When Alistair met Eve

I phoned home and Alison listened carefully as I explained the situation. Then silence. For a little too long. Then, slowly, Alison said, ‘So last week you climbed Lochnagar, got lost in the mist, and nearly died. This week you climbed Lochnagar, found a woman, and you’re bringing her home.’

‘Yes, that sums it up,’ I replied.

Seems like I need to explain what led up to that conversation, and what followed from that conversation.

If you’ve read the last two blogs, you’ll know that I climbed Lochnagar, a 1155 metres (3789 ft) mountain not too far from our Aberdeen home. I should never have gone all the way to the mist-shrouded summit because visibility was no more than two or three metres. But I got up. What I couldn’t do was find a safe way down. I’d no compass to plot a path between cliffs one side and a large and dangerous wilderness on the other side. Amazingly, and some would say miraculously, at my third attempt a footprint between rocks pointed me in the right direction and I escaped the mountain.

Afterwards I was angry at my foolishness. I’d told no-one where I was going; I had no equipment for the climb, nor emergency provisions like a whistle or survival blanket; I should never have attempted to reach the top through the mist. Now my anger made me determined to do the climb again, this time properly prepared.

So I went shopping. I already had a good jacket, boots and map, but there was plenty more to buy: warm gloves, mid layer fleece, windproof hat, compass, book on how to use compass and map together, survival blanket, decent small rucksack to carry it all. I was ready for my next venture one week after the first.

This time Alison was well-informed where I was going. When I parked the car, I wrote a note of the route I’d take up the mountain, the time I was setting off, contact details, and placed the note in an ‘emergency box’. Then off I went along the track, over the stream, and up the first stage of Lochnagar.

Again it was a beautiful, sunny day. The views were majestic across the heather to distant hills. Deer roamed freely, paying me no attention whatsoever. This was their mountain.

Just short of the ‘shoulder’ between Lochnagar and its neighbouring mountain, I saw another climber ahead. I was walking quicker so we met at the point overlooking the small loch below Lochnagar’s cliffs. We exchanged friendly greetings. Her name was Eve, an American from about as far away as you can get in mainland USA, Washington State, in the northwest corner of the country. She’d climbed a few other Scottish mountains but never Lochnagar. I, of course, was a veteran. So I pointed up to Lochnagar’s peak which, thankfully, was perfectly clear against a background of blue sky. That’s where we were both going.

Understandably, then, we set off together up the rocky slope, an area I’d hardly seen the previous week because of thick mist. Now I realised just how steep it was. Slip, and you might not stop for a long time. Both of us were soon out of breath, so conversation was limited.

But once on the stone-covered plateau at the top, and we’d each caught our breath, the going was easier and conversation resumed. Eve was a doctor, not long fully qualified, working somewhere not far from Seattle. I explained I was a Baptist minister from Aberdeen and a Scot born and bred.

We made our way slowly towards the summit, occasionally peering carefully over the cliffs. Eve wanted me to take her photo standing on the edge, so she walked out on a protruding rock while I retreated to a place where I could picture her and the sheer drop beneath where she stood. I much preferred where I was to where she was.

We moved on and reached the peak. Both of us had brought something to eat and drink, and in the near-warmth of the sunshine, we sat on stones admiring the view and eating our lunches.

Of course we talked. I told her about my wife and children, about my work as a pastor in the city. Eve talked about her trip across the Atlantic, which she was happy to be doing alone. She’d seen other parts of Scotland, and now the climb up Lochnagar was the last event of her great adventure. She’d pitched her one-person tent on the campsite at nearby Ballater, and planned to pack up and catch a country bus to Aberdeen around 6.00 next morning. Less than a half hour after reaching the city, she’d get on a coach for the 550-mile journey to London, and a few hours after that she’d be on the plane back to the USA.

The plan was perfect in principle, but not so perfect in the real world. I explained that country buses in the Scottish Highlands didn’t always run exactly to stated timetables, and there was a risk she might not be in Aberdeen bus station before the London bus left. Eve didn’t say much. She had to catch that long-distance coach and the country bus was her only way of getting there early in the morning.

I gave her another choice. ‘You’d be welcome to come back to our home, sleep overnight, and I’ll take you to the bus station in the morning.’

I don’t recall Eve saying anything at that point. Which was not surprising, since we’d only met on the mountain and I might be telling all sorts of lies to lure her into danger. I don’t think I looked like an axe-murderer, but, there again, what does an axe-murderer look like?

We talked some more about other things, finished eating, and began our descent. This time the first part was a simple stroll because I could see where I was going, which would be neither over the cliffs, nor a drift away into ‘no man’s land’.

As we walked Eve said, ‘Your wife really wouldn’t mind having an unexpected overnight guest?’

