Touching the cold

Thu, Jul 2, 2020

Brewing up on the south summit

With the wind swinging round to the north east and the freezing level dropping onto the highest tops, I thought it would be fun, amidst the mayhem, to recreate an old photograph I have from almost 40 years ago, of a stove purring on a summit, sending plumes of steam into the cool mountain air. I also thought it would be fun to touch the freezing level.

I know it’s apparently safer outside, virus particles being blown away (or towards?) you in the wind but I really didn’t fancy company. I just felt in a solitudinous frame of mind. A 6:20am start from the newly opened Blaven car park it was. The nor’ easter was cold, blowing me up the path through sheltered banks of fragrent bog myrtle, waving clumps of bell heather and congregations of common spotted orchids. The midges must have been hunkering down in the ling, wondering what had gone wrong with the weather. It was coming from Greenland with a bite.

Grass on Blaven

Behind me Knoydart was clagged in but the mountain wall of Clach Glas was clear, its buttresses and crags dropping onto the scree that was slowly transporting it, over the millennia, to the sea. Months of dry weather had left the burns low and it was an easy skip across the rocks and up the path into the coire, stopping to fill up the bottle from the crystal clear burn coming down from the east face of Blaven. The scree on the headwall seemed far worse than I remember and the foxgloves were sparse across the highly mobile slopes. A usual stop at the lunch boulder which provides shelter in any direction the wind cares to blow and up the ridge towards the south summit. This is a great route for scrambling. On the left there’s a very eroded and steep path but on the right the rocks rise in steep and rough slabs and crags. A delight to scramble although a head for heights is to be recommended. The biggest of the crags was dripping so I took the far right line up a groove, bridging and balancing before popping out and looking straight down the vertical side of the deep gully that plummeted to the coire screes. Superb!

Rock architecture and great scrambling on the south summit of Blaven

The air was cooling the higher I climbed and to the south, the Rum Cuillin still had their cloud cap on, the Atlantic grey and flat with the hazy shapes of Eigg and Canna seeming to dissolve in mist. Reaching the south summit is always a magical moment as the ground loses its slope, levels out, takes a short breath then leaps over the edge of the vast, crumbling, verticals of the west face and the eye falls with it, bouncing off the floor of the strath and soaring high to the horizon of the legendary Cuillin ridge. It’s one of the most stunning arrivals of any mountain in Britain.

The Cullin mountains from Blaven

It was cold. I got the stove out and wandered around while it was getting the tea on from a sheltered nook in the rocks and I eventually sat, a contented man, on the edge of the west face with a nice wee mug of green tea and a headful of thoughts. There were wildflowers everywhere, more than I remember. Carpets of Alpine Lady’s Mantle and stonecrop living in the shelter of the scattered summit rocks. The wind died and there was no sound at all. The space to every horizon was slowly filled with silence. Clouds drifted in from the Minch, snagged and tore on the jagged Cuillin then glided across the gap to Rum, landing on its Cuillin for a rest before their long journey out to the Atlantic. All without the slightest of sound.

I wandered around, photographing the plants, looking at the mountains, sitting with breathing meditation regarding a rock and its myriad lichen friends. I tried to feel what it would be like to be a rock up here. No expectation of anything. On days like these, no sound, no people, no wants or needs, nothing to do or expect but just being. Thoughts coming, going, mind emptying, the rock becoming the world. Nothing really matters but this. Living for the sake of being alive and being in a beautiful place.

Rock meditation on Blaven

I wandered down to the deer grass, lay down and ran my hand through its rough strands. I rolled onto my back and looked at the sky, the slow moving clouds, my boots ending and the Atlantic beginning. I lay there for a long time, occasionally closing my eyes for the joy of opening them to see the mountain world burst into sight. Imagine living up here. I love the way the sun, the wind, the rain, the snow make my skin feel part of the that world. The way the mountain sounds of water, wind, birds, deer make my mind feel part of that world. Taken all together, for long enough, they all make me feel like I could be a rock, just for a while and live the life of a solitary on a summit. Feeling the aeons come and go, slowly crumbling, eroding to soil, beginning the long journey back to earth.

They say these mountains were created by a metorite strike near Torrin. A gigantic upheaval that raised the Cuillin as the land rose in waves as the impact dissipated vast amounts of energy. The vastness of the timescales were too much to take in. A rock travelling through the blackness of space. A bigger rock travelling round a blinding ball of nuclear energy. The two meet and as a result, millennia later, a man lies on his back on the rocky remnants of the insterstellar collision and remembers the event. I tried to imagine what it would look like to something that lived for billions and billions of years. Something, for which millennia would be seconds. The sky blackening under the approach of the meteor. Explosion, upheaval, uplift, tsunami of molten rock freezing into mountain walls that reached almost to the top of the sky. Wind, rain, storm and snow breaking them down, lower and lower, dissolving to dust, grains running down their sides to the sea. The coming of people, swarming up their sides. The passing of people. The walls levelling. The flat returning. Nothing to mark the life of mountains.

The Red Hills from Blaven

Coming back to the world, lying there, gazing up, it occurred to me the freezing level was around 1000m. That’s about 80m higher than where I lay. She was up there, circling the earth, looking for new storms to store, to bring back to this place in a couple of months time. Whispering to the peaks “look what I found”. I was only 80m away from winter.

Starry saxifrage on Blaven