22nd January 2017, Meall Ghaordaidh (M093), 3409ft, 1039m
It was cold and still. Layers of cloud hanging in the glens and clinging to the summits. The ground was stiff and frozen, lightly dusted with snow. Slumbering winter grasses, dead bracken and leafless trees hung heavy with frost. I left the car by the roadside in Glen Lochay just before eleven and followed the path all the way up the mountain, where I sat cross legged, eating a lunch of carrot and broccoli dipped in humous, protected from the cold by down, fleece and windstopper and from the slight wind by the ringed cairn surrounding the summit trig point. If the ground had not been so frozen, large sections of the path would no doubt have been a great big squelchy mess and the ascent would have taken longer. It is not difficult to see why some Munro guides are rather less than enthusiastic about this mountain, for the path follows an easy gradient with very few obstacles, and it took me to the summit in only a little over two hours. I imagine that the views of afar from atop this mountain are quite spectacular, but I did not experience any of them. What I experienced instead was the ground beneath my feet, the stillness of the mountain and the life that clings to it, even up so high, even in the depths of winter. In spite of the season, there was hardly any snow, much less than would be expected, but where it lies, under crags and in gullies, it is as hard as rock. I sat at the summit for half an hour, the only sound the rustle of my clothing and the occasional croak from a contented ptarmigan. I know no better way of bringing a troubled mind to rest than the experience of real silence. For when confronted by an absolute lack of noise, in a well protected body, it is impossible to conclude anything other than that all the noise in your head is only in your head. That there is nothing out there, signifying who or what you are, no evidence anywhere of your own existence, just the beat of your heart and the rhythm of your breathing. And so I encountered an enormous sense of peace and well being. As I returned back along the path the ptarmigan fluttered along behind me, cackling and croaking with some song of celebration, or trying to tell me something. He stood for a moment on a rock at the edge of the still monochrome landscape, illuminated only by mist diffused sunlight, continuing his crackly song. I turned to watch him. When he finished, he just stood, looking around, puffing up his feathers, being alive in his home. I do not know how long we stood there together, sharing this mountain top; I kept expecting him to fly off, that my slight movements would startle him, but he was not bothered by my presence, not really showing any sign at all that I existed in his world. Presently, he turned to look at me and cocked his head slightly, at which point I smiled in gratitude and turned down the path. As I emerged from under the mist, the colours of the glens, this morning diluted by the frost, were vibrant in comparison to the black and white landscape of the cloud shrouded summit.
The beauty of the planet never ceases to delight and does not depend on open skies of blue. I remembered an old Zen Buddhist epithet about what you find at the top of the mountain being only what you brought with you, and was given cause again to reflect upon the sense of peace I had found there, and evidently shared with a resident ptarmigan. I am coming to understand these days just how special it is to be alive at all, what a privilege it is to be human, and how we waste this life if we do not experience the beauty of every moment, no matter how grey the skies or insistent the noise from within. Maybe my mind was less troubled than I thought.