Where I am today, I can trace all the way back to that time on the mountain.
I suppose there are many people with similar stories but this one had so much impact on the rest of my life that I still think about it every day.
Prior to the mountain, I was just a guy who rarely thought of anything other than work and holidays. On one of those weeks every year, I would walk the West Highland Way with friends. It runs 95 miles from Glasgow to Fort William in the west highlands of Scotland. It can be a rough walk and usually is.
The first couple of times I went with my pal Freddie and his son. They were both very fit and enjoyed the experience a lot more than I did. We all suffered from blisters on our feet but my blisters seemed to have their own blisters.
I killed the pain by taking aspirin every morning – not a healthy way to walk. So I decided for the following year that I would get super fit and start to enjoy the walk.
And get fit I did. So much so, that we started not just to walk the 95 miles but to climb up every mountain over 3,000 feet along the way. In Scotland hills over that height are known as Munros after the man, Sir Hugh Munro, who recorded them.
Just before the walk reaches Glencoe, there is an estate known as the Black Mount which belongs to the Fleming family (as in Ian Fleming of James Bond fame). There is a path which winds through their estate and which follows the old military road built around 1750. About a mile or so into the estate there is a crossing called Ba’ Bridge. Freddie decided since it was such a warm, sunny, June day that we should climb over into Glencoe over the nearest munro.
We were in shorts and t-shirts as we ascended up the grassy slope. This took us on to a horse-shoe shaped area, and apart from the path we came up it was 2,000 feet down all around. The hills were sloped to the east and it was difficult to see to the west coast and appreciate what type of weather was coming.
We reached the top of the horse-shoe with little struggle. Then it suddenly got very cold, followed by a severe wind and then snow, lots of it – and all this in June. It came down so hard that it was impossible to see anything, a real whiteout. We were freezing and it was dangerous to walk any distance.
A few feet in front of us we saw a small wall of stones that had been built at the summit as a protection from the wind.And there we stayed as the weather closed in. It only got worse.
We sat looking at each other and freezing and I felt as if I was watching a film. How could this happen? It wasn’t meant to be like this, not here and now. Funnily enough the same feeling occured a few years later when we were landing in Helsinki airport and the landing gear wouldn’t come down.
Freddie and I covered ourselves and hoped it would pass and this was all before mobile phones. We hadn’t told anyone where we were going and we didn’t know ourselves until we were actually climbing the mountain.
I felt that if I was going to die of hypothermia then I may as well go for a walk and take my chances. In staying put there was a certainty of dying. Freddie decided to walk too.
What happened next you can interpret it as you feel fit. There was only one other way off the horse-shoe without falling 2,000 feet, a very narrow path (maybe two feet across) that provided a way across to the top of Glencoe.
Suddenly the sun came out – not across the sky but just one sharp sliver which had pushed through the clouds and lit up the narrow path; nothing else surrounding it, just the path. Although the snow was still falling, it was possible to see that the path led to a safe ledge and so we took it.
This is the part that made me change my idea of everything: when we got to the other side and safety, the sky clouded over and the sun disappeared. Not after a while, but right there and then.
We were able to walk down through the Glencoe ski area and reach the climbers’ bar at the Kingshouse.
We didn’t really talk that night – we both knew what had happened. We drank whisky and thought about things in front of a roaring fire.
When I got back home, I decided that if something wanted me to keep going then it might have an idea where I should go. Within a year I resigned my job and moved out into the world, a changed man.
Today, I write a little, act a little and sing a little all because of that day on the mountain. Hey, I'm poor in money but rich in everything else.
I know what happened that day and so does Freddie. I’m glad he was there or I might have doubted it.