I told you I was ill

 
Shot from the hip at Brands Hatch by my stepdad in 1977, ended up as the centre DPS in the Photography of the Year book 1977. We were oh so proud. So was he.

Shot from the hip at Brands Hatch by my stepdad in 1977, ended up as the centre DPS in the Photography of the Year book 1977. We were oh so proud. So was he.

Shortly before Christmas my stepdad went into hospital, and shortly after Christmas he died. He was ill for most of our lives, one way or another, and that takes its toll. Addiction is like sand, it gets into everything.

He didn't leave instructions and so we had to guess. The funeral was a simple affair but had its moments of absurd theatre nonetheless. Functionaries bowed to a wooden box, a suburban woman stood at the front and voiced well-meaning noises in a syrupy cadence. Despite several dry runs I broke down twice while reading the tribute, another bad actor in our family B movie. Nimrod by Elgar stumbled past sounding winded. Outside, the sun shone, not bothered.

We'd organised a small gathering afterward in a local cafe my sister liked, it was a good choice. Kind people we'd never met spoke of someone that they knew and we didn't. They were his brothers and sisters in arms, his other family. For now, the anger subsided, he was theirs too. He sounded reliable. 

Back at the house, we cleared out clothes, medical effects and hoovered up the dust of an old man's life. My mum is still very strong and wanted it done quickly. We emptied drawer corners of hospital histories, exhausted batteries, bent paperclips and rubber bands. I slept in what had become his room, the room in which he died and where I am writing this now, a room which mirrored his entrapment in his body, boxed out methodically with tatty furniture from their old place, shelves stacked neatly and tightly around the bed, a shrinking cell.

I tried to remember a man before the booze, the fights and the fags, the cancers the heart attacks and the COPD. It's not black and white, not just toxic masculinity, the blade cut both ways. 

What I said at the service is reproduced below.

Kim's game/3 generations of heirlooms/more to worry about than a missing chromosome

Kim's game/3 generations of heirlooms/more to worry about than a missing chromosome

Thank you all for coming today to say goodbye to M. I know he'd be kicking himself for missing you.

M was our stepfather, but to all intents and purposes he was our dad. He was even there when we would rather he wasn't, which if I'm honest with you, was for a while more often than not. 

I had the sense very early in my life that he was a creative person - he painted, took photographs, helped build racing cars. He was even a pretty good gardener, however much he liked to protest about it. Above all, he was interested in how things worked. A bright man, who took joy from understanding the mechanics of life. And I also had the sense, even as a boy, that he was somehow caught up in a job that didn't suit him. He was a salesman who didn't believe in the pitch. I think at times that made him dislike himself, and be difficult to be around.

He did believe in people though - that part of the job suited him. He liked people, wanted to see the best in them. He shared ideas, plants, books and he liked a 'good debate'. He was generous with his time and I know he was a mentor and friend to a huge number of people in our community, many of whom the family didn't know at all. Even though we didn't see much of that side of his life, it's really important that it's acknowledged here, today. I have a sense that he was a confidante and maybe even a role model to many people.

We had a father figure who like many fathers was sometimes present and often absent, but who tried. He volunteered on the committees of clubs we attended, we went on holidays, he helped with the homework and he struggled with the pressures of parenthood. When we were very young, he learned to sit on the side of our bunkbed and read stories. Before he died I saw that same storytelling come out with my own daughter - she keeps talking to me about the big bang theory at the moment. By that point he was a natural, and delighted in her company. As a grandfather he became expert again in building and rebuilding, this time not cars, cameras or garden sheds, but my sister's daughter's playmobil. In these moments I'd like to think he came back to himself a little.

As for me, he gave me photography, part of how I now make my living, but more importantly he helped me slow down enough to see our stupid country through the camera. A mechanism for looking at the world, both good and ill.

Later on, it seemed as if his innate curiosity for life dimmed, and it was very sad, and there was a sense he was waiting, and had no energy and no agency left. When we spoke about his health he called it acceptance, but I wondered if it was fatalism, the same wrestle with control that troubled him when we were young. M wasn't a saint. It turns out that the wisdom to know the difference between what you can change and what you can't might just be the hardest thing. 

Funerals are where stories are told, a ritual that tries to make sense of 'it all' when there's a lot about someone and their life that makes no sense at all. Funerals are for the living, not the dead. How can we make sense of this story? Only to say, whatever time you have, don't waste it.

I got the call that M had died, and then took my daughter sledging. It's what he would have wanted, but we were going anyway.

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The adventurists

 
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I thought I’d tell you about a recent adventure wandering the pitilessly bleak moors and hills between Glen Clunie and Glenshee in the eastern Cairngorms, but before I dribble on about how much like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road it was, we really should meet the adventurists. So, without further ado, let’s get this search engine optimised.

