The preciousness of time in high places


‘A trip, a slide, a tumble – how slender is our attachment to life, but how precious its gift when we are in the mountains.’

I often think of the words of Martin Moran. They refer, starkly, to death, but they also provide an eloquent summary of what it means to go to the mountains.

Edging across Devil’s Ridge, 900 metres up in the sky, I think of them again. It is around two o’clock on a Saturday morning and beyond the lights of a pair of head torches, there is only darkness and the unknown.

The other runner is Ross Christie. He is attempting Ramsay’s Round, Scotland’s 24-hour classic among the Lochaber peaks that clip the sky, hoping to accomplish only the 126th successful completion in 40 years.

But nothing is certain in these hills.

The path here is slender, a foot-wide line of compacted mud bordered by grass that very quickly falls into thin air. I know too well that we are approaching the so-called Bad Step, a notch of rock parked roughly in the middle of Devil’s Ridge.

‘Right,’ Ross murmurs.

‘Left,’ I insist.

We carefully down-climb a wall of terraced rock, moist from the clag, dodging the Bad Step on its western flank, and are soon climbing again, thinking only of Sgurr a’ Mhaim, the third summit of 24. The numbers seem implausible. Ross has 21 hours to go – possibly more. The rest of the Mamores, the outliers of Beinn na Lap and Chno Dearg, and then the entire Lochaber Traverse – a monumental outing in its own right – are still to come. But that is the beauty of such challenges: to realise the extraordinary things that can be achieved in a mere 24 hours of a life.

Still, I cannot believe I ever did Ramsay’s Round – and it is why I cannot express to Ross how much I want him to do it too. To do it now – because the fortune of fitness, support, confidence, desire and conditions to coincide can be a once in a lifetime moment. This was his.

We move cautiously and carefully, the clag obscuring everything, making the familiar baffling. We reach the top of Sgurr a’ Mhaim and turn back immediately – the height of futility. We must retrace our steps along the full length of Devil’s Ridge to reach our next summit, Sgorr an Iubhair. Ross trips momentarily, stumbling and wobbling, but stopping his fall. We have three daughters between us. I imagine my two at home in Edinburgh, sleeping soundly. Ross and I, we have no margin for error; we have too much to lose. For a moment, I feel the crushing weight of adulthood and responsibility, and then in the next, as we tiptoe over loose rock, jinking left and right, descending into an abyss, a surge of joy. My goodness, how precious are these moments. To be here: on a dark, misty mountain in the dead hours of an August morning. This is what Moran meant.

Not that such revelations make the task any easier. We marched on, waiting for dawn. It came so gradually, revealing great mountain silhouettes, until we could finally see it all: the rump of Ben Nevis, the Grey Corries, faraway mountains in the east.

Pete Curtis waits for us, a waving vision in red standing above a burn that drains into the Abhainn Rath. Eleven of Charlie Ramsay’s summits, 10 of them Munros, lay behind us. Ross – he must be tired, but he does not sit down – pauses for no more than five minutes. He downs a can of Red Bull, flattens it and hands the crumpled remains to me. We say goodbye. My job is done.

I watched the two as they cut east across pathless heather and high grass, setting a course for the Abhainn Rath which they would wade, before running on to Loch Treig and eventually the ramparts of Beinn na Lap.

I turned away and contemplated the next seven miles of trail between here and Kinlochleven. I tried to run, but after eight-and-a-half hours in the Mamores, there was nothing. I looked right to Sgurr Eilde Mor, the final summit of the Mamores. It seemed preposterously high. How could we have been all the way up there?

In a hungry and sleep-deprived trance, I reached Kinlochleven two hours later. By then, Ross would only just be climbing Beinn na Lap. He would make it back to Glen Nevis, of course. His story is here. All night he had been strong and steady, disciplined and always moving forward, never uttering a word of complaint or pessimism. A model of the qualities required to complete Ramsay’s Round.

In Kinlochleven, I got in Pete’s car, drove to the Tailrace Inn less than a half-mile away, ordered breakfast before they stopped serving at 10, and was soon spreading butter from one of those fiddly packets onto a slice of white toast, watching the headlines on Sky News. I had slipped back into convention with alarming ease.

That night on the Mamores, that night of quiet introspection, of shadows and mist, of responsibility and risk, seemed like a dream – a precious, precious dream.

Read more about the Ramsay’s Round in The Mountains are Calling.

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