The Cliffs of A'Mhaighdean

Your thought process is a unique one when hanging by the tips of your fingers from a ledge above a 25ft cliff. The overpowering knowledge that imminent death is a reality makes it difficult to move. I realised that if I didn’t move, I would certainly die, and so began to scale the cliff. One small movement at a time felt easy until I put my foot on a loose rock and it came away.

I had been walking solo for four days less than a month, traipsing through rough northern Scotland in never-ending wind and rain. Sponsored by my university, my goal was to climb 50 of Scotland’s 283 ‘Munros’ (3000ft mountains) in one month, and I had only 6 to go. My last four days took me to the ‘Great Wilderness’ of Fisherfield, an area the size of Manchester containing no roads and a vanishingly small number of people. It was here that I was to climb my remaining Munros, including the fearsome A’Mhaighdean, the most remote Munro of all.

I had approached A’Mhaighdean in foul conditions; no visibility, sub-zero temperatures, driving rain and hurricane-force 100mph winds greeting my ascent. When I eventually reached the top, I realised that my map would disintegrate if I so much as took it out of my pack, and so navigated using what little I could remember of the map in what I thought was the direction of the north-eastern pass and my route of descent. In fact, I was heading straight towards the eastern portion of the massive north face of A’Mhaighdean, sheer cliffs of 1000ft plunging into the dark waters of Fuar Loch Mòr.

It was through inane route-finding and a blind stumble down increasingly precipitous and slippery slopes that I found myself above a sheer sandstone cliff, clinging to two wet tufts of grass for all I was worth. I was more frightened than at any other time in my life. I knew that should I slip, I was dead. Even if the fall did not kill me, then I was not expected anywhere for three days, and so would not be looked for or found by anything except red deer. Though moments such as this are supposed to inspire feats of heroism and legendary deeds, I found I could not move one muscle in my body.

My attempt to galvanise some survival instinct involved burying my face in the grass and swearing at the top of my voice into the wind and rain. The magnitude of the situation crystallised before me, and suddenly I could not move fast enough. I worked my way down the cliff face until my foot slipped, and I fell.

I felt 15ft of air whip past my face, somersaulted, and landed on my pack, which smashed. I rolled down, hitting my face and knee on sharp rocks and coming to a halt above a second precipice. My hands were cut open, my knee swollen, and my mouth filling with salty blood.

I bolted upright and remember feeling an overriding surprise that I was still alive; I knew, as I realised my skull was unbroken and my limbs were intact within reason, that I was probably going to stay that way for some time. Relief, pain, elation, sadness and an overwhelming guilt at what I had almost done to my family pelted me with the sideways rain. I curled up, shivering and berating myself for ending up in such a position; this was a place I didn’t want to be.

J Black

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