On a Scottish mountain, retreat isn’t always an option


Pick a major Scottish peak and you will almost certainly find it described in the superlative somewhere: most striking, most elegant, most challenging, or whatever. Anyone who has walked in this most majestic part of the British Isles will have a favourite.

Ben Lui, in the Grampians, is not my favourite as it happens. It is nonetheless a magnificent mountain; “one of the grandest” is a phrase that pops up in a quick Google search.

A favoured approach for walkers – and the one I took when climbing it back in 2006 – is from the northeast, which allows a perfect view of the great Coire Gaothach. This deep amphitheatre, carved out of the terrain by ancient glaciation, is the mountain’s calling card, drawing hikers into a shadowy embrace between high ridges to the left and right.

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There were six of us on that occasion: three of us in our twenties, two a generation older, and one somewhere in between; two father-child combinations and two outliers. Fitness levels diverged and the group had a habit of becoming strung out, often half a mile or so separating the pace-setters and the rearguard.

By the time I entered the corrie with my pal John, sure enough the others had fallen back. We knew of course where we were heading, and we had agreed as a group that we would advance to the peak via the eastern ridge.

But as is often the case in the Highlands, defined paths were unclear, if they existed at all. Had we looked behind us at the right moment we might have seen my father waving frantically at us in the distance, trying to signal that we should move further to our left – but we did not.

Instead, we made an all too common error of mistaking a scree fall some way off for a path. This gully seemed to cut between the eastern ridge and the main peak and appeared straightforward enough from a few hundred yards away.

Contours are hard to read when you are looking directly at a mountain, however: and when among Scotland’s mountains, it doesn’t do to assume any slope is gentle.

A young Will Gore in the Scottish highlands (Will Gore)

We realised quickly enough that the route we had chosen was challenging, a scramble to say the least, requiring hands as well as feet to gain a hold at all times. The rocks were fairly stable, locked in by thick grasses and moss. Thankfully the ground was relatively dry, although there was an occasional gurgle deep beneath my feet.

Halfway up I finally looked over my shoulder to see my dad bearing off to the east, ascending the ridge from a much lower point. For a moment I wondered if we should retrace our steps, following what he would no doubt tell us later was the marked path.

Looking immediately back from where we had come, however, and it barely seemed possible that we could return, it was almost like peering over a cliff edge. In any case, it would have felt like a defeat to go backwards.

So, we carried on climbing. After all, sometimes there is nothing for it but to keep calm and carry on. Or as Eighties pop singer Yazz would have put it: the only way is up.

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