Formation dancing with space blankets – and other wild ways to climb a mountain

They impersonate flowers, trill like birds and marvel at ant-hills. Our writer dons her boots and heads for the Highlands – to meet the artists taking the macho out of the mountain

A cloud is touching the tip of the mountain up ahead and, even though it’s the end of May, pockets of snow still dot the horizon. The rain, which is falling steadily, runs off Simone Kenyon’s jacket sleeve, landing in fat drops on the pages of the book she’s holding. And yet we sit, three of us, our bottoms sinking into the sodden heather, listening intently to the words she is speaking. Written by the poet and novelist Nan Shepherd, the lines were inspired by the sweeping mountains that surround us, the Cairngorms. Soon I am as lost in the words as I am in the setting.

These are the rehearsals for Into the Mountain, a nature-immersed arts event taking place around this part of the Scottish Highlands this week. Produced by the Scottish Sculpture Workshop, it isn’t easy to define. Journey or performance? Guided walk or adventure into the unknown? What we can say for sure is that, across four days, audiences will first pull on all-weather walking gear (as Robert Macfarlane has said, this area of Britain is its Arctic Circle), and then follow one of three routes. The hardest takes six hours, reaching (but not conquering, of which more later) the colossal 1,118-metre peak of Sgòr Gaoith.

The groups will set out at 9am, 10am or 1pm. Each has two leaders, a conventional mountain guide and a “sensory” instructor. The latter will encourage participants not to merely walk along the hillside, but to enter it. During my walk, we stopped for long minutes to touch lots of pleasantly spongy plants, take in the beautifully silvery glow of a lichen patch and marvel at a the intricate workings of an ant-hill. This reflects Shepherd’s belief that people should not walk “up” mountains but “into” them. “Beginners want the startling view,” she wrote, “the horrid pinnacle, sips of beer and tea, instead of milk.”

‘I have walked out of the body and into the mountain’ … a moment from the performance.
‘I have walked out of the body and into the mountain’ … a moment from the performance. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian

The three groups will rendezvous in a tree-fringed glen at 3pm for a performance of dance and music, the likes of which have never been seen before in these parts. Dancers will emerge from the heather wrapped in gold-coloured space blankets – Kenyon wanted to make them visible from a distance, but was determined to use only materials that might be found in a hiker’s backpack. These dancers will advance in formation, performing movements inspired by the shapes and swishing of the surrounding flora and fauna. The 16-strong choir, meanwhile, will pour out sounds that are less like words and more like water, wind and birdsong. Forget the hills being alive with the sound of music. Here, the music is alive with the sound of hills.

This is all inspired by Shepherd’s extraordinarily vivid book The Living Mountain. Written in 1944 but not published until 1977, it describes her love affair with the Cairngorms. Born in 1893 and raised in Aberdeen, this English lecturer and writer spent her life in the city. But whenever she could, she stole off to walk, climb and drink down the strong spirit of the hills. They infused her, changed her, educated her, inspired her. The better she got to know them, she writes, the better she got to know herself. She describes swimming naked in lochs, observing the hills upside-down through her legs, and poking her fingers into mouse holes and layers of snow.

Being in the mountains was mystical, as well as physical, and at times her feelings are so profound she is in a kind of trance. “I have walked out of the body and into the mountain,” she writes. “I am a manifestation of its total life, as is the starry saxifrage or the white-winged ptarmigan.” The saxifrage is a dainty plant, the ptarmigan a grouse-like bird (the “P” is almost silent).

‘This is the innocence we have lost’ … from left, composer Hanna Tuulikki, director Simone Kenyon and choir leader Lucy Duncombe.
‘This is the innocence we have lost’ … from left, composer Hanna Tuulikki, director Simone Kenyon and choir leader Lucy Duncombe. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian

Shepherd also believed that “to aim for the highest point is not the only way to climb a mountain”. These words still seem enormously relevant today, given the astonishing photograph of Everest last week, showing a queue of climbers stretching along a ridge, each waiting to take their turn atop the highest peak on Earth.

Her perspective is very much shared by Kenyon and Sam Trotman, director of the Scottish Sculpture Workshop. The two women met in London, and realised they shared a dream of framing the experience of mountains through a new narrative. Mountains, Kenyon realised, tend to be seen through a masculine prism: the language revolves around “conquering” the tallest peaks, “pitting” oneself against the elements, “battling” nature, always trying to “win”.

So Kenyon and Trotman took a different route. “We wanted to produce something that would be a counter to that adrenaline-fuelled, macho take,” says Kenyon. She has always loved nature: she grew up on a council estate in Bradford, with the moors on the doorstep. Visiting Scotland for the first time, she felt an immediate connection to its rugged landscape.

Reading The Living Mountain crystallised her thoughts. Here was another woman who felt that affinity. “I was quite lonely at that point in my life, and Nan felt like a companion. She described the depth of feeling on the mountain, how it woke up all her senses. Her book is short and an easy read: it was the first book I’d ever read about mountains written by a woman – and it focused on sensory, poetic elements.”

Exquisite awareness … performers re-enact Nan Shepherd exercises.
Exquisite awareness … performers re-enact Nan Shepherd exercises. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian

She wondered if there were other women who knew the Cairngorms and felt as she did. To find out, she set up meetings and interviewed as many women as she could. As the project evolved, she organised workshops and – expecting a handful of women – was thrilled to find upwards of 60 attendees.

Everyone involved in making Into the Mountain is female, but audiences will be mixed. They need to be ready for anything. For my walk, accompanied by Kenyon and Trotman, I am loaned waterproof trousers and walking boots, just as the participants will be – and we try various exercises inspired by Shepherd’s approach to experiencing the landscape. One involves a five-minute turn through 360 degrees, giving time to truly take in the views. The rain is still falling, but it doesn’t dent the experience: I notice the droplets of water gleaming on the purple heather, the flushes of bright green spreading through the glens, the perfect blues and greys peppering the hillsides.

Along with layers of clothing and high-energy snacks, Kenyon’s backpack contains another essential: a battered copy of The Living Mountain, from which she reads aloud. “Each sense, heightened to its most exquisite awareness, is in itself total experience,” she says. “This is the innocence we have lost.” Sitting on this hillside, it’s hard to hear Shepherd’s words as anything other than an eloquent warning of the climate emergency we now find ourselves in. Human beings, says Kenyon, have spent too long thinking about how to tame nature: the true task is to understand their rightful place within it.

Heather Morning, safety adviser with Mountaineering Scotland, will lead groups on the most challenging of the three routes. “I have zero knowledge of the arts side of this project,” she says, “so it’s going to be really interesting.” Like many others involved, it was her love of hills that pulled her in – though she certainly understands Kenyon’s aim to feminise the experience. “The outdoor instruction world is very male-dominated,” she says. “This is a new approach.”

Morning worries a bit about the weather – understandable since some of the rehearsals have taken place amid snow. Then again, the extremity of the elements around these parts was one of the attractions for Shepherd. “One never quite knows the mountain, nor oneself in relation to it,” she wrote. “However often I walk on them, these hills hold astonishment for me.”

Into the Mountain is at Cairngorms National Park, Scotland, 30 May to 2 June.


Joanna Moorhead

The GuardianTramp

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