Published: 22/02/2012 11:00 - Updated: 21/02/2012 09:16

Going solo to enjoy the hills

A view of Morven from near Wag.
A view of Morven from near Wag.
The Cuillin ridge was negotiated solo by Ralph. He says: ‘I completed that ridge on my nerves, having to find for myself the way round all the difficult obstacles and traps.’
The Cuillin ridge was negotiated solo by Ralph. He says: ‘I completed that ridge on my nerves, having to find for myself the way round all the difficult obstacles and traps.’

WHENEVER I give slideshows of walking the cliff tops and mountains, or kayaking the coast, the question is always asked… "do you go alone?" The answer, "yes, almost always". The next question… "do you tell anyone where you are going?" Well, usually not!

Ever since climbing my first mountain on my own (in Wales) at the age of 14, I’ve very rarely gone out on the hills with anyone else. It’s not that I don’t like people, I enjoy social walks pottering around the countryside at low levels. It’s just that the freedom of the hills is mostly lost when in company, and instead of an opportunity to watch the scenery and wildlife and weather, to meditate and think, most of the time is spent talking or looking out for the safety and comfort of the others.

Frankly, I’m also much safer on my own. The few times I’ve got into really unpleasant situations have been when I’ve gone with others, who I thought were more experienced, and have been then led into places and dangers which, on my own, I’d have kept well clear of. It’s the groups of four – once cited as the minimum number to safely walk the mountains – that get into trouble. On my own I make sure to keep well within my capabilities. Farmers, crofters, fishermen and creel-boaters usually go out alone without telling anyone and nobody worries.

At the age of 19 I spent five weeks walking through the remotest parts of Scotland, up to Cape Wrath and back down through the Cairngorms, and nobody knew where I was going.

Often I’ve disappeared into the hills on my own for a few days or a week, without any mobile phone or suchlike. All the Munros were climbed alone, with one exception, the Inaccessible Pinnacle of Skye where I needed a guide to take me up the rock climb to the summit.

On my own I swam, without a wet suit, in every loch in Caithness, and continue to happily swim in out-of-the-way lochs and rivers. I’ve spent countless nights on my own, camped or in bothies, miles from the nearest human being and without any modern communication gadgets. In the hills, or on uninhabited islands, you’re never lonely. That only happens in towns and cities.

THE Cuillin ridge in Skye is one place where I would have been happier with company. I completed that ridge on my nerves, having to find for myself the way round all the difficult obstacles and traps. The day out with the guide, when we completed the classic circuit of Coire Lagan, was the only time I’ve been really relaxed on the ridge and fully able to enjoy the tremendous scenery.

And without a guide I would never have found the most spectacular path in Britain, Collie’s Ledge, which winds its way across a huge rock face below the summit of Sgurr Mhich Coinnich.

But Skye is the exception and rock-climbing is one activity I would not do alone (I’d add to that paddling rivers of more than grade two). In virtually all of the rest of Scotland you can safely walk and scramble in solitude. People who object to my going alone are usually rather envious; they would love to have the freedom of kayaking a gentle river or a wild stretch of coast, or walking for miles over the tops without meeting anyone all day, but haven’t the confidence to attempt it. Indeed, if you haven’t the confidence to go out alone, don’t.

However if you go with others don’t rely on them being able to rescue you and make sure you have the experience to cope if everybody else gets into difficulties!

Being with people of more experience, whether on the hills or the sea or the rivers, gives an opportunity to push well beyond what I’d attempt alone and thereby gain more experience myself. The occasion may involve plenty of adrenalin but will probably not be a relaxing day out!

Similarly, a day spent taking less-experienced folk out can be enjoyable and rewarding but is hardly relaxing. For a true day or week off, it’s much better to be alone.

Firstly, I can get an early start. Most folk like to take their time in the mornings, hillwalkers rarely get off before 10am while paddling groups are lucky to be on the water by 11am. Much of the day has already gone! If I could be in the office for work by eight, I reckon I should be setting out on the hills or the sea by then, the whole day ahead without time constraints. Okay, in winter maybe 8.30 or it’s still dark. And other people’s pace is rarely right, either on the hills or the water.

On your own you see, and hear, so much more. You can choose where to go depending on how you feel, the weather, the tides, without having to plan it all in detail beforehand. You’re going for a gentle day out, not a Polar expedition.

In my experience it can be dangerous to tell folk where you are going, you then feel duty-bound to stick to the route and if you decide to do something different and do come to grief it would be better not to have said anything. Many false call outs of rescue services have happened because promises to get back by such and such a time were delayed by impossible river crossings or changes in weather.

The freedom of having a whole range of mountains to myself, or of just being able to paddle at my own pace, to land and explore any little rocky beach, to maybe just sit for 10 minutes watching the waves and listening to the sea birds... these are things you can only get alone.

MY last little solo trip, on one of the finest days of the year, was from Berriedale. I’d taken the mountain bike and set off (it was after eight, but only just!) up the long estate road through the fine Berriedale woods and out along the Langwell valley to Wag.

The track was hard frozen, the wind light, the cycling good. You can’t set off from Berriedale without everyone seeing you and knowing where you are going, and I soon met the gamekeeper and told him my plan of heading for Morven then on west.

From Wag a quad-bike motorway heading up the glen churns through the morass, frozen hard it gave excellent walking. Before long I was on the top of Morven, enjoying blue sky, a light dusting of snow and long views over the Caithness and Sutherland landscape with the low winter sun throwing hill shadows far across the sunlit Flow Country.

Carefully scrambling down the icy boulders to the west, I crossed the usually soggy col to Small Mount, finding this time easy walking along the frozen peat-hags. Very few people head further west. These are some of the remotest hills in Caithness but there is a fine walk across gravelly, wind-blasted ridges towards Cnoc an Eireannach. All around there is empty landscape, nobody about for miles. On Wagmore Rigg the breeze dropped away and I sat for a minute or two in the sun listening to the sound of complete and utter silence.

The old wheelhouse and clearance ruins at Wag basked in enormous quietude, the low sun of early February dipping below the hills. Those who once lived here would have made the most of this fine day for outdoor work, knowing all too well there was plenty of winter still to come.

The sun had softened the track surface a little and yellow mud liberally sprayed the bike as I coasted back down the miles to Berriedale, having seen nobody all day until meeting the keeper escaping for the last of the daylight up the glen after having had to spend the day indoors.

You have to decide for yourself whether to run over mountains, paddle, rock-climb or even sail round the world alone. But it’s not a safety issue – if you are competent and stay well within your boundaries you will be much less likely to come to grief than in the company of others.

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