Frontiers 2021

The call of the mountains

Looking down Glacier de Talèfre
Written by Mary Leonard

At just 32 years old Tristan Cameron Harper is already known by a number of distinct identities – professional ice-hockey player, model, Mr Scotland 2016/17, and kilted yogi. Today, all those identities have merged into Tristan Cameron-Harper, mountain guide and nature lover, a man with a passion for the wilds, the elements and the mysteries of life. He is more likely to be found these days striding across the Cairngorms with his constant companion and fellow adventurer, Nacho, his rescue dog by his side.

A keen sports player from an early age, Tristan was born in the Channel Islands but grew up in Dundee where he went to school until he was fourteen. He had started skating at around six years old and his sporting prowess soon led him into ice hockey, a fast-paced action-packed game where energy could be spent, and aggression expressed in a positive way. It was the beginning of a career in which he experienced the sport at top level on both sides of the Atlantic.

As the home of ice hockey, Canada was in his sights from the beginning and, after initially attending a summer hockey camp, he was scouted by the Canadians and moved to Canada at 15, where he attended prep school and played ice hockey – a slightly different experience in Canada from the UK and Europe. In Europe the focus is more on skill, finesse and skating while in Canada, where the ice rinks are smaller, the game is hard-hitting, fast-paced and full of quick movement.

Developing on the ice

Tristan spent the next three years focusing on his career, and was spotted just before turning 18, by Dutch ice hockey scouts, who persuaded him to sign his first professional contract with the Nijmegen Emperors. It proved an outstanding first professional year for Tristan, the youngest player on the team as the Emperors won the league.

That same year he was approached by Northern Michigan Division One University who asked if he would be interested in playing hockey and sitting his GCSEs, so on completion of his first professional year in Holland he moved to America, playing Minor Pro there until he was 21, finishing that stage of his career in Nova Scotia.

The choice then had to be made between staying in America and Canada or coming back to the UK, and he made the decision to return, playing professionally in the top league, first with the Nottingham Panthers and later finishing his career with the Braehead Clan, now the Glasgow Clan, on home ground.

The path to the Highlands

While he loved the hockey and the opportunities it provided, in the latter years he had felt a growing pull towards the outdoors, a spark that was lit by his grandfather who would take the young six-year-old Tristan on trips to the Cairngorms and the Highlands – experiences which had lodged in and remained with him.

On days off from hockey I would always take the chance to go into the Highlands, to Loch Lomond or Glen Coe. I would drive out for the day and just do a big hike. At that time, I wasn’t familiar with a compass, or reading bearings, or map skills. I had no clue, so I would do a bit of research, find the path and maybe do about 10 miles, a really basic hike.”

But the spark was there and as his confidence grew the fire started burning and he found himself falling deeper and deeper in love with the landscape. It also provided a new-found freedom and independence away from the regimented routine of the sports industry and responsibilities as a team player.

As his love for the outdoors gradually eclipsed his love of ice hockey, he began to look at the possibility of a new career, one in which he could work within the community, helping nature thrive and encouraging people to become more immersed in it.

I looked at all the qualifications I would need to become a mountain guide and it eventually led me down the path of going to do my assessment at Glenmore Lodge, and doing various different courses to get more experience – learning about the flora and fauna, the animals, the landscape. It’s just one of those things that have naturally progressed. I’m a keen photographer as well and it just goes hand in hand.”

Not only a keen photographer, he is also a qualified drone pilot which gives him access to spectacular aerial shots, some of which were featured on the series of videos he made on his week-long journey over the Cairngorms and north to Orkney for last year’s virtual Science Festival.

The road to the north

Tristan’s journey was part of a series of events organized by Foraging Fortnight in conjunction with the Orkney International Science Festival and he was able to share that experience at the virtual event through his videos and a talk. The previous year he had attended the Festival itself, a live event and had found himself inspired by many of the talks and workshops.

