On Saturday night, as friends and countrymen celebrated a thrilling Scotland rugby victory over the Auld Enemy, I took myself soberly to bed before the clock struck ten, setting my alarm for just six hours later.
The reason for the eye-wateringly early wake-up call was a long drive north to keep an 8.30am rendezvous near Fort William, the starting point for a foray into the hills of the west highlands.
The mountain weather forecast was about as good as it gets for the Scottish highlands in February – very cold, but sunny, with clear blue skies and barely a breath of wind anticipated. Six of us set off from the western end of Loch Eil, just shy of the iconic viaduct at Glenfinnan, with an excellent day in prospect.
We were not to be disappointed. Two hours later, as we fixed crampons to our boots and clutched ice-axes for the final push up an icy ridge to the summit of Gulvain, it was obvious that it was going to be one of those days acrophiles wait years – and endure countless soakings and zero-visibility summits – to rejoice in.
As I sat at my desk two days later, I received the awful news that a climber had been killed not three miles from where we had been and only 24 hours before our own outing. Christopher Fryer, 38, slipped and fell while descending Sgurr Thuilm, one of two craggy Munros (Scottish hills greater than 3,000 feet in height) that lie between Glenfinnan and the Rough Bounds of Knoydart. The recovery of his body capped a grim weekend for the Lochaber Mountain Rescue Team, which had also located the body of Jim Stalker, a 55-year-old walker who had been missing on Creag Meagaidh for more than a fortnight.
Given the dual proximity, it brought back into sharp focus the risks we take when we go to the hills – especially in winter – and the inherent dangers associated with many outdoor pursuits. I’m a hillwalker rather than a climber per se, and there’s a big difference between tackling precipitous routes on the north face of Ben Nevis and tramping up the tourist path on its other side. They lie on the same continuum of jeopardy, however, and the stark statistics show that the latter carries not inconsiderable danger, never more so than in the grip of winter.
So why do we do it? What makes an otherwise mostly rational man willingly leave a warm bed at 4.00am and drive four hours in sub-zero temperatures to do something that he knows might kill him? I have two young children and it has often occurred to me in perilous mountain moments how irresponsible it is for me to be doing this, and to what end?
For me, the obsession began almost 30 years ago, with my first proper trip into the Cairngorms. It was May 1988 and I had racked up 11 Munros since topping my first at eight years old. But number 12 was The Devil’s Point and was a mountain – indeed an expedition – the like of which young boys remember until they are old men. Its name alone inspired fear and wonder in equal measure.
My dad and I set out from the Linn of Dee that morning with a tent, a stove, some Kendal mint cake, and several thick glass bottles of Lucozade. We pitched the tent near Derry Lodge and struck off up Glen Luibeg, heading for the high tops of the Cairngorms, where snow still covered as much ground as it had cleared.
Looking back at the photographs today, and knowing what I now know about the dangers of those hills, I can scarcely believe dad was brave enough to take me. Or that my mum let me go. But I’m eternally grateful that they did.
Dad wanted his children to experience the same feeling of awe he had when presented with those same hills, lochs and glens as a boy some 40 years previously. That’s why he took me with him that day, when other dads might reasonably have concluded that a 10-year-old companion would be more hassle than he was worth.
It instilled in me an enduring love for the mountains of Scotland and a recurring need to be among them, for as welcome a distraction as books, maps and photographs are, to walk, run and sleep in the hills is to truly escape. To have your heart hammer in your chest on a steep, exposed ascent, and your face crease into a wide grin as another stunning vista opens up before you, is to feel alive.
And that’s why I go, not only in spite of the hazards but, in large part, becauseof them. For without risk, there is no reward, no sense of adventure or achievement. Also, because I believe the time and solitude to unwind and reflect make me a better dad, husband and colleague than the irritable cooped-up version of myself could ever be.
As with all of life’s endeavours, we must assess the risks, consider whether they are worth bearing and, if we conclude that they are, mitigate them as best we can. Then, after all that, hope for good luck.
So it is with excursions into the hills. I’ll keep going (often alone), I’ll keep learning, and I’ll never forget that others have been less fortunate than me, despite perhaps being even better prepared.
Edward Whymper, an English mountaineer best known for the first ascent of the Matterhorn in 1865 – a trip that claimed the lives of four of his companions – summed it up well:
“Climb if you will, but remember that courage and strength are naught without prudence, and that a momentary negligence may destroy the happiness of a lifetime. Do nothing in haste; look well to each step; and from the beginning think what may be the end.”
David Gaffney is a partner at Charlotte Street Partners.
David’s dad, Michael Gaffney, has written a guide to walking in the Cairngorms and Speyside area, which is being published by St Columba’s Hospice this month and will be sold in the hospice’s bookshops with all proceeds going to support its palliative care centre at Granton Harbour in Edinburgh.