such a scale that the three mighty rocks which gird its western face, the triple buttresses of Coire Mhic Fhearchair, are only a fraction of the massif. Their white snouts are like a range of kilns from the Potteries in their heyday. The hulks of Torridonian sandstone on which they are built are the dull red of furness embers. Layered lumps of it litter the corried floor — loaves and buns from the giant's bakery.

Corries always look to me as if they should cradle cultures. In Coire Ardair under Creag Meagaidh in north-west Perthshire, or in Birkness Combe above Buttermere, I find myself looking at each prone tablet of rock or ridge in the moor and wanting them to be doorsteps or lintels of old cottages, turf dykes round crofting townships. If red deer trot through, they are the cattle of the place. The lower lip of the corrie makes a threshold. As I cross it, it rises up behind me and peace encloses me. I have come home.

Since the last Ice Age the peace of Coire Mhic Fhearchair has been shattered once. In March 1951 a Lancaster bomber hit the face. Alloy shards still litter the scree. Pieces of fuselage shiver and chatter in the breeze. A wheel complete with tyre lies among the blaeberry and heather. In the burn an engine sits, seized solid, half-damming the flow.

Fifty years before, the first climb on Central Buttress had been led by the most magisterial of late-Victorian mountaineers — Norman Collie, a scientist of Aberdeen stock, who discovered neon and was the first person to take x-ray photographs. In those days people preferred the secure feeling inside a gully, however slimy, to the exposure out there on the rockface. Collie and his friends climbed the West Gully in snow, then traversed out left on to Central Buttress and stared up its steeps.

It struck Collie as 'A.P.' — Absolutely Perpendicular. They were so appalled that they sat down to finish off their sandwiches ('full of mustard and delightfully dry'), their prunes ('encrusted with all kinds of additional nutriment from the bottom of someone's pocket'), and their sweets ('a much-worn stick of chocolate and perhaps an acidu­lated drop'). Then they went home. They were not too appalled to come back next day and downclimb from the summit, to the cairn they had built to commemorate their lunch, before escaping into the gully.

Since that time ways have been found up the terraced labyrinth of the sandstone. For years I'd been toiling up and down the grating white screes above, swinging along the great loops of the skyline above the Golgotha of waterless corries to the north, even psyching myself to climb alone up the easiest line on Central Buttress one balmy July in the late 'seventies. Thunderous rains set in just in time to spare me the mortification of finding out that I had not the bottle to take on that 350-metre precipice by my own little self. Today, climbing it with Bill Birkett from Little Langdale on a day of Mediterranean warmth, I was comfortable, almost at home inside this maze of ramps and grooves. The huge quietude of the corrie, the air-space expanding away unbroken between Liathach and Beinn Dearg towards the blue berg of Harris beyond the Minch — it was all fusing into a tranquillity that brimmed up from the footsoles to the mind like water from the aquifer filling a well.

The sandstone is fine-grained, so old (about 750 million years) that it doesn't rub off as dust. As for the polar reaches above, the great blanched citadel, that was still not real, still a tract of some further continent refracted inside our present horizon like a mirage. The pio­neers here, very aptly, were Yorkshire gritstone climbers called Pigott and Wood. They climbed it in rain and 'longed ardently for sunshine. rubbers [gymshoes], and a stout heart, for the prospect of, say, six consecutive gritstone "almost impossibles" ' was almost too much for them. They felt at home, though, and the shapes of the rock kept reminding me too of Yorkshire. One airy stride-and-sidle on to a ramp up a ten-metre face was the image of a climb with the perfect name of Fishladder on Earl Crag near Bingley.

The sandstone foundation at last gave way to the quartzite super­structure. We strolled along a narrow garden ankle-deep in dewy grasses and clumps of thrift. The joint between brown rock and white was so distinct I could lay my finger along it and touch both simul­taneously, spanning the Paleozoic and the Proterozoic. Why ever leave this pleasance? Why not loll here as the sun moves out over the ocean and feast on this mountainscape, on its colossal volumes that arrange and rearrange themselves in my mind, or rearrange my mind, like fundamental sculpture? Yet again the upward imperative asserts itself. We must reach, reach. Up there, always, contentment waits.

Right here, a large ice-coloured shield — like some piece left untouched in the marble quarry at Altissimo near Forte dei Marmi used by Michelangelo and Moore — asks to be laybacked. Followed by another, and another and another. After seven of these I'm thirty metres above the terrace and not one foot of support below me is integral. 'The blocks hereabouts seem to rely mainly on mutual under­standing for their support' (Fred Pigott). Ahh well — each piece weighs, what, half a ton? We couldn't lever them off if we tried. Or so I tell myself, and at the tenth or fifteenth telling it has sunk in, helped by the exact horizontals of the strata, which mean that each piece has a dead-level foot set on the dead-level top of the one below.

Nothing can go wrong. After these hours of inhabiting the air, or the edge of the air, climbing has become slow-motion flying. When Bill joins me at a stance, he instantly sets off upwards, quartzite fragments and fibres of dried moss scudding under his feet. `Don't you want the gear, Bill?' I call after him. `Too heavy,' and up he goes. Soon the rope's red stem is the only sign that human life exists in the upper reaches of this narrowing tapering buttress.

This face should never end. There seems to be the entire passage of the sun's day in it, or the complete sequence of the year's benign half from equinox to equinox. At the finish I'm so thirsty and weary I lie flat on my back and let my vision lose itself in the fading blue above. To replace the sweat that day I drank a gallon of burn-water, still cold in its runnels of peat and stone beneath the heather.

Fifteen kilometres west-south-west lies Diabaig, my favourite place, a village whose harbour is ringed with rock, backed by glowing crags three hundred metres high, mouth facing out to the northern end of Skye with the Old Man of Storr erect on his mountainside. The Diabaig crofts, on slopes of Alpine steepness, are no longer worked and the village almost died. Then it renewed itself with money hard-earned at the Kishorn oil-rig dock and the salmon farm between the harbour and a deserted headland called Araid. From here I can't see those dear places, but I know they are there, the ways across to them and back through time to my family's seasons there feel as tangible as the sequences of footholds and handholds which have brought me to this spot.

David Craig