Mountains clear my mind. They provide solace and solitude, asking nothing in return. I give them offerings, though: blood and sweat. My respect for wilderness is infinite, as is my love for the beasts who inhabit it.
Big Tony and I have scaled Scotland’s highest peaks together. His son Cal first accompanied us on a climb when he was eight. Cal summited two snow-topped Munros that day, in sub-zero conditions, without a single complaint. The wind was relentless but so was Cal’s resolve. On a knife-edge ridge between two peaks he learned something important about himself: rather than feeling afraid of the exposure or the height, he felt purified by them. They brought him to a state of clarity. He found Home in high places. In the twelve years since then, mountains have played their part in transforming Cal from eager boychild into a man of Zen nature. A mountain man. Like me. Like his father.
Tony missed our first climb of 2015. Cal and I set off early to beat the traffic. We stopped beside Loch Lomond for coffee, as has become tradition on our trips north. As we sat in silence watching puffs of cloud blow across the cobalt sky, a heavily muscled dog with orange and black tiger stripes padded across to us. I offered him my hand. He sniffed it and showed his approval with a lick. I scratched his head. He rolled onto his back. I rubbed his belly. Back legs twitched as he let out grunts of enjoyment. Cal took over the dog-pampering while I spoke to the dog’s keeper – an Essex man called Rob – about the creature’s unusual markings. He explained that a mixture of Bullmastiff and Staffordshire bull terrier were responsible for the muscular physique. The markings and colouring were an enigma. When Rob strolled back to his Winnebago motorhome, the dog made no attempt to follow. Happy with his two new pals, he had decided to stay put. Rob shouted on the dog, who steadfastly ignored him. Irritated, the Essex man walked over to our table, grabbed the animal by his collar, and pulled him back to the Winnebago. The dog growled all the way there. Cal and I were sad to see the tigerdog go. He was a magnificent beast and our time together had been too short.
We continued north on the A82, skirting Loch Lomond’s shoreline as familiar mountains came into view, their contours as familiar to us as those of our own faces. It was a quintessential Scottish spring morning – endless blue sky and blazing sunshine: the sort of day that looks warm in pictures but in reality chills the flesh. I find those days invigorating. Many Scots don’t agree. They’re highly suspicious that the yellow sphere in the sky is taunting them, like a celestial exhibitionist saying, “Behold my naked splendour. Every day I will reveal myself to you, making you long to feel the warmth of my touch. But I will leave you waiting in frozen yearning until summer. Then, when at last my rays warm your skin, they will feel like long-lost friends.”
Cal and I stopped in Crianlarich for the customary cup of tea that should always precede a climb. The locals were dressed for the weather, with thermal layers covering all but their faces. I was in shorts, T-shirt, hiking socks and climbing boots. A long day of exertion lay ahead, so I had dressed for ease of movement and maximum cooling. As I walked into a shop, the woman behind the counter looked me up and down, then up and down again – more slowly – as if sure her eyes had deceived her the first time. Pointing at my bare arms, she said, “Is someone feelin’ the cold?” Her sarcasm stirred up the appropriate response from me. (“Shut it. Is someone makin’ me a cup o’ tea?”) Giggling, she led me to the back of the shop, where she invited me to make my own tea while she located a waterproof climber’s map of the area. As I prepared tea, the woman said, “OS maps don’t have enough detail for these mountains. And they fall apart in the rain. My waterproof climbin’ maps have much more detail and they’ll stand up to the wildest storm. Come back here after your climb. Maybe I’ll make you a cup o’ tea then.”
Cal and I drank our tea outside. The sky was a deep unbroken blue. A good sign. With any luck we would scale Cruach Ardrain – our chosen mountain for the day – then descend in clear weather conditions. The forecast was good on all climbing websites and the sky seemed to be in agreement.
On the edge of a forest near Crianlarich, we pulled on rucksacks loaded with maps, compasses, camera equipment, water, fruit juice, coffee and nuts. No sooner had we embarked than a grisly sight met us: a mountain sheep had been ripped apart by some predator. Her picked-clean bones were scattered like jigsaw pieces that would never fit together again.
A cold sensation shot through me. I said to Cal, “Ah hope this isnae an omen for the day.” He nodded. Shaking off the jitters, I said, “Superstition’s for the weak. We make oor own luck. Let’s climb.” Again, Cal nodded.
The walk-in to the base of Cruach Ardrain was long and muddy. We kept to stony ground, as that allowed quicker progress than wading through marsh. The stream to our right was a mass of frogspawn, which spilled over onto the banks. We stopped upstream for a spell, to watch frogs swim in a crystal-clear pool. An hour later, as we neared the base of Cruach Ardrain, a sky-spanning stormcloud blew in and engulfed the mountaintop. It settled there as if held by magnetic attraction. Looking up into the storm, I willed it to blow over. The stubborn bastard stayed put.