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Until recently, Mick was a senior nurse in a busy inner city hospital, but he was in a rut, dissatisfied with slaving away at a job that helped no one shine. Mick wanted more from a life less ordinary. And no one else was going to do that for him – he had to get on his adventure bike and make it happen! So last year he gave up his dead end job and is now a blogger and motivational speaker, helping others achieve their full potential just like he did a few months ago. On his blog he’s the influenza of influencers, and hosts affiliate links like a tick mop on a grouse moor – uh huh, that good. He also plans to write an e-guide to help others be just like him and not squander their gift of life being teachers, health professionals or emptying the bins. His newfound mission is to adventurise your lifestyle, and it's a mission he plans to pursue tirelessly until the end of time.

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Stef has also transformed his own private existential quandary into a stomach-churning example of middle class show and tell. His previous job in banking or marketing or whatever was making him unhappy sad face. He was also incredibly stressed out. Two years ago, he left all his responsibilities behind for someone else to clear up and now travels the globe scribbling occasional top 10 travel and e-commerce tips from hotels, cafes and his campervan (when he can freeload some Wi-Fi nearby). His trips are all about extending his comfort zone into other people’s and seeing what he can get away with. He likes to show and tell he’s having a good time, all the time, to inspire others to do the same. Because that's what's important. The marketing experience certainly comes in handy for shackling his newfound freedom to the yoke of late capitalism, too - not to mention the trusts and funds. He’s clearly an example to us all. What are you doing to inspire the people around you today?

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Then there’s me, the humblebrag outdoors writer and photographer, a blood bag of festering insecurity constantly checking a creaky 4 year old smartphone for likes. This picture isn’t me, I’ve just used it to try and make myself look cool, maybe slightly lonely and aloof. I’m trapped 24/7 in some kind of prescriptive outdoor office cum glasshouse, informally photographed to make your Tuesday morning bus journey thumbscroll slightly more queasy than it would be otherwise. My job is to ponder my next amusing hash tag and maximise my online presence. A minimum wage content provider, I don’t have kids but I love animals, because environment.

We join our adventurists on day two, as their pristine white alpine dream falls apart in an early winter thaw….

As we climbed stoically through the soggy clag fighting our epic adventury fight against moderate gusts, really annoying peat hags, and a bit of a chill that made our noses run and our fingers numb, endless snow banks emerged one after the other, the random patches of brown heather poking through white slush like a Rorschach test for our swollen egos. You can be whatever you want to be, the patches whispered. Just keep pushing your boundaries and reaching for the limits, one peaty postholed jackboot after another.

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Later, as we dropped out of our self imposed misery into the glens, we mistook one confluence of burns for another – it turns out we were much nearer the mole hill that Stef was destined to rub himself all over with in the night, after all. You might say that we were lost out there in that epic wilderness of nothing, but actually it was more like we were searching for something… like maybe the hero inside ourselves or the key to our lives. That’s what it was like, out there on those desolate moors and wind swept peaks – an enormous white void, sort of like an empty feeling of not knowing how to spend all your free time, money and privilege, and then finding something to push against to fill the yawning chasm of meaning.

After we put up our tents, it was *that* time when Mick had macaroni cheese and I had mash potato with a tin of tuna. Because it’s important to aim high and never compromise on your dreams, even when you need some tepid slop to keep your insides from freezing overnight. Yes: *This*, *That* and *When*.

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At the end of it all, we’d lived our dream of Scottish winter for those three special days – the special kind of winter when the only time your axe is taken off your pack is to dig a hole to shit in. Striving, gurning and learning life-changing things about me, myself and I, because what more is there?

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A few bullet points to help you reach for the adventurist inside yourself:

  • Somebody else’s map is not your territory.
  • When considering your transport arrangements, the horse goes in front of the cart.
  • Affiliate links are not hero points.
  • You are not an ‘imposter’. Everyone is welcome #outthere, but excess baggage is best left at home.

 

Avon Calling

Third time lucky for Ben Avon and I, and a 2 day traverse from Toumintoul, with a bike in to the Linn of Avon. I also walked over to Ben a' Bhuird's north top, and then around to pay my respects at a crash site. I don't wear a poppy, but I'm not dumb to the cost of war. It was a deeply affecting place to spend some time. Otherwise, I was alone and saw no-one for the duration, so I spoke to myself and I spoke to the mountains, and once or twice I think they might have answered back. That's a good outing then, and always useful to get a reminder of winter's wildness just before it begins in earnest. I wanted for more warm clothes both moving and at camp. 

For those interested the long shots are taken with the new Sony FE100-400, which for my money (and that is a lot of my money) is a really wonderful lens. On the downside, the battery life on the Sony A7Rii (new to me) is appalling in the cold!

Time is short, so to the pictures... As always, if on a desktop, click to make big.

