A couple of weeks ago, on a weirdly hot day, I took a group of walkers to the top of Ben Vorlich in Perthshire.
When I reached the top my group of 15 was already sitting or lying down just beyond the crowning trig point, but we weren’t the only ones there. There must have been three times that number milling about the 300m wide summit. Some folk were taking photos, some were having the traditional lunch-at-the-top, while others were pointing to things on the horizon or simply gazing into the distance. A respectfully quiet but persistent and cheery chatter bubbled away as happy people, relieved people, exhausted and delighted people, all mingled together and greeted one another at the top of the world.
One of my companions remarked how it looked like a beach, which was a great analogy given that the majority of folk, their backs to the summit, were sat facing the same direction on a slope that gently descended away from the top, staring out into the void in much the same way we do when we’re staring out to sea. Okay, so the beach in this case was green rather than yellow, and instead of looking out across a vast blue ocean rippling with movement it looked out across a massive expanse of immovable hills and ridges. But with wave after wave of them rolling towards the horizon, and with each wave blue in hue and slightly paler than the one before, the vista wasn’t dissimilar.
A summit can provoke a similar awe and humility as when you stand at the edge of an ocean I think, and indeed quite a few people had that familiar edge-of-the-world expression writ large on their faces. A mix of intrigue and insignificance, of coming up against something much bigger than you are.
Of course, when you are in the hills, the summits don’t have the monopoly on stunning views or inspirational situations, but I can’t deny there’s something special about sitting right at the top. It doesn’t matter what size the hill is, whether the 1,244m lump of Cairn Gorm or the 124m pimple on Benbecula’s pancake, there’s something immensely satisfying about the moment when I run out of ‘up’.
It always feels like I’ve reached some kind of limit, that I’ve accomplished something, and it’s weirdly comforting for reasons I can’t properly explain. I wonder sometimes whether that comfort isn’t an echo from a more primeval state of being, from back when we’d seek out the highest ground to survey our surroundings and watch for incoming danger? Or could it be because, as some pals have wryly suggested, ‘Ha ha! You just want to look down on people!’ Hmm. all I do know is that lingering on summits has become one of the things I value most in my life.
It took me a long time to get there though, because for the longest while (and especially in my munro-bagging phase) summits definitely weren’t places to linger. I’d usually only stay long enough to take just one or two inhalations, y’know, just to get some air back into my lungs. Chat to folk? Heavens no! Pause for lunch? Nah, I was already on my way to somewhere else, stuffing food down my throat as I went, doubtless filling the glens with the sound of hiccups and invariably returning home with dehydration headaches.
The rushing certainly wasn’t because I didn’t appreciate the views or because I wasn’t enjoying the hillwalking experience. Far from it. I only ever wanted to be in the hills but I was always impatient to get to the next top, the next summit, the next place to be. It never occurred to me to do anything differently, not until I walked up Beinn Narnain with a pal who was prone to long…..thoughtful…..chat interspersed with long……thoughtful…..silences.
When we reached the summit we sat down, chatted, had lunch, paused for silence, chatted some more, drank some tea, had some cake….and sat in silence again. I do remember anxiously looking at my watch after I’d eaten my sandwiches, but once I’d accepted I had nowhere else I needed to be, the clock melted away and almost two hours passed by effortlessly. That was at least ten times longer than my typical summit visits, and a record for me by some margin.
We lingered long enough to see the subtle changes in mood and light as shadows grew longer, as distant hills fell in and out of shade, and it surprised me how changeable and dynamic the seemingly immovable landscape was. Moreover it surprised me just how pleasurable it was to sit still on a hill, to let the view wash over you and to simply ‘be’. Of course, our weather isn’t always conducive to such indulgences, but on days like those on Ben Narnain and Ben Vorlich you can’t help but feel reflective and, whether you realise it or not as you paddle in the mountains, you are soaking up more than just the sun before your inevitable descent. As one person in my group put it, her face flushed with both effort and elation as she neared the summit, ‘up here, your daily problems just feel so far away!’ I smiled and nodded in agreement, keenly aware of just how readily everything else melts away and how timeless the world seems after a spot of summit bathing.
Ben Dolphin is an outdoors enthusiast and president of Ramblers Scotland