Cal crossed the River Falloch by leaping onto stones that jutted above the water’s surface. We began parallel climbs, one on each side of the river. My ascent brought me to a young ewe who had fallen down the mountain and bashed her head on a rock. She was dead, freshly so. Bloodtrails from her mouth and eyes hadn’t yet congealed. Cal looked on helplessly from the far side of the water while I stood equally helpless next to the beautiful animal. Her fleece was thick and brilliant white, her face black with delicate features: one of the Scottish Blackface breed, also known as the Mountain Sheep. These surefooted beasts are excellent climbers, yet one lay dead at my feet – a reminder that in the high places one wrong step can have severe consequences. With an aching heart I spoke to the ewe. “Sorry Ah wasnae here tae catch you when you fell, little one.” Tears pricked my eyes. The bad-omen jitters returned. I pushed onwards.
As Cal and I continued our parallel ascent, we saw a mountain sheep in the river. Drowned. Powerful currents had swept her downstream, bouncing her off rocks until she became trapped between two stones. Fast-flowing water surged over the ewe, causing her head to bob as if nodding in time to nature’s symphony. But there was no life left in her. Body broken, head caved in, she gazed unseeingly through dead eyes. Three dead mountain sheep in as many hours. In hundreds of climbs, I had never experienced that. It felt wrong. With each dead animal I encountered, my unease grew. I carried on, though.
An hour later both Cal and I were on the right of the river. The temperature dropped, so we covered our top halves with additional layers. Just beneath the storm shelf that concealed Cruach Ardrain’s summit, we spotted another ewe in the river. This one was alive. Exhausted, terrified, in shock, and up to her neck in numbingly cold water, but alive. Cal reckoned she’d injured her front legs, which repeatedly buckled under her as she struggled to stand upright. She was near the opposite bank, with a steep slope to her left and thundering waters to her right. Too exhausted or injured to scramble back onto dry land, and aware of the danger just a few inches away, she was in a state of panic. She’d had a lucky landing in a sheep-sized pool of relatively still water. Had she fallen higher or lower, she’d have been dashed on rocks. If the fall had taken her farther horizontally, she’d have been swept away by fast-moving torrents. The coming of spring, longer days and increasing temperatures had resulted in vast snowmelt on Cruach Ardrain’s higher slopes, turning the river into a falling flood of ice-cold water. The ewe could have been in the water for hours already – scared, freezing, circulation dwindling, shock setting in, exhaustion taking over, muscles failing. I’d encountered three dead ewes that day and had felt the bite of helplessness each time. I was too late to save those fallen animals but I’d arrived in time to help this one. And nothing in this Universe could have stopped me from doing exactly that.
Cal and I exchanged looks that conveyed the urgency of the situation. We spoke the same words at the same moment: “We cannae leave her.” (Like me, Cal is an animal lover whom wild things instinctively trust. During our last climb of 2014, we crested a lowland mountain peak and found ourselves face to face with feral mountain goats. These solitary beasts usually keep their distance from humans, and wisely so, but they were different with us. When we saw the goats, Cal and I stood completely still, barely even breathing, our body language a silent acknowledgement that this was their domain. The goats dipped their heads, long horns pointed skywards, and spent a minute gazing at us: getting the measure of us. Then, satisfied with what they had perceived, they went back to their grazing. Cal and I walked among those amazing beasts, our horned kindred spirits, and they didn’t flinch. They’d seen into our souls and were happy with what they’d found there. This is the way of it with wild things. They know only truth.)
We needed to help the ewe immediately. This presented a quandary. By drawing closer we might startle her, causing her to move into the torrent and be swept downriver, but if we didn’t act quickly she would die from exhaustion, shock, hypothermia or drowning – a situation that was becoming more likely with each subsequent collapse of her legs. My brain went into emergency mode. In my mind’s eye I saw the only way of making a sure save. There was no room for error. I would go into the river below the ewe. That way I could catch her if the torrent took her. Cal would go up the right bank then close in from above, staying on dry land, while I approached from the water below. If I didn’t counterbalance the river’s movement I’d be swept away. An image flashed into my mind: rushing waters toppling the sheep, me catching her and the momentum bowling me over, sending both of us hurtling downriver, pinballing off rocks until the waters ran red. I let go of that image, refusing to accept it as a possibility. No harm could come to this ewe. I wouldn’t let it. Couldn’t let it.
On entering the water I barely noticed its chill, thanks to the adrenaline that my body was pumping out. I achieved a state of equilibrium by leaning against the river’s flow. Equilibrium was a start, but to reach the ewe I’d have to move upriver, pushing against the water’s elemental force then finding a new state of balance after every step. Each upwards step was accomplished through brute force and will. As soon as I was within reach of the ewe, I grabbed her horns and did a handstand of sorts, flinging my feet out of the river and landing upside down with toes dug into the mountainside as anchors. Cal sprinted towards the river’s right bank and launched himself into the air. He landed with immaculate balance on a rock behind the sheep. An exquisite jump. A perfect landing. As I lifted the ewe by her horns, Cal pushed her hindquarters. An instant later she was on dry land beside me. I lay there, heart pounding, relief infinite, maintaining eye contact with the sheep as I stroked her fleece and spoke words of comfort to her. The way she looked at me is something words can’t adequately describe. Her gaze transmitted waves of trust, gratitude, friendship, love and more. It transcended words. Cal climbed up to join us. He spoke his own words of comfort to the sheep. He, too, received that look.
