The Life and Times of the Black Pig
Peaks pierce the green sky, unblunted.
The sky would fall
but for the columns of mountains.
Mao Zedong 'Draft Decision of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party on Certain Problems in Our Present Rural Work'
Every year, 100,000 folk traipse up the Pony Path on Ben Nevis, eat their sandwiches, and traipse back down again. Ben Macdui, Britain's second highest, attracts a rather different clientele. In 1865, Queen Victoria on her pony (also called Victoria); in 1930, an Irishman on a bicycle who thought he was on his way through the Lairig Ghru; in 1942, an English army officer in his jeep. Two men I met in Glen Feshie say their finest form of fun is to ride bikes up the track to the Ptarmigan Restaurant on Cairn Gorm, carry the machines across the boulders to Ben Macdui, and then attempt to ride them down Coire Etchachan. Some even arrive on foot; in particular, the non-existent yeti-type monster Ferlas Mor who treks up out from the Garbh Uisge whenever the mist comes down, to gnaw the abandoned sandwiches around the cairn.
Macdui stood for 10,000 years as just some miscellaneous mountain until its patron the Duke of Fife planned himself a tomb on top, to raise his hill to the level of being the UK's outstanding mountain. Fife died before he could get his grave erected (there's a lesson here for all of us); and Macdui retired into life as 'just another hill'.
And yet, in the high-point obsessed culture of today, Macdui continues to stand for certain values at once old-fashioned and curiously modern. Quietly, slightly out of the public eye, Macdui has been preserving the fundamental mountain mysteries. The approach not from the high car park but under the ancient pines; the wholesome discipline of the Long Walk In. Routefinding up crags of rounded granite, with few firm belay points, but an abundance of plant life and slime. The two hours uphill on stones. The noble art of axe and crampons, the occasional killer blizzard, and the fun of not falling through a cornice in a white-out. The poem in the Gaelic. The flat, flat summit and the gently rounded summit view.
Ben Macdui is a 400-million year old lump of magma exposed by erosion and half chewed away by a glacier. But this book is not so much about the summit, as the stories we tell ourselves on the way up there. Some of them are fairy stories, and some are the more serious bits of fiction we call history. Some are the peculiarly plausible stories called science.
But the most important stories are about the heroes of hillwalking, the pointless adventure on the Forefinger Pinnacle. These are the tales we tell ourselves to make it all make sense. As you stand below the avalanche, battle the stormy plateau, or cross thawing ice of Loch Avon, these stories are not just serious but deadly serious. In the 21st century, self-deception is one of the survival arts. Lose the plot, and end up in front of the TV with a premature heart attack.
A walk is a story, and any story is in some sense a walk. The way to make friends with a lump of eroded granite is with the feet. The various fictional and literary expeditions here are arranged geographically, north to south, starting at Glen More and the Pass of Ryvoan.