Slackdhu (top) - 496m
Friday 19th February 2010

Weather/Conditions: Wonderful day, with clear blue skies, minimal wind and fog carpeting Glasgow. Clear views out to the snow capped peaks of the Southern Highlands. Very special.
Distance/Ascent/Time: 4.8km / 400m / 1h 15m
Accompanying: Alone

I write about Slackdhu time and time again. It's my home territory, but today there there was something extra. It was my first walk since my hillwalking partner and friend Michael Coffield died at the too-young age of 28. If I were to write about this Slackdhu walk, then it would make little sense without first mentioning the background story.

I met Michael in May 2009, and began walking a lot with him in August. We climbed the Northern Highland Munros, the Fisherfield Mountains, many of the Loch Quoich-Glen Shiel peaks, Glen Lochay (Killin), and did winter ascents of a few Glen Coe peaks. We also commonly climbed at night, did Ciste Dhubh in a whiteout in the early hours of a December morning, climbed the Buachaille Etive Mor in wonderfully atrocious winter conditions and did Meall Ghaordaidh on a pitch black night, the sky ablaze with stars. In short, I had a lot of good memories. He asked me on the afternoon of the 13th February if I wanted to do Mayar, Driesh and the Lochnagar peaks. I had to turn it down because a rehearsal on Friday night was keeping me in Glasgow. He went up anyway and in the style he was good at, climbed Mayar and Driesh Friday night, got a couple hours rest before setting off up the Lochnagar peaks on the Saturday. Amazingly, he did them from Glen Doll in the south, a 40+ km walk, and made it safely back to his van. He drove across to Glenshee where he planned to sleep for a few hours before probably intending to return home.

But by Sunday night, no one had heard from him in over 24 hours. A search began and the police were out. Kevin McKeown drove the long miles to the area to find no trace of Michael or his van. On Tuesday morning, forum regular and friend to Michael and I, Mackenzie, gave me the terrible news that Michael had passed away in the back of his van, knowing nothing had happened. He died in the early hours of Sunday morning, even before the alarm was raised. When the news of his death was fresh, my ambition to climb or to do almost anything had vanished.

Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday passed by and by Friday I felt ready to have a go at the mountains again to see what and how I felt about it. While I hadn't felt like climbing over the preceding week, I'd suspected my motivations would remain intact. When I went out to Strathblane on the Friday morning, I knew I hadn't lost it. The sun was out, the sky blue and defiant Slackdhu sat behind a veil of haze. It looked enormous and equally magnificent.

I traced out my normal route with my eye, my stomach knotting as I passed the crags and snowfields.

But I could do it and had done it many times before, it's easy.

But that mountain looks huge...

I felt like I'd never even been here before. I was looking at the mountains with unique eyes, feeling things I hadn't felt since I was a little boy when the mountains seemed so inaccessible and high up in the sky. Something had changed inside since Michael's death. Stray clouds brushed up against the slopes of the mountain and served to make me feel more in awe. This place left me in awe, I knew I wouldn't have left it. And so I left Blanefield with chocolate and water in my bag from the local shop and started up the lower slopes, up the rough track and past the inquisitive cows. I was carrying quite a lot of gear in case the snowfields at the crux of the route were frozen solid and my heart was pounding in no time. It felt good to be panting away, seeing the product of hard work in the form of the mountain landscapes before my eyes.

I brought the ice axe out before I reached the snowfields because I knew I couldn't fumble about with my rucksack on the steep slopes at the snow where I would need it. It served as a good walking pole and anchor in the grass anyway, and served as a crucial piece of gear when I reached the final snowfield before emerging above on the plateau. The melt water from the hard packed snow had flattened and smoothed the grass upon which I walked. Two axes would have been more preferable as a means of always having a solid anchor, but I was across in no time and I headed up onto the summit.

I'd been busy climbing until the point that I reached the top, and then the more conventional thoughts rushed back into my head. I'd felt like this was my first walk back after a long break and memories of Michael and the search for him were fresh. The reality just hit at the top and I felt sad that Michael wouldn't see this again. The mountains were so beautiful, I was alive and he wasn't. I didn't feel guilt, just unfairness. The emotion couldn't be contained, but I sat in the calm warm air with many a thought running through my head.

I descended by my 'route #1' (See route image here) to the east of the main cliff bands, which felt unnerving. Strange this considering it is a route I almost ran down in November. Recent events seemed to have taken a hit and I probably wasn't on top form. I got down to the private road without issue and made my way back to Blanefield.

It had been a strange walk full of hard emotion, unique and sometimes insightful feelings, but certainly reassured me that I still loved the mountains. And so I continue climbing. I never forget and probably never will forget the memory of Michael and all we accomplished together, but I move on, keep achieving and keep climbing mountains. After all, isn't that the very essence of living?


Summit Views


360° Panorama

Times (Time relative to 0.00)
(0.00) 11.15am Blanefield
(0.55) 12.10pm Slackdhu
(1.15) 12.30pm Slackdhu (left)
(1.55) 1.10pm Blanefield

Written: 2010-02-28