Robert Macfarlane on A. R. B. Haldane, Slightly Foxed Issue 36

Along the Old Ways

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For many years of my life, I was fascinated by mountains and their tops: drawn upwards by what Joe Simpson nicely calls ‘the inverted gravity’ that peaks exert upon certain people. I climbed and mountaineered – ineptly but passionately – in ranges around the world: Snowdonia, the Lake District, the Cuillins, the Cairngorms, the Alps, the Rockies, the Tian Shan, the Himalayas. All of these expeditions, from half-day to multi  month, were centred upon summits. My companions and I would scry our maps, mark the tops we wished to reach, then plan our journeys around those high points. It did not occur to me to explore a mountain without reference to its peak.

These days I still love mountains, but I find myself just as interested in their passes and paths as in their summits; just as intrigued by the valleys and notches that have been gouged out of them by ice and by water, and the tracks that have been worn into them by the passage of animals and humans. The Cairngorm mountains of Scotland, the range I know best, are most famous for their tops: the Cairngorm itself, lonely Ben Avon with its granite tors, sharp and shapely Cairn Toul, and the grey peak of Ben Macdui, from which I have retreated on two occasions in winter, chased southwards on skis and on foot by raving boreal blizzards.

But the Cairngorms also contain one of Britain’s greatest valleys, the Lairig Ghru, which divides the massif into two main groups, and which rises to a pass at 835 metres – higher than many British mountains. The traverse of the Cairngorms by means of the Lairig Ghru is a reasonable challenge for a modern-day walker. It is bouldery, high and wild, and requires long tramps in from either end. Its entrances are guarded by sentinel peaks, in winter it is snow-scoured, and in summer the midges emerge in their millions (midges like me a great deal; I, consequently, dislike them a great deal).

Whenever I am in the Lairig Ghru, and feeling tired, or footsore, or othe

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About the contributor

Robert Macfarlane is the author of Mountains of the Mind (2003), The Wild Places (2007) and most recently The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot (2012). Despite being a mountain-lover, he lives in Cambridge.

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