Celebrating International Mountain Day

The John Muir Trust cares for some of our best mountains. This is why we love them

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To honour International Mountain Day here's a recent article from our membership publication about how mountains have shaped us

Going home

Since our earliest members brought Ladhar Bheinn on Knoydart into our stewardship in 1987, the Trust has gone on to become the guardian of an inspiring list of famous peaks. Kevin Lelland, the Trust's head of development and communications spoke to people whose lives are shaped by mountains.

MOUNTAIN landscapes are the backdrop to many lives. People live and work there, building friendships and communities in their shadow. They help us stay sane, shine a light on our own behaviours, skills and motivations and act as a source of creative inspiration. We’re drawn hypnotically to crags, corries, ledges and edges. The shape of a cliff face might alter due to natural elements but a pinnacle of granite can be revisited from one generation to the next.

Mel Nicoll, the John Muir Trust’s campaigns officer remembers that when she was a child, her dad would disappear from their home in Sussex once a year for a week to climb in the Scottish hills. “He’d return with a beard and a far-away look in his eyes,” she says. “I knew from a young age that spending time in the hills was transformative. My immersion in mountains since has served me well in life and in my role at the Trust.”

Helvellyn has been a big part of Pete Barron’s life for over 25 years. Now he’s the Trust land manager at Glenridding Common, which includes the popular and iconic mountain. “Where you live can shape your character,” he says. “I believe that people living in and working in a mountainous area are shaped by the weather. The ever changing ‘wallpaper’, as a farmer once described it to me. It creates tenacity.”

Pete believes that upland areas are important to our cultural fabric but also to our day-to-day lives. The latter he says, is sometimes unrecognised. “Clean water, food production, flood mitigation, recreation, personal expression through these uplifting landscapes and wild nature. We need a national governmental focus to embed these into policy, because, although our uplands are wonderful, there is much that needs to be done to protect and conserve them for future generations.”

Persuading others that wild places such as mountains require care has been part of the Trust’s DNA since its inception. The Trust was born out of campaign to stop the Knoydart peninsula from being turned into a Ministry of Defence bombing range, keeping its wildest nooks and crannies open to the public at large. The campaign played its part in a wider movement that led to the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003.

Outdoor writer and photographer David Lintern says: “The ‘freedom of the hills’ is more than just a platitude. It’s means travelling with my own agency, under my own steam. Within reason, I can go where I like, when I like. There are few places where this is truer than in Scotland. Whether we use them or not, our access laws are a cornerstone of the northern consciousness, and have an explicitly political dimension.”

“It’s interesting that climbing mountains is a metaphor for life,” says Dr Liz Auty, the Trust’s land manager at Schiehallion. Liz has spearheaded the formation of the Heart of Scotland Forest Partnership, which brings together public, community, NGO and private landowners in a joint venture to transform a vast area of Highland Perthshire around Schiehallion. “The most special places for me are where restoration and healing is happening and that’s most inspiring when it’s about both trees and people marching up mountains.”

Sir Edmund Hilary once wrote that it’s not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves. Romany Garnett, the Trust’s conservation officer at Quinag, feels time spent in mountains gives her confidence. “I often struggle with my own personal dilemmas just like everyone does. When I walk up a mountain the world opens up. Somehow those everyday niggles and stresses dissolve on the slope and I find perspective. I’m in my element when I’m on top of the horizon, wind-blown in a raw natural state.”

Bonita Norris, who became the youngest woman to summit Everest in May 2010, believes that high alpinism has taught her a lot. “The mountains really are a mirror into the best and worst of us.” she says. “Climbing mountains has shown me that I often rush when really I need to slow down, take the moment in and enjoy the fresh air, the rhythm of my breath, the sound of my feet crunching on snow. The silence. The hours slip away in seconds. And then somewhere during the climb, there’s a shift as the mountain opens up, and I am listening, and as I climb we talk to each other.”

You don’t need to go for a first or highest ascent in a stab at immortality to enjoy wildness. David Lintern feels that we can all be good at being outdoors, growing our skills, nerve, fitness and stamina over time. An important component of this is the unknown outcome. “Freedom is defined by the acceptance of risk, and the willingness to fail. We try, to see if we can. One of the chief lessons I have learnt outside is to trust my instinct – to go with my gut. But committing to the unknown takes practice, and lots of it.”

Spending time in mountains does of course bring with it risk and reward. Graham Watson, the John Muir Award manager in Cumbria and a qualified mountain guide, knows this better than most. He was avalanched, with a client, on Buachaille Etive Mor in 2002 and hospitalised for three weeks with multiple injuries including a fractured skull, eye socket and jaw. He recognises that the way he has engaged with mountains has changed since, but the attraction to spend time in them has held. “Despite being almost killed, the mountains continue to be a mainstay of my life. I was very much inspired in my teens by Bill Murray’s two-volume book Undiscovered Scotland and Mountaineering in Scotland, and that passion has stuck ever since. I recently returned and climbed Curved Ridge, the scene of my accident, with my daughter. It was a fantastic day.”

Whether we tend to cling to a crag or stroll towards a trig point it’s clear that experiencing wildness on mountains is an essential part of many of our lives. All at once, they help us reflect, initiate change and remind us to live in the moment. Even looking at a landscape photograph or painting can make us want to step into the frame and return to those places where the ravens call, the claggy mist descends and we are at one with the natural world. The mountains will outlast us all, so let’s continue to inspire people to experience, protect and care for them. After all, going to the mountains is really all about going home.

Photo shows Helvellyn