By John Watson. John has just finished a book about bouldering in Scotland called "Stone Country", review coming soon here. For more information about the book see www.stonecountry.co.uk. This piece originally appeared in John's blog.
A weekend of untouched boulders and hero stones, fine rewards in lost places, I pay thanks to the golden ratio: for every good day we must suffer so many bad... the necessary trade-off of awry days, bad weather, midgies and plain stupidity...
I could see them from Glen Etive, one eye on the road, the other chameleon eye scouring the hillside above. The car kept lurching into roadside ruts on the single track so I stopped and pulled out a pair of binoculars. Shakily, I held them against my spectacles and briefly granite came into gleaming focus - sun beamed off clean white prows and my heart leapt with bouldery anticipation. But I could be wrong: I had been fooled before – stone giants had become lichenous dwarfs when I arrived. I tried to judge their size by the shrubs and trees around – they seemed to belittle the shrubs and respectably diminish the proportions of a stand of Scots Pine high on the hill. I resolved to climb them. The only problem was a Great Barrier Reef of Rhododendron: a notorious garden escapologist whose only purpose seemed to be to spread its progeny and hide boulders. I stomped up to this barrier and found it impenetrable: great curlicue snakes ready to snarl me and my blue sail of a boulder mat as soon as I waded in.
I came back down to the road and sat on the mat, and contemplated another approach. To the left, a plantation of equally notorious wayfaring stoppers: a spruce plantation. However, it was bordered by the more open and brighter fringe of a larch stand, along a small stream, itself engulfed with the dreaded ‘rhodies’. If I gained enough height through the larch, I reasoned, I might make it to a bracken break into the high sierra where the boulders stood uncluttered.
It all went swimmingly through the larch until the ground steepened and I was slipping into the vortex of rhododendron creepers. I bashed on, figuring a little more height was all I needed. I had to get on my knees now and push my boulder mat ahead of me along a litter of autumn leaves. The canopy was thickening into that dark primeval green of evil rhododendron and suddenly all the larch openness had vanished and there was nothing but a jungle all around and I was committed. I reasoned I should keep gaining height. I pushed through tight vine networks and came to an old deer fence, rusting and leaning with the weight of the accursed rhodies. I tumbled ungraciously over this, then was forced back again, hitting a totally impenetrable impasse by the stream, which trickled deeply and unseen somewhere to my right. I saw what looked like granite through a small chink in the vines and aimed for it.
Then it happened: a rogue elastic vine hooked itself under the right arm of my spectacles and as I lunged forward through this woody digestive track, the glasses were sprung from my eyes as though by a playground bully. I thought I heard them land somewhere in the leaf litter. I stopped; sweating, blind, breathing hard. I had no sense of direction now – suddenly bat-blind without my glasses – and I could feel panic begin to bubble up. I sat on my knees and resolved to grid search with my hands. Twigs felt like spectacle arms and leaves had conspired to turn the precise mottled shades of tortoise-shell. I was blinded; the boulders had sucked me in. I was lost and I howled at the vines and darkness.
It took me an hour to find the glasses, folded neatly in the forest litter. I only recognized them as articulated twigs with glossy leaves. Right, I was angry now, and determined. I put my ‘eyes’ back on, wary now of finger-flicking vines, and pushed on, the boulder mat scudding ahead. I came across a total tangle of branches and vines and barged them with the boulder mat. I broke through suddenly into a clearing, with an old gate in the deer fence leading to the bracken break and the tip of a granite boulder gleaming in the blue. Then I looked down at my boulder mat, which had mysteriously unclipped itself – Scarpa rock-shoes and chalk-bag nowhere to be seen. I stomped back into the jungle seething with mad fury and frustration. “Bastards!” I screamed at the vines and thrashed and kicked. My arms and neck were Zorro-ed with branch cuts and my hair was sweaty and thick with twigs. Another half-hour of making small arrows with twigs to denote my path back to the clearing and I found the shoes resting neatly on a bit of moss with the chalk-bag trailing a few metres behind. I scooped them angrily and turned back to the maze.
By the time I bashed through into the high sierra, the boulders were indeed big and totem-like and inviting, only they were almost entirely devoid of holds: great sounding bells of smooth stone lines, bear-hug prows and crimp-less walls. I sat down on my boulder mat, too exhausted to try, sweating in the late autumn sun, sucking the life out of an orange carton, like some blinded Cyclops sucking the juice out of a Greek…’