I checked the ewe’s legs and determined that she had no injuries. The unsteadiness we’d witnessed must have been caused by exhaustion and numbness from the icy water. We couldn’t leave her on that river bank. The gradient was dangerously steep and she had already fallen once. Cal asked what I was going to do. I told him there was only one thing to do. Eyes wide, he said, “You cannae carry her up the slope!”
“Ah have tae. It’s too dangerous for her here.” Wrapping my arms around the ewe’s body, I picked her up and ascended the mountainside. (Sheep are heavier than they look, especially when they have a full fleece which has just been submerged in a river. Waterlogged climbing boots and sodden clothes didn’t make my load any lighter.) I lost my footing a few times but made sure my knees – not the sheep in my arms – took each impact against the mountain. Upon reaching a flattish clearing of bracken, I laid the ewe down and collapsed beside her. Cal sat on her other side. As he stroked her head and spoke more words of comfort into her ear, I dried her fleece. Her pulse was weak and her temperature worryingly low, so I used a technique I’d learned from a Reiki master to channel energy through my palms and into the ewe. I kept this up until her pulse was booming and her body temperature toasty.
Cal and I rose to head up the mountain. Panicking, the ewe scrambled to her feet and tried to follow us. “We cannae go yet,” I said. “She isnae ready.”
Cal looked up at the dark stormcloud. A frown appeared on his brow. “If we don’t go noo we might no’ make the summit and back before dark.”
“The mountain isnae goin’ anywhere, Cal. It’ll be here another day. This gorgeous creature might not be if we leave too early. We have tae stay wi’ her.”
Cal looked at the ewe. She gazed back at him. “Aye,” he said. “We stay wi’ her until she lets us go. When she’s ready.”
And so it was that in the first days of April 2015, on the icy slopes of Cruach Ardrain, two climbers flanked a mountain sheep who had melted their hearts. The ewe gazed at her new friends with such pure affection – such love – that they felt no desire to ever leave that place. They gazed back with admiration for her hardiness, and also, yes, with love.
Cal and I did leave that place. Eventually. But only when the ewe let us go.
Above us the storm shelf loomed, turning the ground below into a land of shadow. We ascended into the storm. From that moment on, our climb became a semi-blind journey through a realm of ice, snow and biting wind. On reaching the upper peaks, we didn’t hang about as we usually do at summits. No drinking coffee from flasks or munching high-calorie snacks to replace spent energy. No sitting at the cairn to enjoy the view. There was no view – just a whiteout. Wind chill dragged the temperature far below zero. Soaked from the river, my clothes began to freeze. Boots became blocks of ice. My beard froze solid, bringing on a bastard of a headache. Extremities turned numb. Due to lack of visibility, our usual rapid descent wasn’t possible. We knew what could happen if a foot is put wrong in the mountains. We’d seen brutal reminders of it just hours earlier. So our movements remained measured and meticulous.
Despite unbroken focus, we found out first hand how easy it is to fall when conditions take a turn for the worse. Traversing a vertical snowbank, Cal lost his grip and dropped like a stone. Heart in mouth, I watched as he vanished into the mist. He could have been shattered on rock, but he landed on a bed of bouncy heather. Lucky.
My ice-encased feet became numb. When they could no longer feel the ground beneath them, I plummeted off a ledge and fell head first through cloud. A rock column shot up towards me. I reached out to break my fall. My left palm took most of the impact, splitting open and spraying nearby snow crimson. The palm had what looked like a flesh catflap on it. Pulling open the skin, I plunged my hands into snow to clean the wound and stem the bleeding. My hands-first landing could have been a head-on collision. Lucky.
When Cal and I emerged from the base of the storm, a welcome vista opened up. On the horizon sunbeams streamed through a hole in the clouds and flickered over the countryside below like celestial fingers massaging the land. Keeping our eyes fixed on the jostling columns of light, we breezed down the mountain.
Soon we were back on the lower slopes where thousands of frogs were fornicating, frolicking, jumping, swimming and croaking with the pure joy of being alive. We knew how they felt.
The day’s last shafts of sunlight danced over lush green land. With those golden beacons lighting our way, Cal and I lit cigars for the walk-out. Relaxing more with every step, we agreed that our experiences in the storm had been some of the least enjoyable ever. We also agreed that the real reason we were there – unknown at the outset but obvious with hindsight – was to save one spectacular sheep. That lucky ewe had passed on some of her luck to us. Luck be a lady, some say. I disagree. Luck is a brave mountain ewe who inhabits the wild landscape of Cruach Ardrain. I love her.