LIKE MOST PEOPLE, I guess I never really thought in any depth about a time when I'd not be able to get on to the hill. It was too far in the future; it would never happen; I could even die before I got so decrepit. OK, there's been a gradual decline in my performance on the hill. "Quality miles instead of quantity", was one of my reasons (really they were excuses) for not going as far. I even used Nora Batty's instruction to Wally when she needed a rest: "Look at the view!". Mind you, a girlfriend used to use that when she was out of breath. Then we'd have a fag.
Over the years, the idea took hold that when the time did come I wouldn't be able to bear the thought of not being able for it and would stay away from high country. Then sense took over; of course I wouldn't give up on it all. I might not be able to get as far up the hills, but I could still look at them. A bit like some old fellow who can't keep up his end of the bargain but...?
Last summer, I was prancing about on Canadian glaciers like a chamois. This spring, I could hardly walk across the kitchen without swearing at the pain. A slight fall after I got home seems to have started something. One fractured vertebra, two compressed discs and a trapped sciatic nerve don't make anyone happy. At times I've had to use a taxi to get to my acupuncture sessions. That's normally a seven-minute walk via footpaths and a sports field. I even asked my GP to write me up as having Tourette's Syndrome in case I got lifted for swearing in the street.
Things have seemed better after acupuncture; I've even gone nearly a full day without using the TENS machine. I've started a back rehabilitation programme and I'm waiting to start a pain management course. So I was looking forward to a triumphal return: I got back after bowel surgery and after a coronary bypass, so why should this be any different? More fool me.
The other week one of my sons took me up to Northumberland for a few days. Nothing special; we did the tourist things, Bamburgh Castle, Lindisfarne, the Farne Islands boat trip. Creaky people even older than me can manage that sort of thing. But I struggled on Lindisfarne, only managed to get as far as the white pyramid at the north end of the island. Lee and Jackie wanted to go round the dunes to spot seals, but I knew it was out of the question for me. I insisted they carry on while I took a slow daunder back to the village. And it was slow: several stops to sit and swear, several to take pictures (another good excuse). I came home in worse shape than I left.
So the sad conclusion is that, barring miracles, I won't ever get back on the hill again. Being a born-again atheist I guess I'll be passed over for a miracle, which means that I'm effectively grounded. One thing I regret is the number of times I've passed up the chance of time on the hill in favour of another activity that I love as much. Playing music can be as strong an addiction, you know, and it's usually carried out in some warm and pleasant pub. But pubs are warm and pleasant all year round; they can be played in when it's cold and dark outside. So there's the regret that I didn't ration the time better but gave in to impulse so often.
For now, I'm a far from happy kiddie. Eventually I will get back within sight of the hills, just not as close as I'd like. I'll return to Knoydart, but probably not venture far from Inverie. No bad thing; I've a lot of good friends amongst that community, but it won't be the same. I'll return to Eigg as well; who knows, I might even manage An Sgurr on a very good day. My kids and grandkids can take their pick of my gear, though none have shown much interest in winter walking, so crampons and axes will gather dust until I find a kind home for them.
I'm sad, really sad; just this morning, the west wind was ripping cumulus to bits and scattering them across a blue sky; just the hill conditions I like best. And I can't do a damned thing about it. I never thought it would end with a whimper. Several times in the past it nearly ended with a bang but I always survived. I just hope I don't end up boring people in pubs with long moans about how much better it used to be. If I you ever hear me doing that, you've my permission to give me a good bollocking.
So maybe, like John Campbell of Ballachulish:
Oh chí, chí mí na morbheanna,
Oh chí, chí mí na corrbheanna,
Oh chí, chí mí nan coirechann,
Chí mí nan sgurreann fo cheo.
Just from a distance, that's all.
Oh I will see, I will see the high mountains
Oh I will see, I will see the steep mountains,
Oh I will see, I will see the corries,
I will see the peaks under the cloud.
(Surprisingly, I can sing the translation to the tune with no bother at all.)
TAC 72 Index