John Burn’s ‘The Last Hillwalker’ has been out for a while now but only recently dropped through my letterbox. Currently still sitting pretty in the Amazon ebooks best seller list, the author's well received mountaineering reflections prove that you don’t have to be a Krakuer, Kirkpatrick or a Bonington to pen something which will capture the imagination of the the great outdoors reader. I guess that’s down to the fact that the author is very much a mountaineering man of the people. A gifted journeyman whose mountain experiences fall within the orbit of 80% of the climbing, hillwalking fraternity. For me, that’s a refreshing change from the writing which tends to dominate the outdoor publishing market. Desperate Dan doing desperate things in desperate environments! That genre of outdoor writing is entertaining enough in the same way a James Bond movie can be mildly diverting, but in the word’s of Morrissey..’ The songs that they constantly play, say nothing to me about my life’. For the great majority of readers, the author’s mountain life and experiences will strike a chord and those frustrations, triumphs and emotions will be all too familiar.
John Burns was a name that I was familiar with without knowing much about him. I’d seen the name crop up in the Twittersphere and on social media platforms without having much of a clue what his bag was so to speak. I knew he was based in Scotland so imagined a rugged Highlander who gained his spurs hacking up remote cliffs with a Slater's hammer and home made crampons. A smouldering tab hanging from gritted teeth framed within an ice crusted beard. Turns out that the author and I have more in common than I thought. A fellow Merseysider-albeit from the wrong side of the river- of a similar vintage and whose early footsteps into the great outdoors chimed with my own. The ill fitting clothing from Army and Navy suppliers, Boots guaranteed to inflict maximum pain . Tents which offered as much protection from the elements as Geisha’s bamboo umbrella.
And then there were the adventures.Those triumphs of hope over experience. Biting off more than you can chew and putting yourself and your unfortunate partner into situations where just staying alive becomes the ultimate aim and any thoughts of a simple fun day out spirals into chaos. But somehow, for most of us, we survived and lived to tell the tale, and it’s those triumphs and near tragedies which underpin The Last Hillwalker.
As you would expect, the early chapters describe how a gauche schoolboy slowly found his way into the world of mountain activities. The secondary school fellwalking and hosteling trips where in contrast to the stultifying restrictions and limitations placed on youth outdoor activities today by a zealous Nanny State, allowed youngsters an incredible amount of freedom and leeway. Hard to imagine today, a geography teacher propping up the bar while his charges set off alone and with limited experience on a lengthy mountain excursion that finishes in the dark!
In the intervening years since the freedom enjoyed by youngsters in the 1970‘s, outdoor education has either disappeared completely as cash strapped LEA’s sell off their mountain centres, or is so tightly managed and controlled by organisations who live in constant fear of litigation, as to make the experience an outdoor equivalent to painting by numbers.
But back to the book; the experience gained through these school excursions gave the author the confidence to tackle his first big outdoor challenge. The long distance Pennine Way which in those days really was a journey into hell! The cloying peat mud that could suck a divers boot off a misplaced foot, the seemingly endless rain, the miserable walker unfriendly villages that in contrast to today, treated scruffy young walkers as potential criminals.“ Mrs Pennyhassett... Call the police! ’.
Successfully completing the 280 mile route as a teenager in the 70‘s was truly a right of passage which announced that the author had arrived as a serious mountain man!
The freedom enjoyed by those who took their first mountain steps in the 1970‘s inevitably developed a ‘give it a go’ mentality, and for those like the author, fortunate enough to go to University, this attitude allied to the opportunities presented through Uni mountaineering clubs opened up new horizons. Offering the opportunity to develop new skills in new vistas like the Alps or Scottish mountains where the joys of rock and ice climbing were quickly learnt and exploited to the full.
Throughout the early chapters, the author counter balances his growing passion for the great outdoors with the social and political events at home. The 70‘s were after all a time of great upheaval in the UK with strikes, collapsing governments, three day weeks, the developing conflict in Ireland and mass unemployment. It is against this sombre backdrop that the author found escape in the hills. With Uni behind him he entered the Social Work profession and left Merseyside behind to further his career in Leicester before the opportunity arose for him to high tail it out of England and take a position in Inverness.
With the great Scottish ranges on his doorstep, it provided a wonderful opportunity to develop his winter skills and experiences. It was no surprise then that the author should eventually join a Highland mountain rescue team. Balancing a career with the social services with a mountain life is no mean feat and it was no surprise that as we enter a new century, the middle aged activist eventually steps off the gas. As relationships, family commitments and a peeling away of old comrades takes place. Something the single, childless activist cannot appreciate. Just how difficult it is to continue an active mountain life at the same level once a partner and children come on to the scene. For many a middle aged climber, they can continue their activity albeit to a lesser degree. However, many just gradually give up climbing and hillwalking altogether with many taking up new hobbies like the current craze for road biking.
By the time the author had hit his 50‘s, the mountain flame that once burned so brightly begins to take on a different hue. Those activities begin to take on a more mundane course as he finds himself guiding low level walks for the elderly and disabled. As his confidence and enthusiasm for hard core mountain activities diminishes, a new chapter begins. The writer discovers he has a talent for live performance and develops a career in stand up comedy and eventually as a thespian. Developing a one man drama surrounding ‘The Great Beast’...himself...Aleister Crowley. Mountaineer, libertarian, dark arts practitioner and all round bad egg! Well...at least according to The Daily Mail who labelled him,'The Wickedest Man in England!' The author is blessed in his role as Crowley by sharing his physical characteristics and quickly finds himself playing to sell out crowds up and down the country.
At the same time, he slowly rediscovers his passion for the mountains by reacquainting himself with that most Scottish of institutions, the mountain bothy. Feeling somewhat flaccid, overweight and lacking in physical gusto, slowly but surely his bothy campaign takes hold of his imagination and by the end of the book, the author is once again finding pleasure in the hills of home.
This brief overview gives but a flavour of what lies within The Last Hillwalker and the reader will find excitement, human interest and humour running like a fast flowing Scottish burn throughout its 300 pages.