‘No, not at all. She’d be delighted,’ I replied with super-confidence.

‘Well, if you’re sure…’

‘I’m sure.’

‘Thank you. I’m very grateful.’

So, down the rocky slope and then the gentle track we went back to my car. We drove to Ballater, found a phone box, and I called Alison. The conversation I quoted at the beginning of this blog post really happened, but it’s only fair to say there was a hint of amusement in Alison’s voice. Over the years she’d grown used to surprises, including handkerchiefs returning in the post from women I’d reduced to tears. (The tears were because they’d become upset during counselling and I’d given them my handkerchief.)

Alison was genuinely okay that I should bring Eve back with me, and said she’d adjust her plan for our evening meal with the family.

I took Eve to the campsite where she collapsed her tent, gathered her possessions, and off to Aberdeen we went. Eve was delightful company that evening, and very appreciative of a home-cooked meal.

She slept well, and I made sure next morning that she reached the bus station in plenty time for her London-bound coach. A few weeks later we received a letter from Eve, thanking us, and enclosing a photo of her standing on a rock above the cliffs. (We didn’t keep contact. I hope she’s still climbing mountains and is having the brilliant medical career she deserves in Washington State or wherever else she’s gone.)

Looking for wisdom in this tale could come by asking some questions of ourselves.

How well do we cope when circumstances change?  I am blessed with a wife who adjusts to new situations. For example, while I was a pastor in Aberdeen we never knew how many would be with us for Sunday lunch. After the church service, we’d find students looking lost or looking hopeful, and invite them back for a meal and to spend the rest of the afternoon with the family if they wanted. So, Alison would get home, raid the freezer, and prepare food for somewhere between six and sixteen people. Jesus fed five thousand. Alison can’t do that, but has remarkable abilities to stretch resources so that everyone enjoys a great meal.

It’s not everyone who has the ability to do that, and the attitude to cope with needing to do that. The ability isn’t much use without the attitude, because people soon pick up when they’re not welcome or putting you to a lot of trouble.

Those who must have control need to know what’s happening and when it’s happening. They require order. There’s strength in that, but also weakness. So, a gentle challenge: how well do we cope when circumstances change?

How open are we to helping complete strangers?  We didn’t know Eve before that day. But she came to our home, ate a meal with the family, slept overnight, and was taken to the bus station next morning. Why do that for Eve? Because she needed help. Her plan to get an early bus to the city might have worked out, but there was more than a fair chance it wouldn’t. That would have caused huge problems for the last part of her stay in the UK. So we helped. It really was as simple as that.

Being helpful and hospitable is good. Hospitality, in fact, is commanded in the New Testament (Romans 12:13). But it’s a command not always noticed or practised. Which is a shame, not just for those who miss out on our kindness but for us who miss meeting wonderful people. How open are we to helping complete strangers?

Why do some people behave rashly?  That’s not a question about why I invited Eve to stay the night with my family. It’s a question about why my whole Lochnagar adventures happened at all. Why would someone considered sensible and trustworthy set off so appallingly unprepared to climb a mountain? Not telling anyone where he was going? Choosing to keep going to a summit blanketed in mist? Why?

The answer is that I was depressed. I was hardly sleeping at night, couldn’t think straight, didn’t believe my life was useful or that I mattered, and much more. My doctor had ‘signed me off work’ two months before I headed for Lochnagar. On that day I didn’t deliberately tell no-one where I was going, nor intend to get lost in the mist, and of course I tried desperately to get off the mountain. I wasn’t trying to die. But I was being stupidly reckless. And that was because I was depressed.

Not everyone who behaves rashly is depressed. Of course not. But out-of-character behaviour often has a back-story, something deeply troubling but not told or obvious. Before we condemn their behaviour, we might stop and wonder if something unknown is giving rise to that behaviour. Instead of judgment, they may need compassion.

Three last footnotes.

First, thank you for bearing with a certain amount of indulgence in my writing about these Lochnagar experiences. Although it’s ancient history now, the feelings of that day are remarkably fresh. And, perhaps, there’s been something therapeutic in telling the story. Your patience and interest is appreciated.

Second, my congregation knew why I was away from my normal church duties. I hadn’t believed I could have depression until my doctor very firmly gave me that diagnosis, and said I wouldn’t get well unless I stepped away from work. I preached the following Sunday, and then told the congregation I had depression and needed to be off work for a while. I was met with nothing but kindness, understanding and sympathy. I thought my absence would be for two weeks, but it was five months, and the depression lasted much longer than that. One day I’ll write more about those times.

Third, I have a large project to complete and less than two weeks to do it, so I won’t try and write a blog right in the middle. Hopefully the next one will appear around the end of this month. Again, your patience is appreciated.