Amateur Mountaineer

As the first snowfall reaches the Scottish Mountains this week, I thought I'd share a yarn from January 2015 that I wrote up for the BMC's Summit Magazine, published under the title "White Lines" in winter 2016. It's about a bit of an epic in the hills north of Glasgow.

This one is for the Scottish Mountaineers. Enjoy the coming season - everyone - be safe.


Our story begins not on the hill or in the layby, but in the weeks before, riven with storms and early season indecision. Attempting to make a square peg match a round hole, to find a weekend free of responsibilities to coincide with weather that doesn’t threaten life and limb. No amount of pushing and shoving at the back will make this happen ahead of time, patience is called for and I’m always left wanting. But, by a Monday in January a plan had formed. By Wednesday my two cohorts had bailed. By Thursday the avalanche forecasts all read red or black. And by Friday the update promised a window. Small, but as imperfectly perfect as I could expect. I moved choice of venue east a few miles and left Glasgow at 6am the following morning.

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Heavy snow in the headlamps on a slippy A82, no wind and low fog in the plantations above Cranlarich. I found my pace and adjusted to snow muted silence after weeks of distractions, content for now to see how far the weather would allow me to get. A winter camp and photos of sunset and sunrise would do I suppose, though I hoped for a full round of Cruach Ardrain, Beinn Tulaichean, Stob Binnean and Ben More. I waded through the rides at the end of the forestry track and onto the open hillside, kicking through crust to frozen turf as the cloud smeared away to expose a watery, white and heatless sun. 

I played relay with 2 groups out for the day – 2 southern gentlemen up for a long weekend, and 3 likely lads from the Edinburgh suburbs who consistently outpaced us all. One of the things I love about the Scottish Outdoors is this ecumenicalism – up here this isn’t just a middle class pursuit, it really is ‘sport for all’. These winter hills are a great leveller, a place where action speaks louder than words, but neither speaks louder than place. The cloud hugged the ridgeline all the way to Meall Dhamh, an approach chosen for it’s offside angle to the avalanche risk on the northwest. I used to fear whiteout conditions, but now relish the navigational and sensory challenge, especially after a week of high winds to firm up winter’s macro textures. The gents catch me at the top, where we emerge from the inversion. A fogbow: My first, and theirs too. I imagine these old timers might have seen it all, but natural wonders never cease, and thankfully they make children of us all. I left them there and glissaded a few tens of metres.

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The ridge had taken longer than planned. I considered my options, but the sight of Cruach Ardrain in its dazzling winter getup was too much to bear. Time was still on my side if the weather held, so I climbed, meeting the Edinburgh contingent in high spirits on their return. Summit winds blew hard and cold, Ben More and Stob Binnean appearing as soft, impressionist paintings above the cloud. I descended into an ultraviolet dusk, left my bag at the bealach, and wandered to the top of Beinn Tulaichean as darkness took. Fiery oranges and purples gave way to delicate pastel pinks and baby blues, then to indigo, royal blues and the veiled grey-whites of a sub zero winter’s night.

Hot water wasn’t forthcoming. I dug a platform for the shelter, pitched my tarp on the lean and attempted again to nurse my ailing stove back to life. Eventually, the pump spat out its rubber seal, but not one ounce of heat. I pulled on the puffy gear and sorted through my edible supplies: A tin of mackerel, originally destined for the cous cous, half a chapatti, a few oatcakes, a chocolate bar, 2 muesli bars and a 100gms of hard cheese. The dried goods were ballast now. I wasn’t going to starve, but fluids were more of a concern. No soup, tea or coffee. Maybe a 100ml of water in the Nalgene, still in liquid form for now at least. Maybe an early night would be best.

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At 8pm I settled to sleep, and noticed distant avalanche rumble… At 11pm the winds picked up and I dug the snow over the shelter bottom to prevent spindrift entering… At 4am, I awoke again, an almighty hoolie blowing, shelter walls contorting. At least 3.5 hours till first light. Evac? I’d rather procrastinate. The temperature had risen a little and the centre pole had drilled a hole 4’’ into the snow. I stuffed the empty mackerel tin under the pole. 10 minutes later the pole had drilled another neat hole right through the tin. I had better luck with my crampon bag.

The pole continued to bow unnervingly, despite the increased tension – a lightweight model made for short alpine hiking trips, it simply wasn’t built for this abuse. By 6am stress fractures appeared on the joins. I readied myself for the inevitable, dragging heavy limbs out of layers and into others and returning to my bag. Around 7am it bowed for the last time. I was ready and prevented a rip in the tarp fabric. For 20 minutes I lay with the shelter in tantrums on top of me, and considered going back to sleep. Getting up now seemed marginally preferable to slow suffocation from drifting snow. Propping up the shelter with head and shoulders, I began to stow my kit. Forced every few minutes to lie down to release the pressure of wind blown fabric on my neck. At least there was no breakfast to fuss with – just the last dribble of water and half a muesli bar. Where are we on the fun scale now? Somewhere between a type 2 and 3? Am I mountaineering yet?

