Marhofn 196.11 - May 2009

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Alone again or...

Colin Crawford

Anyone perusing my occasional contributions to these pages will probably have formed the opinion that I am a solitary soul. Many of my significant landmarks in the hills have passed unwitnessed, though I would argue that this reflects a lack of forethought and organisation rather than any wish to celebrate alone. Alas, I fear that such an excuse will ring hollow indeed when I make the following confession.

It began as a moment of whimsy; on reviewing my records, it was evident that the word 'solo' appeared rather frequently against many outings. So how many re-ascents would I require in order to complete a solo round of, say, the Munros? I imagined that a count would throw up a significantly high number. Not so. A few minutes later I stared at the result in utter disbelief; there remained only seven Munros on whose summits I had never stood alone. That figure was unsettling, giving rise to ambivalence. A certain pride in the achievement was present but also an uneasy awareness that the stark statistic reflected a side of my personality which is less than gregarious. Fascination growing, I delved a little further. I have, of course, revisited many Munros over the years. Once more, I found myself to be mildly astounded - on over 89% of Munro ascents I had been by myself. I expanded the analysis to Munro Tops, finding, as anticipated now, that the upshot was equally extreme; only 19 tops outstanding for a solo round, with the percentage of total ascents unaccompanied remaining at 89%.

Corbetts and Grahams yielded similar results, tending even more towards the solitary. I need only five Corbetts and seven Grahams for solo rounds. For Donalds, I can claim a full set of unsociable bags. Initially, Marilyns suggested a more convivial picture, with 45 of my tops being in company, but that merely reflected the large number of hills on the list; the percentage of total ascents completed solo was still a heady 93%. I stopped at that point. Regardless of what I might prefer to suppose, Hewitts, Humps etc could be expected to further reinforce the pattern. There can be no doubt that I am a hill-going misanthrope, a Wainwright-like curmudgeon.

So what is going on here? What justifications can I offer for my spurning of company on the hill? In truth, there are several quite compelling reasons:

Good, cogent explanations, I think. And yet, and yet... If I am to be honest and transparent, I must concede that these are essentially rationalisations. In truth I go to the hills alone by choice rather than by necessity. It is in my character, a personal pathology if you like, that I seem to require periods of extended solitude in order to remain balanced and content. I am unashamed to admit to this idiosyncrasy as I suspect that it is one I share with more than a few fellow hill-goers.

Many of my richest memories in the hills have occurred when I have been alone in a remote setting. Once competence banishes doubt and fear, one can relish such situations free from any distraction.

It is a humbling yet empowering experience to stand on a far-away summit and gaze out at the surrounding vastness. I recall a summer visit to Beinn Bhreac above the Tarf, rather a pudding of a Corbett, but gaining distinction due to its extreme isolation. On a day of superb visibility, distant peaks formed a serrated horizon in every direction and I could discern no hint of any human intrusion in the landscape. Alone in the midst of this immensity, I felt a tremor of sheer joy. I am neither religious nor inclined towards woolly mysticism, but I can only describe the sensation as being spiritual. Would it have seemed so intense in the presence of a companion? I cannot know, but I suspect that the experience would have been much diluted.

Such epiphanies are few but valued all the more because of their rarity. Yet as I embark on an outing following a week of entanglement with work and human presence, I still sustain a refreshing invigoration as I escape to simplicity and serenity; the intensity is veiled but the feeling is one to be cherished. The pleasures of an evening camp as the sun sinks, or a warming bothy fire in deepest winter, serve to release me from the pressures of a difficult week. These delights are no less so in company, you may say (and I would agree in the main), but solitude for me always adds an extra dimension.

There are limits. I am not a frequent traveller to foreign parts, dramatic though the landscapes may be. I must acknowledge that, paradoxically, loneliness is a strong factor in persuading me to limit myself largely to these shores. Fine though it is to be alone in the hills, it is also a joy to indulge in human contact on return. I have little affinity with languages - I can generally make myself understood, but most responses in another tongue induce uncomprehending panic. Thus when I emerge from the wilds seeking conversation and laughter, these are available only at some remove. It is at this point that indulgent solitude tips into dispiriting isolation. On any venture to continental Europe I feel keenly the need for companionship. And that, I fear, is my sole concession to conviviality in the hills. Naturally, now that I have identified my prowess as a solo traveller, I am keen to complete unfinished business on the relevant lists, even if the achievement will be viewed by many as a little dubious. There awaits, of course, the not insignificant obstacle of a certain summit on Skye, demanding a degree of nerve and recklessness that I hope I still possess.

And what of the rest of you? My behaviour may be somewhat aberrant, but it's a sliding scale is it not? I feel confident in asserting that, such is the eccentricity of numerous members of this Hall, I cannot be the only anti-social curmudgeon in our midst. Time to come out.

Audrey Litterick descending a certain summit on Skye

Audrey Litterick descending a certain summit on Skye

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