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Mountain Dad

Foreword from the 2021 re-release of Martin's memoir, Higher Ground, written by Hazel Moran

For our Dad, the pull of the mountains was an immense compulsion. He climbed them whenever he could and, when he wasn’t climbing them, he was writing about them, feverishly, at his desk. Reading this memoir of his life will no doubt leave you with the sense of a man who lived a bold and brave life on Higher Ground, but to me, these pages are full of shared humanity and the journey of a husband, father and friend who swung the pendulum between an extraordinary career in the high peaks and the conventions of life in the valley. Although the mountains were his first and his greatest love, the people who shared in his adventures fed his soul in equal measure.

Dad was one of the lucky few among us whose passion was his day job but, like most dreams that are realised, it came with unique challenges for us as a family. ‘Off the clock’ was far from a reality in the Moran household, when he was not scaling the Cuillins with clients, running an Alpine course or away for months at a time pioneering a new peak in the Himalaya, he was pursuing his own personal aspirations as a climber, for which he had an endless appetite.

He was not distracted by the frenetic hum of modern life. Often described as humble and unassuming, he had no real interest in self-promotion beyond what was necessary for his livelihood and, although he had a long list of mountaineering achievements that most would shout from the rooftops, his self-effacing nature was never more evident than when I suggested he take more ‘mountain selfies’ and set up his own Instagram page. His motivations in life ran much deeper, climbing, for him, was necessary to make sense of the world and his own place within it.

Growing up, we were unaware of what a unique Dad we had. It seemed completely normal to see him leave for a day of work with ropes, boots, axes and ten other cagoule-clad individuals in the back of his van, only to return to the dinner table that evening in his civilian clothes – a smart shirt, quality lambswool jumper, well-ironed chinos and not forgetting his infamous socks and sandals combination!

In the early years, we took it for granted that very few of our peers in school commenced their summer holiday each year tucked up in the back of a campervan that was packed to the brim with climbing and cooking equipment. Falling asleep in the Highlands of Scotland, waking to find we had travelled across Europe and arrived in the soaring Alps. We would spend our summer days running riot around campsites, mountain huts and quaint, remote alpine villages, high in the hills of Switzerland and France. Little did we appreciate that our parents were working around the clock to grow their mountaineering business – this was certainly no holiday for them!

My mother was on the frontline of parenting when we were small. However, despite long weeks of guiding in the mountains, or months away from home on expeditions, on his rare days off Dad would entice me away from the local ice cream shop to take us hiking and climbing. He showed us the same steady patience and eagerness to teach that he gave to his clients, even if we were his youngest and most testing clientele.

We each grew into life with such adventurous parents in our own way. Alex, my older brother, was a keen climber from the time he could fit into a harness. He shared many summits with Dad over the years and was inspired to become an instructor himself. In his teenage years, Alex would often return from a day in the mountains wide eyed and exhausted having been taken on an adventure which pushed him beyond his limits. This was commonplace on a day out with a father who was encouraging of his son’s advancement in the sport, but also had his own climbing aspirations for which he needed a partner. I know the mountains remain where Alex feels closest to Dad, having shared such intense moments of happiness, suffering, and elation together.

In stark comparison, the mountains did not capture my imagination in the same way until much later in life. Dad always encouraged me in whatever I chose to pursue, but a mutual understanding was not always easy: a rebellious teenage girl and a world-class mountaineer were hard pushed to find common ground at times! I felt the void of his long absences and, admittedly, wished that family life was a little more ‘mainstream’. Why did we live in such a remote place? Couldn’t we just go on a normal beach holiday like my friends instead of off-piste skiing in frozen Norway? However, with age and perspective, I grew to appreciate my wonderful and colourful childhood, full of adventure, culture, freedom, and fresh air, whether it was in the meadows and mountains of the Alps or the heathery hills of home.

Having watched my brother find quality time with Dad by joining some of his expeditions in the Himalaya and the Alps, I decided he must be onto something. No matter how much we stray from the conventions of our parents, we never stop seeking their approval. After some training and patience on Dad’s part, I attempted my highest mountain yet, Mont Blanc. He got me to the top (one he had climbed hundreds of times before), kept me warm and safe, and I felt completely at one with him for the first time. This was a bonding experience like no other, in his natural habitat, and his pride was unmissable. He had finally got his ice cream loving daughter to the top of a big mountain… and I could finally see life through his lens.

Despite his laid-back parenting style, his steady hand was there at all the pivotal points of my life, his long and thoughtful emails of advice and reassuring wisdom were always present as I found my way in the world. While he was not always the loudest or the most enthusiastic at the school gates, he always held space for us as we grew - a heart vast enough to hold unconditional love for the mountains…. but also for us.

Watching a parent live a life full of wild aspirations and dedication was a privilege. Dad had a singular focus and ultimately this allowed him to return home as a more whole version of himself. However, the gift of freedom to live so boldly was afforded him by my mother, who nurtured a loving ‘base camp’ for him to return to and recuperate. Looking back, her unique ability to keep Dad’s feet firmly on solid ground was the most necessary of all of her supporting roles. She kept all the potential pitfalls of the ‘climber’s ego’ at bay, allowing life in the valley to remain an equal effort. Never once were his climbing aspirations limited by family life, a testament to Mum’s devotion and deep understanding of him. He had picked the right girl!

2019 was the year we lost Dad. He was killed in an avalanche on a pioneering expedition in the Nanda Devi region of the Himalaya. He had returned to this breath-taking amphitheatre of high mountains many times in his life, and it seemed to capture his imagination, more so than any other. It is now his final resting place.

We had spent our lives living under the shadow of risk inherent in his chosen profession, but nothing could have prepared us for the news that he would not be coming home this time. Although our future children will not know him as we hoped they would, we are lucky to be able to pass on the wonderful legacy he has left, to share the memories we hold dear, and take them to the high mountain places of our own childhood that remain full of his spirit.

Mountains run deep within our bones. Although I do not share the same drive to scale them as my father did, I feel at home surrounded by them and somehow reassured by their dominating presence. We are inextricably linked to Dad. I see him in my green eyes, in my brother’s strong hands and feel him in my mother’s warmth. His presence in my life is evident each time I step outside and feel the icy blast of Scottish air on my cheeks, or hear the familiar sound of Swiss cowbells, or smell pine and wet climbing gear in an alpine hut.

I hope this book will encourage you to do more of what you love and seek out those who can share in that with you. You do not have to scale the highest peaks to seek more meaning in your life. The simple act of stepping outside your comfort zone, finding connection and community with others, and doing more of what brings you joy, has the power to humble you and bring clarity and perspective to this beautiful but complex world we live in.

Enjoy these tales of companionship, adventure, and a life well-lived. I hope you will continue to make memories of your own great adventures, whatever they may be.

You can buy a copy of Higher Ground by Martin Moran at Waterstones and BookShop online.

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