We all hope there’s a long career of hillwalking ahead of us, but one day of course we’ll all climb our last. Ideally this would be a mountain that really means something. If you could pick your final peak, which would it be? I ask some well known hill folk that toughest of questions.
This feature was first published on UK Hillwalking in December 2017.
Earlier this year I was on the phone to my Dad when the conversation turned to his latest outdoor wanderings. Now in his early seventies, and after a lifetime of ‘wear and tear’ he remarked:
If I can get my back [a long standing issue] into some sort of shape I’d really love to do Snowdon this year. I can’t see me doing the horseshoe again. But… maybe if I got back to how I was six months ago we could even go to Glen Coe one last time!
A few weeks later I began to muse. If I got the choice, what would my own final hillwalking hurrah be? Almost feeling a bit let down with myself, as if my choice wasn’t quite grand enough, I settled upon Pen y Fan. My first mountain; one I’ve shared with both parents; one I’ve shared with most of my close friends; a place I’ve turned to when stressed, recovering from injury, or in need of redemption following one beer too many. In glorious sunshine, driving snow, or miserable clag – the hill has left its mark on me.
Be it the passing of time, injury or ill health we will all like my Dad come to contemplate our last ‘proper’ day out in the hills. Curious to know what others might choose I tasked a number of hill going folk (some you will know, some perhaps not) with answering this – If you had one decent hill left in you, which would it be?
Tryfan – Phoebe Smith, ‘Extreme Sleeper’, wild camping and bothy book writer
If I could only climb just one more mountain it would have to be Tryfan. I say it without an ounce of hesitation. It is, simply put, a member of my family. When I lost my mum to cancer in 2001 I scattered her ashes on its flanks, on her request, as when you drive back into North Wales on the A55, on a clear day, it is the two summit rocks known as Adam and Eve that you make out distinctly on the horizon. She wanted me to see it (or even just know it was there behind the clouds) and think of her, even if I couldn’t walk there on that particular visit. It works; on every trip back to see my dad I think of her at the very point when it should appear on the horizon.
Walking it is something else. I feel content just gazing up at its dragon-back-like ridge, coated in heather and rocks in a silver and purple jumble. When I feel its slopes beneath my walking boots I feel like I’m actually spending time with her. As my fingers grab the jagged rocks – for you have to scramble no matter which way you climb it – it’s as though I’m holding her hand. As the breeze blows through my hair I can almost swear she is whispering encouragement in my ears. And when I stand on its perfect summit and look over to the coast, down to the Ogwen Valley and over to the splintered rocks of the Glyders, I feel that I am truly honoring her death, by really living my life.
Slieve Donard – Andrew White, writer and presenter of TV series Walks Around Britain
As a rule, I’m not really a big hillwalker… I’ve never been up Ben Nevis or Scafell Pike… I have been up Snowdon however – but on the train! I’ve done six of the Wainwrights and to be honest, I’ve never really been that interested in doing any of the Munros. What I have done is countless numbers of the lesser-known mountains and tall hills which rarely get a mention in magazines and guidebooks – and it’s one of these which is my selection – Slieve Donard, the highest mountain in Northern Ireland.
There aren’t many of the highest mountains of a country that you can walk from a seaside prom right to the summit – but with Slieve Donard you can. It’s just outside the seaside town of Newcastle in the Mourne Mountains, which on the east coast pretty much forms the natural border between Northern Ireland and the Republic.
The main walk to the summit is not that challenging – even for a non-hillwalker such as me – but the last push to the summit along the Mourne Wall proved too much for several people walking at the same time as me. They missed out, as the view from the top is outrageous. It might only be the equivalent of 21st in the list of the Wainwrights in height – but here, at 850 metres is the top of the world, with stunning views across the rest of the Mourne Mountains behind and the Irish Sea towards the Isle of Man and Great Britain to the front.
Overlooked by many; enjoyed by those who know.
