Reflecting on life experiences
Not Halfway Up and Out of Breath
I’ve stopped. My legs feel like flimsy sheet metal. One wrong step or strong gust of wind and they could bend out of shape permanently. I’d be stuck on this path forever. Stuck. Going nowhere. Come on legs; I can hear the breeze gathering pace.
The mountain looked gentle and inviting from the Braes of Foss car park in the central Scottish Highlands, but now I’m not even halfway up, and I’m out of breath.
I guess that’s the way life goes sometimes. Optical illusions, unexpected difficulties and a struggle to shuffle one foot in front of another.
But here in Perthshire, Scotland, something greater than my discomfort is at play.
Sometime after the first mile, the incline kicks in; slowly but unrelentingly for the next two hours, it’s all uphill. Here I am, stopped to catch my breath and unfit on a mountain trail again. When will I learn to take regular exercise?
I’ve been stopping regularly to bend down and admire the vivid lilac heather or the delicate white mountain flowers which are pretty, but the truth is that I’m catching my breath.
I don’t think I’m fooling my boyfriend or puppy, but they play along and wait patiently for me to catch up. A forest, a combination of native Scottish pines and man-planted trees lays to our left. On the other side a valley with the edge of a loch waving us farewell but tucking behind another range that follows us up as we go along.
At each turn of the path, the distance to the highest point in sight remains the same. Am I really moving up the mountain?
Surely, it will flatten out shortly. We come to a gentle respite where the angle of the ascent lets up. This must be it. After hours of walking uphill, Schiehallion is giving us a break.
I catch up with my party and smile, relieved.
“We’re probably close to the summit now.”
He doesn’t look so sure, but instead of breaking the bad news, he meets my puffy red face with an attempt to soothe me.
“This is the easiest of the Munro’s”.
A Munro in Scotland is any mountain above 3000 ft, but I don’t know this at the time. The word Munro has a jolly feel to it. Like a family of friendly mountains.
My heart sinks and my legs turn to jelly but only for a moment. The smell of the pines and the mountain fauna stir my soul, and whatever pains are creaking in my legs they are nothing compared to some of the first world aches of anxiety back in the city.
And there’s comfort in the certainty that the only sure way up is the same path that everyone else takes. There are no hacks or shortcuts or automation out here in nature, and the choice that lays before me is simple; I carry on huffing up that mountain, or I go back down and if I go back down now what other defeats lay ahead?
I love a binary choice.
No, I must push on. One foot in front of the next will get me there and right now, the sun is still shining and reflecting lilac light across my path.
The Fairy Hill Of The Caledonians
At 1083 metres above sea level, with a pleasing symmetry on all sides leading up to the summit, Schiehallion is an iconic geographical feature in the Highlands.
To behold the endless valleys and sparkling bodies of water is to forget about particular first-world woes, at least while you’re up there.
In Scottish Gaelic Schiehallion means Fairy Hill of The Caledonians, and in between my breathlessness and puffy red face, I can feel the magic. The draw of the hill.
There is a sense of playful deception at the top of each small rise when you think the highest point is just ahead of you. I count my steps; one to ten and look back at the unchanged valley. Surely there’s a flat pass coming up. But no the mountain giggles and beckons me on further.
In Scottish folklore the blue witch, Cailleach Bheur, haunts the mountain, appearing at Halloween to welcome in the wintertime. Thankfully it’s not the season for her curse of death.
Photographer Cat Burton created a shot of the Blue Witch in her collection of Stories of Schiehallion.
Cailleach Bheur was said to lay the curse of death and frostbite on unsuspecting walkers on the mountain, but Cat thought she was more of a misunderstood woman; wrongly blamed for the elements and man’s limited understanding of the dangers of the cold.
A Gentle Start
The start of the trail is a gentle incline from a busy forest car park, and already I’m under the enchantment of the mountain. It looks so warm and welcoming. A view from the nearby Loch Rannoch may have given me more of an idea of the consistent ascent.
Still, it’s a beautiful day, and that heather is magnificent. The ascent is on us before I have time to realise and people start to descend; groups of two, four and bigger numbers. Some with dogs, like us, all different ages. Is it just me or do they all look unduly happy?
I smile and make sure Nyx the puppy is out of the way. She’s never been to the mountains and has taken a liking, or disliking; I’m not sure which to people with walking sticks.
The John Muir Trust, a charity committed to protecting wild places in Scotland while simultaneously opening them up for the enjoyment of humans and flourishing of animals is responsible for the paths and the preservation of the woodlands.
On the entrance sign to the walk, they ask that you keep your litter on you.
This seems obvious, but since the lockdown, my local park has been swamped with people’s garbage. I don’t know what kind of person is happy spoiling their natural habitat with empty yoghurt pots and straws and crisp packets, but there’s not a trace of that here on the mountain.
To come up here and look down at the pristine valley with its intricate array of colours and flowers it to grant it the respect it is due.
We’ve been walking for hours; up, up and further up the nicely built path and onto the mountain ridge.
The mist has covered the peak, and the valley and loch below are no longer visible. I’d put another layer on before the cold set in, thankfully.
My boyfriend looks at me, and I must be frowning.
“I think you’ll regret it if you stop now.”
Who said anything about stopping? Not me! Out of breath, feeling super unfit and vowing to do more aerobic exercise before my next holiday I press on. The nicely laid out path has disappeared, and we’re now treading a way of stones and boulders. There’s the occasional slip of the foot but nothing terrifying.
I look up to him. I am tired but resolute.
“Maybe we shouldn’t have watched Everest last night.”
There’s none of the snow and ice from the Everest disaster film, but the rocks have a distinctive Mordor feel to them.
He laughs, reassured at my commitment to press on.
We add a rock to the cairns as we pass them. There’s been a steady flow of people coming down the mountain. They see my face and smile.
Finally, I hear those words.
When we near the final summit, there are no longer any cairns, but we pass a four-year-old child who is making her way back down.
Mountain people are the happiest characters. Imagine those little four-year-old legs conquering the Schiehallion mountain. I straighten up and try and quicken my pace.
At the top, it’s just my boyfriend, puppy and I and there’s no view to be seen, but we’ve made it.
Schiehallion has reminded me that it’s not always about the final reward; the gold is in the journey. The treasure is not giving up, and I know that were we here in October the blue witch of the mountain would urge us on too.
With terrible visibility, we miss the path on the way down, and the wobbly boulders and rocks make up for the challenge that we no longer have now we’re not breathlessly ascending. Nyx whimpers stuck on a rock and disliking the wobble coming from the rocks underneath her paws.
But, like me, she gets there in the end. She knows that one paw in front of the other is the only way to keep going.
Five and a half hours by the time we get back to the car, but the three of us are bushy-tailed and somehow improved by the encounter with the Fairy Hill of the Caledonians.
In busier and more frantic periods that lie ahead the enchantment of the Schiehallion mountain will stay with me, as will every encounter I have in the Scottish Highlands.
By putting one foot in front of the other, we’ll get there in the end.
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