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Scottish Mountains (part 2)

So what on earth is the attraction of the wilderness when there are these sorts of dangers? There are probably as many reasons as there are walkers. Beautiful scenery is certainly an attraction, but there are many parts of Scotland where amazing sights can be seen from the comfort of a car, like Glencoe or Skye. The walker who ventures into a part of the Scottish landscape that is many days walk from the nearest contact with other people is doing something a bit different from even those walkers who are climbing a hill on a day trip. They're putting themselves out on a limb, and this may be part of the reason why people are drawn to do it. It's a physical and mental challenge, a chance to pit one's wits against nature in a way that life in a city doesn't offer to modern people in the western world. This can be particularly so if an expedition of this nature is undertaken alone, with all the dangers that that entails. The experience of being alone in a vast landscape that offers no human comforts and of being able to prepare for, endure and ultimately enjoy it can be a profound one. Whilst I don't believe the experience in any way approaches the spiritual or even the mystical (there are too many discomforts for that!), it is certainly something that can teach you something about yourself, your limits, and what is possible.

There are also some sights in Scotland that can only be seen by walking for a long distance into the wilderness. The falls of Glomach, the Corrieyairack and Minigaig passes, Cape Wraith, Loch Avon in the Cairngorms, the peaks of the Knoydart peninsula and Loch Coruisk on Skye are just some examples. If you haven't got a helicopter, and want to see some of best parts of Scotland and perhaps get some good photographs, you have to be prepared to put a tent on your back and yomp for mile after mile.

To undertake such a trip into a wild and uninhabited area requires competence in navigation above all else. A fit person could survive for a few days without food, and water is often available in rivers in the Scottish mountains. A walker could even be lucky with the weather and not require waterproof or insulated clothing. However, if a walker were to venture into one of these areas without a map and compass, then the chances of the trip being a pleasant experience are minimal. Even more important than having these is the ability to use them well, i.e. to be able to navigate. It's often said by many wilderness experts that the best piece of equipment you can carry with you when entering a wilderness area is your brain.

Knowing where you are in this sort of landscape is an essential skill. It is all too easy to descend from a summit down the wrong ridge and at best, be faced with a long walk back to your starting point. Walking above the cloud base is very common in the Scottish mountains, so navigating by relating the locally visible topography of the land to the map features, and estimating distances walked on a compass bearing becomes necessary to avoid getting lost. Finding an exact location on a flat plateau such as the mountain summits that are to be found in the Cairngorms and the White Mounth area near Braemar can become an almost impossible task. This becomes important to walkers (such as Munro-baggers) whose main aim is the attainment of the exact location of a particular mountain summit. Munro-bagging is an activity that probably has more in common with train spotting than hillwalking. The proponents are often the same, being young men with too much time on their hands, and the process can, at its worst, degenerate into a grim list-ticking activity. The objective is to climb all the 284 summits in the Scottish Highlands higher than 3000 feet, but to achieve this many devotees would say that you actually have to stand on the highest point of the mountain. Arguments rage about what this actually means and what actually constitutes a distinct summit or indeed a mountain.

The question becomes, how close to the actual highest point does one have to be to claim that a particular summit is ‘bagged’? This can be a difficulty on certain mountains that have multiple peaks of similar height along a ridge or where the highest point is an indistinct area of a much larger flat plateau. When the cloud base is low or all features of the landscape are blanketed in a homogenous layer of deep snow, finding summit locations in these sorts of conditions can be next to impossible.

Creag Megaidh

A mountain which took me three attempts to attain the summit of is Creag Megaidh, near Glen Spean. On my first attempt I walked up past the famous rock climbing cliffs of Coire Ardair and into the 'Window', a narrow col just below the extensive summit plateau. I made it to within about 500 meters of the summit cairn, crawling on my belly in hurricane force winds before giving up. My second attempt took me along a high ridge to the east of the main summit plateau with many subsidiary tops and cols. The cloud base was below the level of the ridge so I was walking in cloud and my estimations of how far along the ridge I had gone became less and less accurate. In these sorts of conditions it is easy to overestimate the distance travelled, and also to subconsciously take the route that looks easiest, which is often the one that goes downhill. I ended up emerging from the clouds onto a ridge heading in the wrong direction many kilometres away from the main route to the summit. Although I wasn't in any danger, limited supplies of daylight and fitness reserves meant giving up the walk to the summit and retracing my steps back to my starting point. On a third attempt in November, I made it to the summit plateau but in the whiteout conditions finding the summit cairn on the large flat plateau was very difficult. After wandering around in circles for ten minutes, the cairn popped into view in a break in the swirling snow, and I finally 'bagged' the summit, more by luck than design.

Eddie Boyle is currently working as a software developer at Edina, part of the University of Edingburgh on Go-Geo, a portal of geophysical data sources. Eddie climbs mountains in his spare time which he records in his blog. (

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Scottish Mountains