Reflections and observations on life in general.

Category: mountains

Cobwebs and clouds.

I’m enjoying coffee and cake after a short but quality walk up Ben Ledi, a mountain not far from Stirling. The new season of snow is becoming established on the mountains and making them shine against blue skies as I look out of the north-facing windows at the school where I work, stirring a feeling of confinement and determination to make changes that will allow me to return to spending more time outdoors.

I have been struggling to find focus and clarity in my mind to allow me to complete a painting I started nearly two months ago and to feel able to play, artistically.  The spiders of samsara have been busy spinning cobwebs of cluttered thoughts and feelings in my mind. Personal administration, preparing a training session series for some students starting their Duke of Edinburgh Award journey, making new contacts to explore future work options all demand time and mental energy.

Waves of desire for change, new meetings and companions, creativity, simpler living, stability and other things roll through my mind at various times during busy days and evenings preparing for the next day. Meditation helps stabilise and calm my mind for a while, enough to see that some of this activity is self-generated and that, on reexamination, I am willing to accept temporary turbulence if it is part of a course that I want to travel but what I needed today was to move my body through the landscape.


The simple act of driving away towards the mountains feels like a refreshing breeze, the beginning of the walk up a steep path, trodden to treacherous ice by many feet, cold fresh air making my nose tingle, legs pushing energetically upwards towards where rocks met clouds, blows the tangled woven webs aside like old grey threadbare curtains, revealing a simpler state of mind, clearer, more at ease.  Thoughts continue to arise but with a less persistent and “sticky” quality, the mind-spiders retreat into corners, leaving only fragile threads that are easier to examine and brush aside.

It has taken me a long time to find the realisation that I am happiest doing physical, practical and creative things, indoors and out, putting theory into practice, not exploring theory in an academic role nor being limited to organising and directing others to do the very things I want to be engaged in myself; I was never at ease driving a desk, nor, these days, a desktop. Perhaps one of the first times I encountered this clarity of view was during my Mountain Leader training, many years ago while struggling with the frustrations of my role as a junior Supply Officer in the Royal Navy, limited by my eyesight and maintaining a futile resentment at the administrative nature of my job. I sat on belay on a climbing crag in Glen Nevis, waiting for my partner to start climbing, when I noticed that I felt completely content in this situation and activity, it was exactly where I needed to be.  It was the glimpse of a clear mental sky that led me, a few years later, to work for the Outward Bound Trust and, thereafter for several years, in outdoor education.


Circumstances shifted and I explored alternative work that has taken me indoors and into a practical, technical support, role. Now, though, I am feeling again the longing to get out and share the experience with others.  My present role (mostly in a science lab) has come to feel like “just a job” and, while this is necessary and has enabled my move into Scotland, without that spark of inspiration that I feel with more creative and active work, it is not a satisfactory course to steer.  With the cobwebs blown aside, I can see this and the beginnings of paths that lead in the direction I want to go.


Sitting out of the wind on the summit, eating my lunch and watching the watchful ravens as they wait to see what food we might leave behind (it was busy up there), the clouds begin to break, revealing glimpses of the surrounding mountains, glens, forest and lochs. Strengthening sunlight illuminates strips of land, making undulating bright patches amid darker land forms in brown and grey.  Cloudscapes become landscape, layers of colours, rolling forms and bands of contrasting light and dark.  The view is complex and shifting, but it has a coherence unlike the earlier near-whiteout of my ascent here.  My mind state feels similar.  I descend the path, still early in the afternoon, wisely fitting crampons that allow me a safe and faster walk down, time to stop to chat with late ascenders.  I arrive at the car with daylight and time to spare, time to relax in Callander with that mug of good coffee and delicious cake.

The next day, I finished the painting, too.



Walking in the Wind

We had planned to go further north and west, a friend and I, to climb bigger mountains in the Mamore range, near Ben Nevis.  The weather has been keeping just ahead of the forecasters and what appeared promising for today became a prospective struggle in arduous winds with likely snow and hail in that area; Plan B was formed, Ben Vorlich, the western one, by Loch Lomond, shorter, closer, still a quality mountain and, for me, a new one.


The wind was strong, the air cool, I put on extra layers for the first time since March.  The walk in, from the car park near the hydro-electric power station south of Ardlui, revealed rugged peaks and advancing bands of rain and lower cloud.  My camera was going to have to be my  sketchbook today.


We had a good ascent up a clear and well-used path, good conversation and challenging questions augmented by challenging squalls of wind and rain and good scenery.

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Despite the wind, perhaps 45 knots on the summit, we found calm shelter behind contorted rocks to eat lunch and greet other visitors, including a pair of ravens to whom we offered encouragement, but no lunch, in memory of an incident on another mountain.

There were many moments of dramatic and fast-changing light, mist, views, too fast to draw, even had I been alone; memory and the camera would have to capture what they could, for later reflection and inspiration.