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I hauled myself and my bag to the door, and fought an epic battle with icy crampons and cardboard straps. Abstractly I found it pretty funny how long everything takes in extremis. I was still digging the shelter out as the sun rose and christened the tops of the An Caisteal group to my left. The wind seemed to drop a little. I took a few pictures and began my decent into the Coire Dudh; thirst on my mind, into pristine fields of deep drifts and layered crust. Spindrift dervished on the surface. There was no wind slab here to speak of. Now, full sunlight hit the tops of Cruchan Ardrain, Stob Garbh, Ben More and Stob Binnean. This is the part where I pay my respects, my Sunday Service. Maybe. I’m not so sure about idol worship, my relationship is always changing, but like so many others trip-by-trip I’m writing my own humble story of the Scottish winter hills – hours of discomfort interspersed with splintered minutes of transcendence.

I reached an open burn, to rest and drink. What next? Should I give up on my plan for the round and wade through waist high drifts for a few hours, or face a steep scramble on the west wall of Stob Binnean? The weather was hugely unsettled, repeated snow showers raced across the skies. I um’ed and aah’ed like the amateur I am, my prevarication grating. A professional would decide in minutes or less, and have more time in hand to work with. A little more wading decided the issue. I do at least know to trace my route carefully beforehand: First, to the big crag, then the lone birch, then the ice field, the turf ramps, to the crag wall, to top out.

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Initially, it’s easier than wading. There were beautiful convex fields of ice to walk across, then crusty turf, but quite quickly now the lack of food begins to tell. An occasional bite of cheese or chocolate failed to provide the necessary energy. The angle steepened and I dropped to all fours, daggering with the axe. I’d wrongly assumed from the glen that the upper crags were islands of safety, but instead they harboured deep slots concealed by snowdrift. Brought to a halt every minute or so, cursing the weight of the bag and my lack of strength. If this is what two missed meals does to me, what must Doug Scott have dealt with!? Why waste time with this pointlessness and not spend it with partner and daughter? Not appropriately ‘psyched’, no doubt. Indeed - for a few seconds doubt is the only thing not in question.

There’s more physical comedy and cursing near the top of the crags, as I scrabble along an icy shelf with scant purchase, the snow shovel on my pack catching the rocks above my head. Reserves are found, as is more turf to drive the axe into, I hang on tight and top out onto another bubble wrap ice field. Are we nearly there yet? Nope. Ankles ache to be released from spikey medieval torture tools; I’m beyond able to catch my breath. Can I get a witness? Trot on, little man. At the crest at last, contorted cornices are framed against an angry blue bruise of a sky, and the wind freezes the snot in my nose. But at least the octopus tentacles of doubt slither away from the edges of my consciousness – there is no more up! Turning into the wind to the north, I ask the ridge to take me home.

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A staggering old man hobbles northwards. A return of those tendrils of uncertainty on the short approach to the summit of Stob Binnean, which I reach at 4pm exactly, bent over pole and axe against the wind. There are sunset histrionics on my left, which turn the heavily rimed rocks a science fiction amber through these goggles - Marvel’s The Thing! It might as well be Pluto up here. A few more measly metres, and the bealach lurches into view. But it’s me that lurches. The wind actually screams here, and I’m sure the ice is groaning, or maybe it’s me … but down into the gloaming I go, heels first, fantasising about taking off those bloody steel spikes, finding water again and the track to the road.

As I push the pram around our local park the following day, I’m a ghost of my usual self. It’s relief to be home with hot food and drink, and the warmth of family a mere 48 hours after leaving. The following days are full of the same questions I always ask after a trip with some ‘edge’. Did I make bad decisions or use improper techniques? Should I have stayed at home? Some kit failed and I stayed safe, there was a wonderful sunrise and nobody died. We cannot and should not remove the risk from mountains – it’s part of the experience and most of the challenge. Could I improve decision-making, fitness, and technique? Always…

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Was this mountaineering? Was it technical enough, did I suffer enough… or did I make a mountain from a molehill? Oh, the vanity! None of us need apologise for someone else’s idea of epic. Call it what you want, the labels don’t matter. This is Scotland in winter, where the lines blur between disciplines, and thank heavens for that. They are also my hills now, the best risky play I can enjoy without being naked or high. Out there I’m both of those anyway.

Personal reflection is vital, but we’ve nothing to prove to each other – only ourselves. So enough of all that. The more interesting question is always the same - why bother? Why go to the mountains? I still ask this, and maybe that’s as well. For those moments in-between the non-sense, is my reply. For the value I place on being in the midst of a beautiful, unsolvable puzzle. Because I’m lost without them, and lost within them.