I thought I’d attempt a Munro this weekend. This was a serious proposition: a Munro is a mountain over 3,000 feet; about three times as high as any hill I’ve climbed since my stroke. After reflecting for some time on the ‘easiest’ Munro I could think of, I decided to try to climb Beinn Ghlas. This was a mountain I felt comfortable with, and was pretty sure I could get up and down. It is in a range we know quite well (for example, here we are three years ago, clambering about neighbouring Meall nan Tarmachan and the Ptarmigan Ridge.) Under ‘normal’ circumstances I would have thought nothing of spending a whole day in these hills, taking in several Munros and tops, but these were not normal circumstances, and I knew that I had to keep the walk as manageable as possible. For those without mobility problems or limited energy reserves, Beinn Ghlas would be described as an ‘easy’ mountain: the start point is a car-park several hundred feet above sea level and the path up is reasonably straighforward, with no tricky scrambling.
Saturday was a driech sort of day, but we had got up early, and made a good start.
The poles really do make an enormous difference to the way I walk on uneven ground – they give me balance and stability, meaning I can feel more confident about my weak left leg. I still have to think about the placement of my foot with every step I make, but the poles make this much easier.
It got claggier and claggier the higher up we got. Bruce developed fearsome old-man’s eyebrows.
We may be some time . . .
Nothing about this was easy, folks – these rocks are composed of mica schist, which can be very slippery underfoot – but I just kept whacking the poles in, and swinging my weak leg up. I felt pretty sure that I could do it.
A few days after arriving at the Astley Ainslie, one of my medical team told me that, because of my ‘dropped’ left foot, I would have to get used to the idea that I probably wouldn’t be able to get up mountains anymore. I remember bursting into tears and being unable to do much for the rest of that day. I remember staring at my stubborn, dead toes, wishing vainly I could wiggle them. I tried and tried to will the foot into movement. Nothing happened. But then I started work with a physio*, who was as determined as I that I would climb another mountain. We hit the foot. We iced the foot. We bombarded the foot with stimulus and sensation. Finally, we tried the old ruse: she put a mirror between my ankles and told me to wiggle the toes of my right foot. This tricked my brain into believing that my dead, immovable limb was actually the moving, reflected one. Eventually, there was a miraculous flicker of movement in my left big toe, and after that, we had something to work with.
“Now,” said Tom, after taking my picture at the summit, and giving me a hug, “let’s get down off this chuffer.” Alright, then!
The sun was trying its best to burn off the cloud. At about 2,000 feet, we could at last see Loch Tay below us.
Descending was really much more difficult. I was physically exhausted from the climb, and began to acquire a (now familiar) piercing headache in the place where I had my stroke. Then, with a few hundred feet to go, my brain gave up and decided that my left leg was actually just a giant hunk of meat that happened to be attached to my body. The leg refused to move properly, but me and my poles managed to drag the damn thing back to the bottom of the mountain.
Bloody hell! I was up there!
How I have missed the mountains. I like to be in the exposed places. I like seeing, as one climbs, the trees and grass giving way to bare rock, lichen, and tiny alpine plants. I like to feel the kind of wind that you can only feel at three thousand feet. I like to get down, and take off a pair of worn boots, glittering with mica dust. I like to feel the bliss of putting a fresh pair of woollen socks onto walk-knackered feet. I like to feel tired in a good way. I must build up my strength and stamina, and continue to work hard with my leg and foot, so that I can feel lots more of it.