I asked Guy to give me a few thoughts on the expedition for the blog:
About fifteen years ago, Paul invited me to join a party attempting a few of the gentler Munros. For a man whose experiences of Scotland were the familiar urban tourist traps of Glasgow and Edinburgh, I anticipated something akin to the Lake District or the Yorkshire Moors. Standing atop my first Munro, with the beginner’s luck of a rare cloudless day, I marvelled at the seemingly endless wilderness and wondered whether, halfway up the ridge, I had climbed through the back of some Highland wardrobe and into another country. England had nothing on this. No distant rumble of the M6, no gift shops selling pointless knick-knacks, no queues, no people, no nothing. I was hooked.
Fast forward ten years: Paul and I had kept our annual date with the Highlands with a dwindling and changing bunch of companions. I’d trudged, slithered, scrambled and sweated my way up and down thirty or so Munros with midge bites and blisters to prove it. Whilst not exactly smug, I was pretty pleased with myself. I was no Kenton Cool but had at least ascended to some comfortable mental base camp. Then Paul, whose concept of a challenge extends beyond a fun run or a dry January, upped the ante.
‘I’m 50 in 2016. I want to climb the Matterhorn and I want you to come with me.’ Before I could think of the hundred sensible reasons to say no, I said yes.
And so began the process of courses at climbing walls, the purchasing of ropes, helmets and ice axes, winter training, lessons in navigation and more ambitious forays into Skye, Ben Nevis and Glen Coe. Paul took to it all like a duck to water, increasing his fitness, changing his body shape dramatically and working through technical challenges with an Aberdonian determination befitting a man from the Granite City.
Like Ringo or Jamie Murray, I play my part. For a man with arthritic knees, knot dyslexia and a thigh circumference about fifty per cent that of Paul, the sight of him receding into the distance as we tackle a steep incline or bone-jarring descent has become a familiar one. I have experienced anxiety, fear, pain and fatigue in varying degrees and sometimes simultaneously.
So why do I do it? Because, when suspended on the TD Gap on Skye or tracing my boot along the Inaccessible Pinnacle in search of a foothold, there is nothing in life that matters more. My inbox, an impending meeting, the irritation of an unexpected bill. It’s the only time that none of these distractions is in my head. The most extreme moments are the ones of greatest clarity.
One day I won’t be able to any of this. Ten years? I’ll be 62. Who knows when the niggles, aches and pains become something more debilitating and where the descent from life’s physical pinnacle reaches the lowlands of old age. What I do know is that, whenever it happens, no achievements currently surpass traversing the Black Cuillin ridge or climbing Twisting Gully in winter. A successful attempt on the Matterhorn would form the front cover of my personal scrapbook.
Being in such wilderness can often be a time of introspection, soul-searching and personal challenges. All of this ignores the single, most important reason why I do it – the companionship. Last August, I joined Paul on his family holiday in Assynt. One evening, Paul, his daughter Lily and I tramped to a bothy within sight of Suilven, a ridge beautiful even in the context of its stunning surroundings. Paul had surpassed his high standard of preparation by carrying firewood in his rucksack, so we could light a fire in the small grate. With Lily snug in her sleeping bag, Paul and I poured a generous dram into plastic cups and sat back. For a wordless hour, we watched the sun cast its last shadows over the mountain, as the sky changed from mid to deep, star-pricked blue. The only sound was the occasional spit from an ember. Conversation, or anything else, was unnecessary. This was life as it should be lived.