Ben Macdui – Chris Townsend, outdoor writer and photographer
One last mountain to climb? Ben Macdui without a doubt. It’s been part of my life for nearly 40 years. Back in 1977 I climbed it for the first time, crossing the vast Cairngorm Plateau from Cairn Gorm on my first walk in the Highlands. Staring over the plateau to Ben Macdui I was overwhelmed with the vastness, wildness, the sheer magnificence of this mountain sanctuary. I’d never seen anything like it before.
Since then I’ve climbed Ben Macdui well over 60 times, after moving to the area in 1989, but my reaction to the grandeur has never faded. I still find the whole area stupendous and spectacular. Ben Macdui is the hill at the heart of this, so far from roads and towns that it’s hard to see from a distance. But once up there its dominance is obvious. Over the years I’ve skied to the summit, camped close by, watched sunsets and sunrises, climbed it in blizzards and bright sunshine, navigated over its slopes in white-outs and dense-mists. I can’t imagine life without Ben Macdui.
Buachaille Etive Mor – Emmanuelle Tulle, academic (ageing and physical activity) and woman mountaineer
Which hill would I choose to return to if I had one last day of hillwalking left? It would have to be The Buachaille’s northern summit, Stob Dearg. First of all the road across Rannoch Moor provides one of the best drives in Scotland. From the summit, if you’re lucky to get a view, you can survey most of Scotland’s mountains as far as the Cuillin and you get sea and loch views. The last time I went up, last January, we climbed up Curved Ridge smothered in cloud and snow flurries. Sometimes, the clouds would fizzle briefly, giving us views all the way down to the road and the sense of airiness and precariousness was literally breathtaking and turned my legs to jelly. Its position at the confluence of Glen Coe and Glen Etive makes it inescapable.
A most memorable occasion was when I camped by the Kings House Hotel one bitterly cold February night. Despite being fully dressed, in a warm sleeping bag and covered in a duvet, my bladder was irritated by the cold and kept me awake, until I found the courage to brave the sub-zero temperature. The moon had risen and the whole of Stob Dearg was bathed in scintillating light. I felt so privileged to be privy to this secret spectacle. And of course The Buachaille is steeped in its own history of climbing. It happens to be Nan Rae’s favourite hill and as a woman mountaineer that’s good enough for me.
Helvellyn – Alan Hinkes OBE, first Briton to climb all the 8000m peaks
Helvellyn was my first big mountain and it always gives me pleasure in any weather or conditions. I’ve run up it in hot summer in only shorts and shoes, and snowy winters in running shoes – not to be recommended for the inexperienced or faint hearted.
There are short but good winter climbs when in condition. The ridges of Striding Edge & Swirral Edge are classic very easy scrambles – keep to the very top of the arête. Bimbling up from the Thirlmere side is also an interesting fell walk and not as challenging. Descending off piste in winter is fun too. The view from the top takes some beating. Over Ullswater to the North Pennines, Cross Fell & the ‘golf ball’ on Great Dun Fell & even the outlier of Dufton Pike. In the other direction over the Lakeland Fells to Great End & Scafell Pike. South to Morecambe Bay, the distinctive box-like building of Heysham nuclear power station & the matchstick-like Blackpool Tower in the far distance. You can even see Ingleborough in Yorkshire – God’s Own County!
Braeriach – Robert Macfarlane, writer and academic
Braeriach in the Northern Cairngorms is the mountain I’ve climbed more often than any other except Tryfan, but I have never come close to exhausting its secrets or knowing the range of its moods. Nan Shepherd notes in her masterpiece about The Cairngorms, The Living Mountain, that “the mind cannot carry away all that [the landscape] has to give”, and this feels truer of Braeriach than perhaps any other mountain of my acquaintance, from the hidden jewel-eye of Loch Coire an Lochan on its northern slopes, not discoverable until you are almost in it, to the great crags that fall near-sheer into Garbh Coire Mor, holding immense cantilevered cornices in the winter. A last walk up Braeriach would also be a walk back in time, through the many times I’ve been there as adult and child – and back at last into the deep time of the 427 million-year-old Cairngorm granite, and all that it has seen.