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Third day of the "walking retreat"

Saturday morning, the Frigate Café, Ullapool. This is a great cafe. Catero (my wife), Kieran (my son) and I were here last autumn when we came up for a long weekend. Kierie, who's in his 20's, and I climbed two Munros, Conival and Ben More Assynt in quite high winds. I remember him up at the top saying something like "What do you do this for, Dad?". I guess it's something I might have said to my own father when I was in my 20's ... and maybe now as well! So yesterday was tough, beautiful, memorable. I worked my way up through the bog and the snow to the col, bore right and climbed Meall a' Chrasgaidh. I saw my first people for over 36 hours - a couple working their way up the ridge of Sgurr nan Clach Geala. A little later I was following in their footsteps - literally - pacing through the snow up the narrow ridge. Although to anyone with any kind of mountaineering experience, it would have been a total piece of cake - for me, fresh from the city, it was slightly spooking. On the left, the snow fell away very steeply down the cliffs and, in places, the fall to the right wasn't a lot more appetising. Add in the fact that there were overhanging cornices of snow just waiting to crash downwards if the unwary went too close to the edge ... and I could understand that mixed in with the footsteps of the couple who had gone ahead of me were the marks where one of them had occasionally been putting their hand down as well for greater security.

So to the top of the slashing ridge of Sgurr nan Clach Geala and then down and up again to Sgurr nan Each. Back to the col between the hills and then a choice. I'd been walking for less than four hours, the weather was pretty good, there was still plenty of daylight, I felt fine - there seemed no good reason not to head down to the start of the next ridge and climb Sgurr Breac and A' Chailleach too. A long day - five Munros. I was right about the weather and daylight, but my energy was more of a toss up. By the last couple of hours of what turned out to be a twelve hour walking day, I was very tired. Interesting to experience - especially as I had little anxiety. As long as I didn't make a silly mistake, there was enough daylight. I murmured the Louis Armstrong song to myself "We have all the time in the world". Towards the end I was walking for a while, then sitting on convenient stone, walking and then sitting ... getting there. As I came up to the last ridge, there was a perfect rainbow arching over the direction I was going. It stayed there for a while and I laughed and appreciated it. Then, while I watched fascinated, it drew back into itself - first the right half of the bow disappeared, then there was only a third of the rainbow arched up from the left, then the whole thing contracted back to a vague set of colours at the left end, before it disappeared entirely. As I came down the last snowfield into the final bog, I startled yet another group of deer - and for the first time on this trip, saw a stag amongst the hinds. I slipped and fell more than once, including a soggy slap to the right with the side of my face and body making a close acquaintanceship with the mud. At last to my welcoming tent, more than 12 hours after I'd left it. My gut had rather closed down - not wanting food after such a long adventure. I staggered into the stream to wash and then to the tent to sleep.

This morning, Saturday, the weekend walkers come up the glen as I made my way down. I did two days climbing in one yesterday and I need a bit of time to see if I'm ready to walk again today. I drive the 15 miles or so up to Ullapool and the Frigate Cafe. My feet are sore and my gut cautious, but otherwise I seem pretty fine. As agreed, I phone to leave a message on the answer machine at home to say I'm alive and well. Now a vegetarian breakfast, two latte's and three orange juices.

It's fantastic what time, rest, food and fluid can do. I gradually uncrumpled like a dried out plant that had finally been watered. The option of walking today looked more realistic. Just two more of the nine Munro Fannaich range to explore - maybe 7½ hours. I drove down to the standard entry point for this walk, changed and then headed off along the bank of the river up towards the hills. I am so grateful and in awe of how energy can come back like this - when only the evening before I was struggling to walk a few hundred yards. Poincare said something like "The physician entertains, while Nature cures." Such an amazing organism this body-mind, so important to look after it. So the long walk in over bog. Great that this early in May there are very few insects about - a major reason for choosing this time of year to camp. The book I have in the car - "Hostile Habitats: Scotland's Mountain Environment" - says "There have been estimated to be up to one billion flying insects above every square mile of Scotland, although anyone who has camped in Glen Brittle in July may consider this to be an underestimate." Then the climb up to An Coileachan (the little cock), the most easterly hill in the range, and down to the col before walking up through increasingly strong wind to a lower top and finally the real top of Meall Gorm (blue hill). It's routinely the case climbing Munros that I see what looks like the summit on the skyline but, when I get up there, a further higher summit emerges, and so on. It reminds me of the saying when climbing Scottish hills "The top you see is not the real top." Actually I suspect I may have made that saying up myself. It often feels to me like a day walking in the hills is a pretty good metaphor for life in general.

Walking back down over a snowfield and across a bog, there's the long tramp out. I find I have a different relationship with Scottish hills once I've climbed them. As Pierre Sogol, the fictional professor of mountaineering in Rene Daumal's book Mount Analogue, says to his fellow expedition members "Today we can walk around together, talk, eat, and be silent together. Later I believe we'll have the opportunity to act and suffer together. All that is necessary to ‘make someone's acquaintance' as they say." When I've sweated and trudged for hours on the slopes of a Scottish hill, and sat at the top quietly and gazed around - later when I look up at it from a distance, I feel a friendliness. As Pierre Sogol put it, I feel I've ‘made its acquaintance'. It's a piece in the bigger work, the bigger change in my whole feeling about living in Scotland. I only began climbing Munros in any kind of deliberate way five years ago. I've now been up over 70 (of the 284) and I feel very different about my place in Scotland. It's as if I've sent out roots. Instead of simply being a doctor working in the capital city, Edinburgh, I feel a real connection to the countryside. Images float through my head. Memories of days alone, days with friends, howling winds, hot sun, rain, cold, beauty, exhaustion ... like a rather tempestuous love affair. I certainly feel so much more, in the last five years, that I have made the Scottish countryside's acquaintance. Blessings.

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