Tuesday, 14 February 2012

8 hours in Eden

The ridge is broad but rocky with a sinuous path winding through small outcrops. Somewhere in the last few steps it becomes transcendent and the summit itself seems in another place with different air. I climbed the big, haphazard cairn and took a breath – it seemed to have substance and nurture. I said aloud – ‘I will not leave this place.’ 
Glengarry has a thin surface of civilisation which extends for only few feet either side of the ribbon of the road and it took me only minutes to reach its edge at the forest gate. I peered into the dark green tunnel ahead as I footered with the gate’s catch and chucked the bike through. The wood was open enough to let the high sun in for most of the ride and so the forest felt close and warm. Squadrons of dragonflies followed the bike as I crested the hill and dropped down a rough section of track to a big bridge over the River Kingie. So far, so good. The empty sylvan forest alive with the sound of insects, hung with dripping green mosses and with a deep carpet of pine needles had moved me away from that ribbon quickly and into a wilder, lonelier place. I said to the bike – ‘where next?’
I knew the answer and the bike and I proceeded happily in the growing silence to the path off to the ruin at Loch. A previous visit here put the old croft in a dim light of spooky shadows and terminal decline, but on this day the sun was high and the hoverflies were buzzing. Loch appeared to doze in the sun although its remaining gable leaned away to the east.
The path became rougher and wetter, the bike flowed less and I was working harder. This was still pleasure but I said to the bike ‘Tell me when.’
The forest became scraggier and the trees less overbearing as we moved up the valley of the Kingie. The river was now visible on the left, wide and meandering in a broad green strath. To the west the mountains reared up in the clear air with just the slightest shimmer of heat on their high ridges.
About a mile after the forest gave out I sunk into a deep rut, struck the pedals and the bike said when. I found a dry yard of path, sat down and threw my legs out across it to chew through a piece and take a drink and stock. This was a fine place. The empty glen stretched out in swathes of yellow grasses towards the bothy at Kinbreack, its proportions defined by glacial perfection and ringed with ridges - I laid the bike reverently against a bank and took to my feet up the path towards them.
It aimed gently up to the glen between Gairich and Sgurr Mor and I left it at a small bridge and struck out through the bog cotton towards the east ridge. Things went slow in the heavy afternoon but there were flowers in numbers and peat in depth to look at and wonder. Dwarf cornel, tormentil and spears of marsh orchids had to be avoided as I traced a spidery route upwards. The upper mountain had a sharp transition to boulders and short heather and no obvious path to be found. The light changed from noon-time to afternoon before the trig point was made. Then there was nothing to be done but to descend to the col and climb the east ridge of Sgurr Mor through the swarms of desperate, dying crane flies to the summit ridge...

I said again – ‘I will not leave this place.’
The ridge stretched out from my feet through a land of stone and water towards the western seaboard and its quilt of islands. A snaking wave of tops and bealachs ran on to the middle distance ending in the cathedral spire of Sgurr na Ciche. Now the pap of Knoydart is a high point for most but not for me. For from here I could see the Feadan na Ciche for the first time in many years. It is that place – the chanter of the peaks – which holds a special place in my heart and a strong grip in my imagination as the heart of the wild. My only visit to the chanter was at the age of 18, descending from the Sgurr in a daze of excitement after climbing my second ever Munro. That short November day we walked from Sourlies to Strathan along the ridge, watching as a snow squall first covered the distant Ben and then departed leaving behind the first cover of winter. As far as I could see there were only peaks, endless and ‘filed on the blue air.’ I was overwhelmed by this far country and knew that it would take a lifetime to know it properly. I did not know then how willingly I would give it and the deepness of what it would return.
So this is where my mind goes in the darkness of winter to imagine the Chanter of the Winds deep in snow and droning with the west wind. I can stand in the centre of the Infirmary Bridge, where the Ness first meets the tide and look up the river seeing the long, lonely flow all the miles up to this Eden.
I lay on my back and said to the cairn – ‘I will stay.’
But I knew from many summits that you cannot stay. I shouldered my rucksack and turned my back on the wild. I walked away altered – stretched, deepened and at peace. I retraced my footsteps to the deep valley as the sun reddened and the flowers hid their faces from me.
The bike waited by the path. ‘I’m back’ I said, remembering other stories and we bounced off down the path to that last gate where the wild ended and the road began.

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