After hockey it is like beginning a new chapter, just having the time to explore and immerse myself in all these different areas. Orcadians very secure in what they stand for and I think we need more of that kind of identity. It is amazing what they are doing to help the environment. I’m also a big fan of archaeology. We have so much to learn from it and the people who lived here before us. As primal as that might have been, they had this deeper connection with nature, this ancient knowledge that could teach us so much.”

This connection with something beyond the physically present and visible is part of Tristan’s life through yoga and meditation and he readily owns this spiritual side of himself. It was there throughout his hockey career as well, meditating in the mornings before training and using yoga as part of his warm-up. These were aspects of his life which he felt kept him grounded and which are now enhanced through the added connection with nature and the outdoors.

Reaching the heights

Climbing mountains though can bring a spiritual and emotional experience of a different level as Tristan recalls in a trip to Chamonix to tackle high peaks:

One of these peaks was the Dent du Géant, about 4000 metres. I was with my guide and we had built towards this climb for a week. My guide was leading and it was one of those moments when he was over the ledge and there was no point of return really. I just had to keep going. I got to this ledge and I had a complete breakdown. It was like a flood of emotions – anger, hate, happiness, sadness, so many emotions just came across me and I was second-guessing myself, what’s going on here, what am I doing, why am I doing this? And then this voice inside my head said, because you love this, it’s your passion, you’re driven to do it, you’re pushing your fear. I kept going and eventually got to the peak. It was physically and mentally challenging in so many ways. It was a rush, as if I’d hit a bonus in my life. I’d never experienced it before, and I’m constantly driven to experience it again. I remember coming back down the mountain and my friends were like wow what happened? They could really tell something had gone on and I was so euphoric in so many ways.”

He had a similar experience on returning to Chamonix to climb Mont Blanc. After spending a night in a mountain refuge, with 3,000 m still to climb, then setting off early in the morning and about 400 m from the summit the same wave of emotions hit as he and his guide were walking above the clouds in the early morning sunrise.

But it is not always the tallest peaks or the extremes of life which give the biggest rush, Tristan says. Those same feelings can also be experienced by little things just outside the comfort zone. Being a little more adventurous, exploring further, taking a different route can all lead to enhanced feelings of clarity and wellbeing.

Being prepared

As a mountain guide Tristan is acutely aware of his responsibility for others and likes to keep one step ahead. He will often deliberately place himself in a difficult situation so that he knows what to expect when he is with people.

I had Nacho with me and I was going down the Larig Ghru, the low bit below Ben Macdui. It was about 70mph winds and a blizzard. It’s quite up-and-down terrain, there was lots of snow, it was pitch black, but I had my flashlight on. Again, I was having these really scary, extreme experiences but at the end of the 15k there was a bothy and I knew that if I got to the bothy I’d be safe. I had some wood with me, so I was going to be warm and I had my sleeping bag, so it was just about getting through that experience.”

Being both mentally and physically prepared is of paramount importance to Tristan and something for which he credits his hockey training in giving him a solid foundation and the confidence to reach his goals and he still has many of those. Return trips to Nepal, Norway and Canada for more snow and ice climbing number among them, as well as a first visit to Mongolia.

He also appreciates the freedom he now has to return to places like Canada with fresh eyes, to explore further, to view from different perspectives and to interact and learn from a wide variety of people. His aspiration is to travel, to share with, and learn from other communities to inform our ecological responses, protect nature and promote a better and more balanced lifestyle for everyone.

Tristan Cameron-Harper reported on his Orkney travels for the 2021 Orkney International Science Festival online, on Saturday 4 and on Wednesday 8 September at 12:45 pm. He also showed his drone-filmed video of a Birsay walk from the Palace to the Brough.

About the author

Mary Leonard

Mary Leonard began her journalistic career on The Orcadian. Since then she has lived and worked in different parts of the world. She now lives in Edinburgh where she works as a psychotherapist and counsellor and continues to enjoy writing.