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Ben Dolphin: An experience that’s as old as the hills

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Days of low cloud have squeezed all colour from the world, leaving the landscape slate grey. It’s calm, cold and dry but your hill looks less than enticing. Only the lowest slopes are visible; the remainder wrapped in a gloomy grey blanket. You resign yourself to another foggy summit, but you’re still glad to be walking while the rest of Scotland slumbers.

You’re soon into the fog. Edges soften and the light dims, but you press on regardless. Up here the world feels damp; beads of moisture cling to the grass, the fog colliding with your hair and your clothes. It might not be raining but you’re sopping wet anyway.

Higher you go.

Ben Dolphin

You see shapes and movement in the fog where none exist. Looking closer you realise it’s just those pesky floaters on your eyes, drifting in the dull monochrome.

Half an hour later you’re sure it’s getting brighter. You stop to look around, as though peering hard will tell. Thick fog silently ghosts its way across the hillside.

Boulders in the near distance fade in and out of existence, and the horizon is nothing more than a vague suggestion.

You continue up into the murk, but the brightening sensation persists. You doubt yourself after so many false dawns, but 10 more upward steps confirm it when a dull disc appears overhead.

With a sharply defined edge, the sun looks like a pale white tiddlywink hanging there. Its blinding light is muted by the fog, so much so that you can stare right at it, but it’s the sun nonetheless.

Your pulse races as you realise the game is on, but any excitement is checked when you realise how close the summit actually is, maybe just 100 metres above you.

“Is that enough?” you wonder.

Up you go, hoping that it is. The surge of excitement is hard to contain, and your pace quickens in anticipation. 80 metres of ascent to go…

The tiddlywink disappears, only to reappear 30 seconds later. Hopes are dashed, raised, and dashed again as 50 metres below the summit all brightness disappears completely.

“No! Come back!!” you exclaim aloud.

You’re running out of hillside.

40 metres left and…oh, is it getting warmer? It seems counterintuitive but yes, the breeze has gone from cold and wet, to warm and dry, and you notice you’re now casting a shadow. Instinctively, you look up at the sun but quickly flinch, as it’s now too bright to look at.

The grey is turning white. And look, a hint of blue sky!

You scramble the last 40 metres as though your life depends on it, partly from eagerness to see what you know awaits you, and partly from fear that the window will close before you get there.

But now, with every step you take up the hillside the white is turning blue. Warmth envelops you, as though someone has just opened an oven door.

Panting, you escape the final tendrils of fog with barely 30 metres of hillside to spare. Your body is tired from the sudden exertion but you don’t feel it. Euphoria carries you up the final steps until you find yourself standing, elated, on the summit of your own private island.

Everything above you is blue. And below you, a shining sea of cloud stretches in all directions as far as the eye can see. White tendrils lap at the shoreline like waves, while all around you neighbouring islands similarly break through the surface, so well defined you feel you could almost sharpen a knife on them. You’re barely at 2,000ft but it feels more like 20,000.

Everything feels amplified and over-saturated, as though the air itself is glowing. It’s at least 10C warmer up here too than it was down in the fog, but incredibly that other world is only a couple of minutes downhill from where you stand.

Otherworldly and mesmerising, it’s outrageously beautiful but it’s more than just a nice view. It’s an immersive and almost ethereal experience, profound in its ability to stimulate deeper thoughts about the magnificence of the natural world and your place within it.

You’d stay up here forever if you could, but at some point you’ll have to head down. So you sit, you stare and you meditate, soaking up every last drop of the experience until, inevitably, you must turn your back on it.

The murk returns. The cold comes back. But the memory remains, and rekindling it later will light your way through any grey day.

Ben Dolphin is an outdoors enthusiast, countryside ranger and former president of Ramblers Scotland