11th October 2016, Ben More (M016), 3852ft, 1174m
Nowhere higher than this anywhere south of here on the British Isles.
Less of an unrelenting slog than I remember from the last time I climbed this mountain – at the end of a winter sometime at the end of the 1980s. Then, the ground was still frozen and there were considerable snowbanks above 3500ft that necessitated crampons. It was a glorious cloudless day with a warming sun promising spring. Today, clouds were down to about 3000 feet and there was intermittent rain, the summits of surrounding hills were only sometimes barely visible. The ground was mushy, thick with grasses grown strong during a long summer. Then I was with a group on a traverse of both Ben More and Stob Binnein. Today I took the shortest route, starting from the farm on the A85, straight up Ben More and straight back down again.
I was having a bit of a cancer day. I had to get out of the house and away from my chores because my mind was festering and turning over all the stuff that cancer brings. The side effects of the medication I take to suppress the cancer cells are piling up and affecting my life – my motivation is low, hot flushes disturb everything every two hours, my sleep is a mess, the black dog snaps continually at my heels. The four year anniversary of being told that I would probably live only three years is fast approaching. Every day alive in this strange limbo feels like cheating death, that it could come upon me at any moment, that the medication will stop doing its work and allow the cancer to spread unfettered into all the organs of my body. Being confronted so urgently with both my own death and the manner by which it is likely to unfold, and having lived an unsatisfactory life that disappointed all the expectations with which it began, fills me with a kind of regret it is difficult to articulate – a combination of grief and rage that turns into resignation, a deep sense of loss, always in danger of inducing a particularly nauseating form of self-pity.
So in the middle of all this, what better way to clear my head than bag another of the high peaks. And in the process, show myself that life is still worth living, that it is still possible to get this body to do stuff in spite of its medically induced lethargy, and to get it to the top of a mountain where the air is clear, the ground challenging, and where the views of the world put things into perspective. On the way up I almost gave up when the rain came down fierce and prickly, but I stopped to take stock and adjust my clothing in a hollow under an overhanging rock used by sheep, and then continued, concentrating not on the summit and the reasons I was climbing the mountain, but on every individual step I took. The present can be overwhelmingly filled with mental anguish and disturbance or with the forms and textures of rock, mud and grass, with the best places for feet, with the bodily adjustments every step requires to move on successfully to the next. And so, slightly over two hours after I left the car, I reached the short summit ridge. I was filled with joy, gratitude that I am alive at all, so privileged that I am able to experience this, in awe that there is such a life as this among the enormity of creation.
On the way back down I stopped once or twice to snack and gaze out, laughing with pleasure at the beauty of the world, no longer troubled by thoughts of cancer and death, looking out over Crianlarich towards Tyndrum, to cloud-topped mountains penetrated by the light of the lowering sun.