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Thursday, 14 August 2014

Mountain Amnesia

It's a few weeks back now. A Monday, four o'clock in the afternoon. I sat on a large rock and looked up at the steep hillside rising in front of me. 'One of the finest peaks, not only in this area, but in the whole of the west' declares the book. Massive slopes of thick, tussocky grass, bracken, and varied other vegetation, hiding sharp, angular rocks and invisible holes, led up to the ridge proper, snaking towards the summit beyond. And all pathless. 'I can't do it' I moaned to myself. Not, mind you, 'I could do it if I felt like it, but I'm not in the mood so I won't.' No. I couldn't do it. Literally.

Not so surprising really. Over three hours of travel from home on a number of buses - I'm not a good traveller. Sinuses playing up. A uniform leaden sky above adding a vague suffocating gloominess to proceedings. The sheds of the new fish farm beside the loch didn't help matters either. And I'd walked for ninety minutes with the load of a night's camp on my back already.

I took another swig of water from my flask and looked up at the mountain. What was I to do? I could bugger off back to Fort William. I could slink back home. Just as the demon of despair was quietly making an entrance, I recalled what I had written about before. I was not here on a predetermined path of make or break. I was here in freedom. I was here to stravaig. I stood up and immediately threw my rucksack onto my back. I was free to walk, to come and go, exactly as I wished. I would do whatever I pleased. I was in a moment of great privilege, and to fail to honour this state would be error indeed.

I knew not where I would go, though I knew where I was going. I returned along the lochside path, a new-found spring in my step. I headed up the valley beyond the water's head, passing under the famed viaduct and into the hills bordering arguably the roughest land in all upland Scotland. As evening descended, the clouds broke in tune with my mood, and soft light suffused the world. My sinuses, I noted, had cleared. A weary-looking couple passed me, coming off the hills. 'Far rougher than the map indicates' was their verdict on their cross-country overnight camp. I watched them trudge down the track in the direction of the viaduct and a welcome pint beyond.

I set up camp at the base of a mountain I knew a little from a few years back. A little path, built courtesy of stalkers in days long gone, threaded its way up the hillside to the distant summit. Maybe this would be my fate on the morrow.

I rose at 5.30. While I never sleep properly in the wild (not even in my swanky new Zephyros 2 Lite tent), it is a wonder and a privilege to be out and about in such places as the day begins. I packed up the dew-soaked tent, splashed my face in the waters of the little waterfall tumbling nearby, and began to walk. The path climbs at an easy angle, miraculously weaving its way up and through the rocks and tangles of vegetation. Then, at a certain point, it is as if you pass through a door, and you are walking through a truly wild landscape, rocks thrown around at crazy, chaotic angles. I spy a deer raked on the hillside; we stop and stare at one another. Then I am on, climbing steeply to the top of the first peak, then over terrain more fitting the Moon than planet Earth. Then I am on the true summit on the mountain.

It is only nine o'clock, but the sun is already warm. A few clouds bubble up over the highest surrounding peaks, but the air is soft, clear and stable. I leave the rucksack beside the summit cairn and wander around, taking it all in. This is one of the most magnificent mountain views I have had the fortune to witness - participate in, even. I peer down one side of the mountain, which falls in one great swoop to the head of Loch Morar, uninhabited, unfrequented, and sparkling deep blue in the morning sun. To the north, the craggy peaks of the Rough Bounds. Westwards, the sea and the outlines of the distant western isles.

I stay absorbed in this wilderness of rock, sky, and water for a good ninety minutes. As I begin to return to the glen far below, I meet another human on his way up. He is dressed in shorts, and has big cleg bites on his legs. He has almost completed his 'Munro round' - only five or six to go - but, he tells me, has climbed this particular mountain four or five times. 'I think it's the best view of all' he states. I don't use the word synchronicity, but tell him that I was thinking precisely the same about this peak, which goes generally unheralded in the books. We exchange tales for a few minutes, then bid one another farewell, fondly recognising one another as kindred spirits.

The snaking path, a welcome drink at the waterfall; the viaduct, a few tourists, and the world of humans with its peculiar endeavours. A tiny bird, a finch, joins me at my table, familiar with this human lark, as I enjoy coffee and a cake in the little cafe beside the tourist route. It quickly gobbles up the crumbs I leave, before flying off into the bushes nearby. I dawdle off to wait for a bus. Then I am home.