Ashley Evans SJ is an Irish Jesuit priest who has been working in Cambodia for over 30 years. In this second of a series of blogposts on ‘Mountain mindfulness’, he reflects on a deadly encounter while climbing the Scottish Highlands and describes a majestic experience of God.
Cairngorms and Scottish Highlands
When I arrived onto the top of Sgurr nan Each, it felt like the end of a journey that began in Ballymun in 1989 when Michael Paul Gallagher gave me a present of a book on the Cairngorms. Presumably he felt that I needed to open my horizons beyond repeated ascents of Irish summits. I remember reading out from the appendix at the back of this book to the other members of my community at dinner. I was keen to explain to them that the list of mountain fatalities in the Cairngorms proved statistically that this mountain range was in fact the most deadly in the whole of Europe, despite the fact that the Dolomites and the Pyrenees were much higher mountains. The key fatal factor proved to be the appalling and unpredictable weather. The wind tended to push people over the edge and then the cold did them in.
So I heard the call. After my theological studies finished in Dublin in 1991, I was allowed a Scottish holiday. Once my companions heard of my plan for this expedition, none could join me on it. I cycled across to Glencoe first for a few days preparatory climbing before crossing the Highlands to Loch Morlich in the heart of the Cairngorms. In Glencoe, the mist was down to the road on the day that I set forth to conquer Bidean Nam Bean. Since the summit was only four hundred feet higher than Carrauntoohil in Kerry, I figured that I was well prepared. This was a foolish assumption. After snaking my way up the steep zig-zag trail through the forest out onto the wind-swept ridge, my rain-soaked map began to disintegrate. I reached the summit cairn shrouded in black mist. Now all I had to do was follow the compass bearing down safely. Bidean Nam Bean had other plans…
Mountain Highs and Lows
While descending down a steep incline which I had persuaded myself was a trail, I found that I had to face the rocks and grass while lowering my boots gingerly down to the next foot-hold. I could see an inviting little lochan about 500 feet below which signalled safety. Suddenly while standing on a grassy ledge, the clumps of grass gave way simultaneously and I was falling a good 10 feet into space. Luckily, a large slab of rock awaited me which smashed into my back and legs and knocked all the wind out of my lungs. I lay there for about 10 minutes wondering how much damage was done. I could move my toes so my spine was intact. My arms and legs seemed okay.
My left ankle hurt but I could leave it strapped inside the boot. I managed to hobble down the mountain and crawl back to the hostel. I had to rest there for three days with no climbing or cycling. Bidean Nam Bean had nearly killed me. About nine days later, I was ready for another big climb, this time in the Cairngorms. Once again the weather was terrible. I hiked across rough terrain for six miles to arrive at the base of the mighty Braeriach. There I found two groups of climbers who had turned back from the ascent as the wind, rain and mist promised only misery and danger. I sort of indicated that I would, of course, soon turn back also.
But I went up into the thickening mist, the thickest that I had ever experienced. Relying on the compass and the watch, I timed each leg so that I would know when to turn to find the narrow ridge up. At the top of the second incline, I had a decision to make. Turn back to safety, or trust the compass and watch in the darkest of mists. Slowly and tentatively I moved out onto the ridge feeling the increased exposure but not seeing any difference. Gradually the mist thinned out and the rain stopped falling. I emerged onto the summit of Braeriach and found the cairn. The wind was dying down. Slowly I edged along the path over the sheer drop into the corrie lake on the North side and found my way down onto the next ridge leading across to Carrauntoohil (they have one also). After a while I stopped to take a rest and to look back up the gentle ridge that I had just descended.
Suddenly, without warning, the mist lifted like a blanket being removed from a bed and the sun came out. Three corrie lakes with three cliffs arranged in a descending sequence stood before me, each one majestic in its own right. The sun caught the snow and ice remaining on the cliffs which shimmered in the sunlight. Ravens squawked in delight. Everything else was silent. There was nobody on the mountain. Then I knew. I really knew. God was there. He was speaking to me like He had spoken to Job; “you puny worm, who are you to climb my mountain in this weather? Now behold what I am showing you. No-one has ever seen these three corrie lakes like this before and no-one will ever see them like this again. This is my gift to you. Enjoy it and be gone”. I stood in awe and wonder at the magnificent craggy architecture and knew that I would never forget it as long as I live. I turned around and jogged down to the Devil’s point and then down from the col into the Lairig Ghru from which it was only a three mile jog to reach the base of Braeriach and then a six-mile trek back to the hostel. I took the train back down to Stranraer and home to Dublin.
In his next blogpost, Ashley Evans SJ 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. You can visit his website by clicking here.