Sometimes when am out walking or climbing in the hills alone, I am reminded of a strange and unsettling encounter I had many years ago while camping on the rugged and beautiful west coast of Scotland in Glen Affric.
It was June and I had agreed to keep my friend company the night before he took part in the daunting Highland cross, a grueling duathlon that involves running and cycling through some pretty remote glens. A race designed to test even the fittest of athletes.
We had agreed to camp the night before in a super little site in the clachan of Morvich which sits quietly at the end of Loch Duich. More importantly for us, it was the entrance to the impressive Glen Affric, the official starting point of the race. This Glen , a place of desolation, is surrounded on each side by intimating rock giants that tower over you like great guardians that have stood silently since the dawn of time.
I had my own reasons for being there of course and that was to climb Beinn Fhada , a massive jutting spine of rock that dominates the mouth of the Glen. I had been there before and vowed to come back and scale that Goliath! This would be the perfect opportunity to do so while getting to camp and hang out with my old friend.
We spent Friday night relaxing by our tents, chatting with other runners and enjoying the company. We ate well and called it an early night. My friend had a tough day ahead of him and I wanted to be up and on the hill by four am to catch the first light and hopefully have the mountain to myself. We crept off to the comfort of our sleeping bags to dream of the adventures that lay ahead.
I awoke at dawn as planned to a quiet campsite, only the birds were awake with me. They were greeting each other in that magnificent manner, whistling hello to the world and bringing a smile to my face. I had already filled my water bottles the night before and prepared my snacks so after hastily flinging my clothes on and stuffing my feet into my boots I was up and at them.
I snuck out of the campsite and strode into the Glen. Morning dew glistened on every surface, the early light causing it to sparkle. I hiked hard and fast up the land rover tracks that lead you into the Glen. Staring down the mountain I hoped to standing on top of in a few hours, made my pace quicken I was anxious for the summit! Eager for that feeling that comes when you’re standing alone up top of a mountain surveying the landscape stretched out before you, like your very own kingdom.
About an hour had past and I was already well into the south facing flanks. They were dotted with rough grass and bogs and the occasional pile of rocks here and there. Sweat was already starting to soak through my base layer but I didn’t slow down. I looked ahead and kept focused on a huge Corrie about another thousand feet up. I planted it in my mind that this is where I’d take my first break, drop my pack and find a flat rock to rest my body.
The brief rest would be my reward for getting an early morning rise and keeping a quick pace. I could take in the stunning view of the loch below me stretched out towards the Isle of Skye. The thought helped me onwards and upwards as I pushed towards my goal of reaching the Corrie. It’s about then that I first became aware of someone or something watching me. When out in the wilds, on your own, it is not unusual to feel you’re being watched but generally your admirer turns out to be a sheep.
My eyes scanned the grassy flanks for a hint of their white, wooly coat. In the winter months you could quite literally step on a sheep if your not careful , their white bodies are one with the snow. However, it was not winter and they would not be easily camouflaged in the green grass. Nothing jumped out at me, no sheep,no deer,no eagle gliding above, just me and the massive mountain.
The Corrie loomed closer and larger as I gained height and closed in on my target. The summit too was looking like it was within my grasp. I could make out the craggy rocks and faint trails on the ridge running north west, deep into the Glen.
My excitement had now begun to become a secondary emotion, overpowered by the eerie sensation of being watched. My logical and experienced hiking mind told me there must be hiker nearby so I’d stop about every 20 feet to scan the hillsides fully expecting to see a fellow hiker picking his way up the rocks or even heading down off the summit.
The thought of running into another hiker ticked me off because I had taken great pride in being on the hill by first light. Had I been outdone by another hiker? I was torn between my greed to have the summit peace all to myself and the need to resolve the mystery of what was lurking about watching me. I wanted to get back to focusing all my attention on getting to the Corrie. Still nothing moved in front of me or behind me…nothing stirred …as far as I could tell it was still just me and the massive mountain.
As I closed in on the Corrie I felt a new feeling, fear. My thoughts were racing ahead of me, my mind was flooding with dark thoughts. My mouth was dry and my heart was beating fast – I was freaking myself out! I knew I had to stop, take a rest and calm down. “There was nothing out there” I told myself. I kept reassuring myself I was going to be fine. I’d just pushed too hard and needed to rest and regroup.
