Climbing in Wester Ross

The Applecross Peninsula spans some 80,000 beautiful, rugged acres in the Scottish highlands, known for being part of the Dockland Settlements and for its Gaelic name, “a Chomraich” or “The Sanctuary”. Under the care of Lt. Flight Commander J. Shelton, Warden of the West Highland Adventure School for Girls, I appropriately was sent for three weeks one August–a London doctor’s note in my hand.  Recovering from a bad case of glandular fever, I knew it was going to be physically challenging: the dramatic landscape offered ideal facilities for rock-climbing, hill and moor trekking, camping, expeditions, swimming, sailing and canoeing, and – to add to the mix — the weather was notoriously bad up north.

According to the Ross-Shire Journal, the first course at the West Highland School of Adventure began in April 1964 with a party of 36 boys divided into three Watches. Over the first year there were a projected ten such courses, with boys ranging between 16 and 20 years. Lucky to be chosen years later for one of the  girls’ courses, I traveled by car from south western England, becoming increasingly nauseous at the prospect of “adventure” as it was constructed by a retired member of the Royal Navy.

During the course we undertook a steep climb and abseil – a few hundred feet up a rocky ledge; I recall getting ready in the soft summer drizzle, fastening the rough ropes around my waist, and securing the grey helmet. I looked up and took my first few steps, feeling as petrified as the granite below. I saw the lifeline pull against the force of the August winds and the metal cleats fastened deep in the rock, as the drizzle turned to hard pellets of rain that pinged off my helmet. Wondering whether I’d make it, but determined to get there, I caught words of encouragement from my peers and reminded myself that every move required careful concentration. Before long the white houses of Applecross looked like gulls nesting on a thin grey wire; the land, a moss ocean; and white caps, delicate threads on distant steel.

I remember how it felt, reaching the top, there at Beinn Bhann — the exhaustion, relief, and pride. I never liked heights, let alone the thought of an “outward bound” kind of program. Curiously, I was not thinking of the twenty other girls, as my fingers sorely gripped that cold, grey stone of Wester Ross and I hauled my breathless self over – only of what I needed to do. It was not about being faster or stronger, braver or bolder than my peers. Competition, I learned, was a driving force that pushed me to reach my own capacities – helped by others, some already at the top. It was the ascent, not so much the finish, the camaraderie, rather than the isolation.

For centuries Applecross was only accessible by boat, a remote location that  is still not the easiest place to get to. We motored a few years ago up the historic Beleach na Ba, or the “Pass of the Cattle,” unable to see in the driving rain, then sleet. We navigated to the very end of the treacherous, winding internal road, holding our breaths – safe in the car, relieved to be in one piece, and pondering the purple heather and yellow gorse that emerged through the fog around us.

Referencing Our Socratic Conversation: Competition: Boon or Bane, Thursday, 7/15, 4-5pm