Modern Day Mountaineering
On the 2nd grey morning of a 4-day hike into Scotland’s Cairngorm mountains, 9 women emerge slowly from warm tents having spent the night camped over 1000m high, everything but sleeping bags and the clothes they slept in drenched. In the past 24 hours, there had been constant heavy rain, fog that blocked out the entire world, ice cold conditions, a sudden hailstorm, forceful gusts lasting all night, even snow… not to mention the tough terrain, challenging ascent, and even more challenging exercise of setting up tents in record time under driving sideways rain. Finally, soon after waking from fitful slumbers and shivering the night away, the promised sun came. Bright, bold and nourishing, in mere minutes it burned away the claustrophobic fog that had surrounded the group for the past 18 hours.
In September 2023, our group of mixed-ability women embarked on a micro-expedition inspired by pioneering Scottish mountaineer and author Nan Shepherd and her book, The Living Mountain. In the book, Nan writes on her life and experiences in the Cairngorms – now a national park – exploring an alternative approach to mountaineering; one that does not concentrate on reaching summits, conquering nature, or beating personal bests.
The Following Nan micro-expedition was organised by Hannah, Jennifer, and Ruth to experiment with a different approach to this conquest-dominated – and historically male-dominated – space. We wanted to collectively play with a deeper, more intentional approach to mountaineering, focusing on being present in the moment, inviting in small joys, noticing and understanding the local wildlife down to the tiniest mosses near our feet, and ultimately not racing to achieve any particular goal.
After properly meeting for the first time the day before the expedition, we hiked, ate, slept, and swam in the elements, following Nan's footsteps. We took in the detail; what plants and trees we walked by, eating tart berries picked straight out of the ground, the wild animals we saw, and everything we didn't. Two rangers, Polly and Toni, introduced us to the area and talked us through the local landscapes and wildlife, as well as what’s changed between Nan’s time and now. One example is the Capercaillie bird which has declined substantially and is now one of the UK’s most vulnerable species with under 600 birds left. It’s not all bad news though, thanks to efforts from several conservation organisations. Recently, for the first time, wildcats were reintroduced to the Cairngorms.
During the 4 days, we noticed many interesting species, learning with and teaching each other. On the peak of the challenging 2nd day, in the midst of dense fog and the desolate but intriguing landscape of the Cairngorms plateau, our group suddenly see the shape of a ghostly bird ahead of us, as white as the coming snow… a Ptarmigan? It scuttles away before we can identify it, but we are awed and excited.
An immediate benefit of our attempt to experience the whole living mountain, despite the micro nature of the expedition, was a much deeper environmental awareness, knowledge, and appreciation. In one moment, on the steep side of a mountain, we bent with straddled legs until we saw our world upside down, as per Nan’s words. We bathed in heather and moss. We took quiet moments alone to digest it all. Not to mention, we were humbled to our bones by the infamous Cairngorms weather. As one member of our team, Nicola, put it, “slowing down makes you feel more at home and present in the mountains, whether that’s through noticing the water running down a rock, or down your face.”
On the last night of our expedition, now off the mountain and feeling somewhat raw, we spent our last night next to a loch – calm and beautiful until the night brought more high winds, howling jarringly through the surrounding pine trees. In the morning, tents were unzipped to reveal a sublime sunrise, and together we soaked in the pink-purple-red sky in a quiet dawn. Before packing away, we dared a dip in the brisk waters to soothe aching and tired bodies; we tiptoed in laughing, screaming, grabbing hands, wobbling, and our bravest two diving in. Barely an hour later and we had gone our separate ways.
The intentional nature of the micro-expedition helped us realise a few things, additional to our deeper knowledge and understanding of the natural world. Nan’s style helped open up the mountains to those of us who would normally have been intimidated by them. We individually contributed a range of experiences and confidence levels to the group, from Hannah who recently qualified as a mountain leader, to Aisha who has medical conditions and no experience of mountains, to Alice whose last comparable trip was her completing her Bronze Duke of Edinburgh award. Sad as we were to leave, we were changed.
Documented by photographer Ameena, filmmakers Emily and Michelle, and sound artist Alice, we are now working on a short film of the expedition with the intention to encourage more people to experiment with Nan Shepherd-style mountaineering, as well as inspiring more women to take to the mountains. Find out more about the expedition, the team, and the upcoming film on Instagram at @following_nanshepherd.
This blog post was contributed by Ameena.