“I don’t know if I can do this. I don’t know if I should even try to do this!”
Those words in that sequence don’t come natural to me. The sentiment they elicit within the spongy lump between my ears is as foreign as having a hammer shoved through my skull, and feels – in an actual physical sense – nearly as bad.
Or maybe that’s just my condition manifesting itself as it does. I can’t really tell any more.
It’s been only two weeks shy of a year since that day when so much changed for me. The plan on the 12th of July, 2014, was simple: Steph (my wife) and I would meet Barry and Laura at Keiloch on the Invercauld Estate, cycle into the mountains as far as practical, stash the bikes, and then continue on foot to the Munro summits of Ben Avon and Beinn a’Bhuird. At roughly 40 kilometres for the round trip it would be a long outing, to be sure, but nothing we couldn’t handle.
That morning I awoke feeling really strange, kinda dizzy and unable to focus on anything, and with a ridiculous headache. I popped 600 milligrams of Ibuprofen, both to try and ease the headache and dizziness and as a preemptive countermeasure to the inevitable left knee pain and swelling that always happens on such outings. I mentioned nothing to Steph and carried on as if everything was normal.
The cycle in was horrible. Everything in my world was spinning about in a random way and I had no ability to lock on to any details in the landscape. I’ve no explanation for how I managed the ride without coming off my bike even once, much less numerous times. (Steph has cast serious doubt on my “mutant powers” theory but I’m still looking into it.)
It was a great relief when we finally locked up the bikes within the Fairy Glen and began walking towards our summits. Not that my head was feeling any clearer, but at least I wasn’t in danger of falling over at any great speed.
And then the weather came. As it always does in the Highlands of Scotland.
By the time we reached the high bealach (called the Sneck) visibility was zilch and the rain was pelting us sideways, driven as it was by 75+ mile per hour winds (I checked the charts once we were home). I almost walked into the prominent granite tor atop Ben Avon before seeing it. We clambered through a gap in the rocks and hunkered down out of the wind while deciding on the best route to the top. I certainly hadn’t come all this way to let a little wet rock scramble in hurricane force winds stop me from reaching the true summit, but I wasn’t so sure Steph would be able to do it. Rock climbing just ain’t her thing.
Before I could even get my camera out and chat with her about a way up Steph had already begun blasting her way to the top, with Laura hot on her heels. Rock climbing may not be her thing, but neither is turning back from a summit. She managed to stand upright just long enough for a single photo before scrambling back down.
“Are my eyes moving?”
“Yes. Stop doing that!”
“I can’t. Which way are they moving? Side to side or up and down?”
“Side to side. What’s happening?”
Vertigo. Full on, with nystagmus.
Barry and I had summited easily enough, and even managed to stand upright for a quick photo. Once down and back in the leeward shelter the vertigo hit, lasting for maybe 30 seconds. “God damn I’m a long way from the car” is all I could think.
Foolishly (oh pride, you do indeed cometh before the fall), I insisted we still find our way across to Beinn a’Bhuird rather than heading back down the way we came. After some meandering navigation we finally ticked our second Munro of the day and managed to stagger (well, me anyway) our way back to the bikes.
Oh, the bikes.
It’s usually such a relief to get to the bikes and blast downhill after a long walk in the mountains, often times covering in 15 minutes what would take a plodding hour or more on foot. But with my world still adrift I was more than a little nervous about surviving the way down and out unscathed.
Which brings us to now. In the year since I’ve had two more proper bouts of vertigo with nystagmus, a near constant feeling of disequilibrium, severe headaches more days than not, tinnitus, ear and sinus congestion and pain, profound fatigue, and recently a bad case of indigestion with gastric reflux (all of which I suspect is related). I’ve also had numerous visits to doctors, but as yet no definitive diagnosis or treatment. (Big props to NHS Scotland thought for, well, existing. Back home in the USA I couldn’t afford the care I’ve received here, all of which has been free at the point of use.)
What I haven’t done since the 12th of July last year is climb a mountain, or do much else physical for that matter. So of course today we’re going to climb 5.
But hey, it’s just a walk.
At this point I should mention that Steph and Laura (Barry is offshore with work just now so can’t join us today) have done a lot of physical stuff in the past year, and are currently training for the National Three Peaks Challenge, an event which will see them climb Ben Nevis, Scafell Pike and Snowdon – the highest points in Scotland, England and Wales respectively – in a 24 hour period. Actually, that’s what they will be doing next Saturday, making today a nice test of their fitness. I suspect this will leave me struggling to keep up, but since I’m the only one of the group who can navigate I’m hoping they’ll see the value in keeping me around. Well, that and my wit, charm, and ruggedly boyish good looks.
It’s only about 9 kilometres to the summit of Lochnagar, our first peak of the day, but by the time we reach the top we’ve each already had more wardrobe changes than a Lady Gaga concert. Scotland, as ever, can’t decide if it’s summer or winter, and somehow manages to feel like both at the same time.
My legs, however, have decided, and they aren’t ready for this. Nor is my head, which is pounding. The disequilibrium is there too, worse than when we set off.
I nosh on a sausage and egg wrap (mmm, still warm) that I prepared this morning and contemplate how best to tell the ladies that I’ll be bailing on them. There are some showers meant to come through but visibility should remain good, and with the route well trod – and quite well populated today – I’m confident they can handle the navigation. Besides, I’ll just slow them down and ruin their training mission.
“Fuck that. It’s just a walk. Now get up, put one foot in front of the other, and keep going. It’s just a fucking walk.”
Now that’s an inner voice I’m much more familiar with.
And so we walk. Onwards to the summits of Carn a’Choire Bhoidheach, Carn an t-Sagairt Mor, Cairn Bannoch and Broad Cairn. The sun shines, the wind blows, the rain comes and goes, and we just walk.
I just walk. And really, that’s all there is to it.
Somewhere along the way my headache eases, as does the feeling of disequilibrium. My legs never feel particularly spry or powerful, but I catch a second wind of sorts on the slopes of Carn an t-Sagairt Mor which carries on until the brutally long walk off of Broad Cairn. I try to convince Steph and Laura that we should kill a family we encounter on the trail and take their bikes but they ignore me. Just as well I suppose, since we’d probably get our asses kicked tired as we are. And I guess there is some moral and legal shit to consider too, so I let it go and keep moving on sore feet and tired legs.
Oh right, I never mentioned how the cycle back to the cars at Keiloch went last year. It was…..interesting. Miraculously (mutant powers) I made it past the rough Land Rover track section and onto the tarmac without incident. Feeling a burst of confidence – and prematurely like I was home free – I decided to turn it loose and get a bit of speed going. The tarmac was wet from the rain, and as I flew through a forested bit I caught sight of a deer running nervously through the trees. Then it decided to run nervously across the road, hoofs slipping on the slippy tarmac, right in front of me. I locked up the brakes and power slid, sideways, to within a few metres of her.
Mystery medical condition or not, I like that feeling far too much to let it go.
And now, a few more photos from both adventures.