Reflections on some wider travels

(Written by Stuart)

For most of my adult life I’ve been a Munro bagger. Since I first learned to drive when I was nineteen I’ve lived for the days when I can jump in my car and drive off to the highlands and spend a day or two scampering like an excited puppy across a Scottish mountain ridge.

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I love the highlands of Scotland. On a good summer’s day, which are more common than you might believe, they become a paradise, a wilderness of mountain and glen, strewn with loch and moorland, the perfect place to lose yourself in. Even when the weather’s not so good, it still has its charm, a misty and moody landscape, offering challenges for even the hardiest outdoorsman. And while certain areas will always be busy, once you get to know the place, Scotland has an almost infinite number of places to hide away from the rest of the world in, where you can walk for miles and encounter no one.

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To me it was the perfect land, a magnificent combination of beauty, danger, magnificence and desolation. Nowhere could ever match it, at least so I thought.

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Then I went to the Alps. My first trips there were with my in-laws and I’ll never forget the trip we took to Bayrischzell, and the mountain that stood towering above it, the Wendelstein. A ten minute trip in a cable car had me at a higher height than I’d ever been in my life, and I was speechless at what I saw. Here I was, on a mountain in September, and it was an experience like no other mountain. The temperature was 26C at a height higher than Ben Nevis. Jagged mountain peaks stretched as far as the eye could see to the south, many of which were still snow capped from the previous winter.

And there was a restaurant. Developing mountains is an alien concept in Scotland and any attempts to do it are always fiercely resisted. In the Alps though, its the norm. Cold beer, hot food and an ice cream to finish sounds like a dream on a Scottish mountain, but here it was the norm. The culture could not be more different. I joked that in a Scotland mountain hut the first thing someone would say in the morning would be “look at the size of that rat!” In Germany its “would you like your beer here or on the veranda sir?”

And then there was the weather. Its not just that its warmer, with less wind and humidity, probably reaching the perfect sweet spot for naked hiking, its also an awful lot more stable. In Scotland, the weather changes rapidly, and a good forecast the night before a climb can change into a wind and rain soak depiction of hell when you check the forecast in the morning. There’s none of that in the Alps, warm, still weather wanders in, stays for a week or two, maybe with some overnight thunderstorms, before there’s a bit of wind and rain before the good weather comes back. There isn’t the enormous rain making machine that is the Atlantic Ocean parked to the side of it, so the instability and general wetness of Scotland just doesn’t happen there.

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The flip side to this though is the altitude. There’s no getting away from it, if you’re not in good shape, 2000m hurts. Ben Nevis, Scotland’s highest peak is 1344m, so there’s a real step up in terms of altitude. Its nowhere near high enough for there to be any danger from it, such as altitude sickness, but there’s no doubt you feel it in your lungs. The final pull up to an Alp’s summit is always tougher than it ever was on a Munro.

The German influence brings a sense of order to the whole proceedings though. Well marked paths with signposts at every fork cover the Alps, with routes being clearly numbered and painted Austrian flags on rocks and trees keep you straight when the path is obliterated by rough ground or buried under snow. It even has the length of time you can expect to take to get to your destination marked on the signs, although rumours that you are subject to random inspections to make sure punctuality is maintained and that you arrive on time may be exaggerated.

Also, the locals are a lot more tolerant of naturism in the Alps than in Scotland. In Scotland, a naked rambler goes to jail. In the Alps, there’s barely the bat of an eyelid.

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To a Scotsman, the Alps are a clash of cultures, a contrast that is at times difficult to understand. It is a wilderness tamed yet almost untouched, where beer gardens appear from nowhere then are gone with a few minutes walk, leaving the land seemingly untouched by human hand again. It is simultaneously on a grander scale, with larger and more defined peaks, yet somehow more accessible and available to all. Somehow, despite Scotland’s land access reforms, the German and Austrian Alps come across as a more egalitarian mountain environment, where children and the infirm can venture, yet where the hardy wilderness addict will be left more than satisfied by the mountain challenges on offer.

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Scotland is my home, and the mountains I grew up amongst will always be my first love. If I was a teenager again, they’d be my first choice to climb, to take on their challenge of pathless terrain and savage weather. I love the unpredictability and challenge they offer, and I’ll never stop climbing them as long as I live. But as I get older, I find myself looking to the Alps and their grander majesty and calmer conditions. I feel them calling me now, much like the Scottish mountains called me to them in my youth.

Maybe a restaurant on a mountain isn’t such a bad idea after all. Who wouldn’t want a cold one on the summit of a Munro after a long, hot climb to get there?

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