I dropped my pack and took out my water bottle all the time watching for movement in the boulders around me. I stood in the Glen’s eerie silence starring at the Corrie in front of me. I couldn’t take my eyes off it. High up on the mountainside not even the wind making a sound – the silence was deafening.I felt something surrounding me, a presence engulfing me. I wave of impending of doom washed over me. My thoughts turned to vivid images of gore and blood and a dull sense of pain took over my body. I actually felt the urge to smash my face off the rocks around me. The urge to run and jump off the ledge to my left. Images of my teeth dashed against the granite and my own fist pounding my face and being rammed down my throat filled my mind. Anger and rage coursed through my veins, my knees buckled and I hit the ground! What on earth was happening to me? I felt sick to the very core of my stomach, I was scared , scared beyond belief!
As I sat there the Corrie hung over me, silent and massive it seemed as if it was closing in on me. I felt as if it was going to devour me, swallow me whole and digest me in its earthly belly. In a moment of clarity, I knew that I had to get the heck out of there. I clambered to my feet and grabbed my pack. I stumbled back the way I had came too fearful to look behind me.
I just kept moving forward , running quickly downhill, trying to outpace what was stalking me like a hungry beast up in that Corrie . My heart was still racing, my mind trying hard to clear the images of horror and death while I concentrated on each footstep. It took all I could muster not to run myself of the edge of the hillside.
I wanted off this mountain! I wanted to be back in the campsite, back in my warm sleeping bag. Was this all a bad dream? I still felt that whatever was up there was snapping at my heels, gnashing its teeth, just waiting for me to trip up so that it could finish what it had started and finish me off. I had to keep moving!
I am not sure how far I stumbled down that hillside, bouncing from rock to hillock, splashing through bogs without caring before I ran out of steam and slumped against a boulder. Gasping for breath, I stared back up at the Corrie now way high above me. Whatever overtook me up there had lost its grip. My mind had cleared. I was trying to sort out what had happened up there high on that mountain side. Did I freak out? Did I imagine this? Had my mind played a mean trick on me?
All I knew was I wanted off the hill! I moved on back down to the stone strewn land rover tracks before I took my pack off and sat down. I laughed at myself and cursed for being so silly. Had I let my imagination get the best of me? My anger flared momentarily at the thought of not getting to the summit…how could I have given up? I promised myself that I’d be back one day to conquer it but for now I was happy to head for the campsite, get a good breakfast and put some distance between me and the seemingly paranormal activity of Glen Affric.
I didn’t share my experience with my friend that evening. In fact, I kept it to myself for many years, choosing to keep it buried away in the vaults of my memory. Fearing that if entertained this dark presence it would tag along and ruin my future hillwalking adventures.
This strange occurrence was locked away in my mind, until one day while reading about the west coast of Scotland I came across an article that stopped me dead in my tracks.It was about a light aircraft that had flown into some bad weather and had gotten lost. Nothing unusual about that, as every pilot knows the risks involved in low level flying in the glens and mountains. It was the location where the fateful aircraft came down that had me gripped! The type was jumping off the pages… a mountain in Glen Affric!
The hapless pilot had lost his bearings it seemed and flown straight into the side of a mountain. He had crashed into a Corrie high on the hillside, killing himself and his passenger. The wreckage of the small plane was reduced to nothing but scattered scrap metal, burnt and twisted beyond all recognition.
I sat staring at the article. My mind once again swimming in the images of that dark foreboding Corrie. My heart began to race, my palms became sweaty and my mouth was dry. I realized that what I had felt up there in the solitude of the mountain was the terror, the pain, the death and destruction that crash had left on the landscape.
I haven’t been back to the mountain but I think of it often, when the trails I wander are quiet and lonely. I think of that deep, dark Corrie and of the tragic event that happened there many years ago.I will go back one day just as I promised. I will go back for that summit. This time I’ll say a prayer for those who lost their lives that fateful day, maybe lay some thistles, let them know I’m sorry for their loss and try to heal the wounds they left on that mountain. Maybe this time, they will let me pass by in peace.