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
The full version of this article is only available to subscribers to Slightly Foxed: The Real Reader’s Quarterly. To continue reading, please sign in or take out a subscription to the quarterly magazine for yourself or as a gift for a fellow booklover. Both gift givers and gift recipients receive access to the full online archive of articles along with many other benefits, such as preferential prices for all books and goods in our online shop and offers from a number of like-minded organizations. Find out more on our subscriptions page.Subscribe now or Sign in