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I love the drama of strong contrasts, the many greys of clouds, deep inky-black land-forms under murky masses of cloud while dazzled by a bright shaft of sunlight and slivers of silver light off wet rocks or a wedge of vivid green-yellow grass against deep blue- or brown-black mountain sides behind.  I feel the urge to paint these things, the motivation is building again to do this.


Descent felt tiring, though not difficult, my feet chafing more than usual, my faithful boots feel like they are less a part of me than previously. Less conversation now, more concentration.  Reaching the road felt good, we had completed a “quality mountain day”, as the guidance notes for my logbook used to say.  We have had food for body, spirit and mind today; bon appetit!


Ben Lomond and Loch Lomond

Under Snow – 1.

We’ve had a lot of snow in the last week, here in Scotland, it’s made the usual headlines and stimulated the usual discussions that you hear from the British Isles whenever any part of our wonderfully wide spectrum of weather presumes to exceed the acceptably mediocre level of novelty and mild inconvenience. Despite the depressingly widespread ownership and misuse of bloated “SUVs”, usually boasting at least 4-wheel drive and sold as fulfilling the “go anywhere” dream, few seem able or willing to drive these through even a couple of centimeters of snow and ice and so schools are closed, people are stranded and epic tales are told in conditions that would be laughable in countries that have to cope with rebuilding roads and power lines after most winters. I have, however, felt it better to drive than cycle to work over the last week, given the many patches of black ice, invisible until too late on a dark winter morning and evening, which is frustrating but better than limping in to work with bruises or worse and a damaged bike; there’s enough hazard from motorists to cope with.
Given this present situation, getting out for a walk has been more necessary and refreshing than usual and this weekend has been very satisfactory, with a modest but beautiful walk on some hills to the north of Lochearnhead, yesterday (Saturday) and a more reflective stroll this afternoon through freshly snow-laden trees in the nearby Callendar Wood.
Yesterday’s walk was the result of turning a setback into an opportunity to explore, my original and planned destination being blocked to me for a lack of any more space to park cars in a considerate manner in a sensible proximity to the path up the mountain (Ben Ledi). Exploring northwards, I found space in a layby close to the official car park, inaccessable to 2-wheel drive cars and full of Mountain Rescue team vehicles – they were on a training exercise. My route led up through the dense, dark walls of the forestry plantation, tight-packed trees laden with several inches of snow. The snow was about knee deep and the Mountain Rescue Team had helpfully trudged a narrow groove-like track through it so I could make easy progress to beyond the tree-line.

Apart from the team, I was the only person there for most of the day. I startled a grouse from its hiding place under the snow, it erupted from behind me and flew a short distance to where it could observe me from behind a lump, leaving wing-marks in the snow around the hole whence it had sprung. In other places, grouse and mountain hare had left their spoor in isolated trails over the wind-sculpted and crystal-covered surface through which I now ploughed my less graceful way.

The air was very cold but the wind light and it felt mild. I felt energised and exhilarated by the bright light and crisp air and snow. At a suitably sunny and wind free spot I stopped to enjoy a brisk and very quick snow-bath, wonderfully refreshing despite the rapid numbing of my feet as soon as my bare feet sank into the soft surface; I felt as alive as after a dip in the sea, warming quickly as soon as dressed and running the next few metres through sheer energy.

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The views from the two small summits (Meall Buidhe and Beinn Leabhainn) were superb, a full panorama including Ben More in Glen Dochart, Meall an Tarmachan and Ben Lawers above Loch Tay and, in the south, Ben Vorlich and Stuc a Chroin, which dominate the mountain view from the school where I work. I thought of friends I would like to have shared this with and sent them good thoughts and wishes anyway, sharing through the ether of the mind feels more useful to me at these times than yet more Facebook posts, though that’s ok for later.


Meall an Tarmachan & Ben Lawers, with Loch Tay, from Beinn Leabhainn


Ben Vorlich (L) and Stuc a Chroin from Meall Buidhe

After taking photos – the air was too cold to use watercolours (the water freezes and you have to paint with slush… not successful) and it was getting late in the short day – I set off down, the new moon crescent high in the sky as the sun retired to bed. The mountains were turning from shining white to a soft and dreamlike grey-blue, slightly luminous in contrast to the dimming mauve sky behind them. When I see these things, I think of how I might paint them, though I don’t yet feel the urge to do so strongly enough to turn that into a result, it’s as if it’s a train of thoughts that are arising and falling away, perhaps to hide in the recesses of my mind and ferment over time until, if ever, the “right” moment comes to pass.


Glen Dochart, Ben More & Stob Binnein, summits for a future visit.

As I descended, the snow went from crunchy crystalline to softly silent; out of the wind, now, I was warm. At the road, a welcome bonus, my car was still there and in working order. It had been a quality day, in part thanks to those two people who parked their cars so badly that they occupied enough space for two more. I could have been conventionally irritable, angry, feeling cheated and taking it personally. Instead I chose different objectives and got what I was really after anyway, more in fact. Definitely a quality day, I’m grateful.