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Mountain mindfulness: Companions

Ashley Evans SJ is an Irish Jesuit priest who has been working in Cambodia for over 30 years. In this last of a series of blogposts on ‘Mountain mindfulness’, he gives an account of the companions who have climbed the Scottish Highlands with him over the years, naming them the Hammer, the Horse and the Princess.

The Hammer, the Horse and the Princess

Every three years, I am allowed return to Ireland from the Jesuit Mission in Cambodia. Each time I slip over to Scotland for a mountaineering expedition. I usually climb alone but I have had companions for about 50 of my 200 Munros. These companions only number three; the Hammer, the Horse and the Princess. The Hammer, being local, preferred to camp. So we used to divide the extra equipment and gear in proportion to body weight which meant that his pack was usually twice as heavy as mine. This extra load did not prevent the Hammer from pulling me out from a stream in spate after I slipped on the log crossing it. With a single-handed Highland twist, he managed to pull me right back up onto the log and saved me from a right battering in the storm-filled stream.

On another occasion, I chose an unconventional route of descent off An Liathach (the fortress) in the Torridon Hills. We clambered down a steep gully of large boulders thinking that their size would prevent them from moving. This was a serious miscalculation. The whole road began to move under our feet and we had to dance a jig to prevent our legs being crushed under the rapidly moving boulders. From time to time, we could throw ourselves to the side of the gully onto the steep grass for a rest while the boulders stopped moving. As the Hammer’s weight with pack was considerably heavier than mine, his acceleration on the boulders increased more rapidly and his struggle to prevent himself being crushed had to be more energetic. Fortunately for me, each time we ended up on opposite sides of the gully so that he could only glare murderously across at me. We survived this ordeal.

The Horse is the fastest walker across rough terrain and gradual slopes that you are ever likely to meet. He received his nickname in our scouting days. The only thing that slows him down at all, are steep slopes. So it is important, when planning a route with him, to have a few steep slopes at judicious intervals. Otherwise you spend the whole day in a permanent jog to catch up with him. However for long routes with many Munros in one day, there is no better companion to pull you along. We once climbed up onto Lochnagar in the Cairngorms and then around four other Munros including Cnoc Mor an tSagairt, descending a long track down alongside Loch na Muice. The Princess comes from a far country and loves to take photographs of Highland scenery. So it is wiser to plan walks with her when the forecast is bad. She walks much faster in the mist and rain than in the sunshine.

Once while staying at the remote hostel at Loch Ossian, the old warden invited a mighty stag with enormous antlers to manoeuvre itself inside the hall door and then through the dining room door to receive his supper from the warden’s hands. All of us in the hostel just gazed in amazement. None of us had witnessed such trust between a deer and a human being before.

Perhaps those long hours spent tramping through the wilderness have facilitated a corresponding inner journey away from illusions and delusions to the truth about myself and my disordered desiring. St Ignatius of Loyola set the goal of the Spiritual Exercises as freedom from disordered desires so as to be able to discern well. Maybe I never really understood the meaning of these words until now. He spoke of disordered attachments but the modern word might now be addictions. One could also say that the goal of the AA twelve step program is “emotional sobriety”.

How Things Fall into Place

The practice of Buddhist meditation has a similar goal. Mindfulness is helping many people wake up to their imprisonment and addictions. However, if my mountain journeys mean anything then it is clear that there can be “no gain without pain”. One has to say no to every false idea, emotion and desire. There can be no compromise or surrender. We need to find our truth and live it fully. We have to let go of all our dreams in order to love our mysterious God fully with our whole heart. Only then can things fall into place in our lives.

Continue to follow Fr Ashley Evans’ journey on his blog Gaudium Mundi.