Your perception of distance can play tricks on you in the mountains. Perhaps, it’s the unique mountain light that causes your brain to go haywire and pretend that the summit in the distance is closer than you think. More likely the boost of exercise related hormones, that are triggered when you lace up your boots and put one foot in front of the other, have clouded your judgment and estimation of your own abilities. We have all been there, leaning against a summit cairn taking in the panorama around us when our eyes alight on another airy ridge and a temptingly gnarly summit just beyond. In that moment of “topping-out” euphoria your brain’s normally fairly accurate computation of time and distance fail, egged on by your own sense of achievement you find yourself stepping forward to bag that extra peak. After all, you are so close; it would be a shame to miss it out. If the body produced a reality hormone it would be coursing through your veins by now triggering an involuntary but rational movement of arms to map and then focusing of eyes. This simple physiological move would confirm that the summit is further than first thought and involve a nastily steep ascent following that knee-crunching descent. All to be repeated in the opposite direction. In combination with the “let’s be rational about this” hormone this would result in an abrupt about turn and murmurs of, “perhaps I will leave it for another day.”
Setting out to bag the lonely peak of Gulvain there was no risk of overestimating my own abilities but I had lost all sense of distance. Striding out along the track beside the Fionn Lighe, the heat of the early morning sun already rising, I knew that it was a long walk in before we would start climbing. Pausing briefly as we crossed the river I gazed in to temptingly cool, inky black pools as the water lazily slid underneath the bridge. Yet still there was no sign of my goal. I quickened my pace beside the forestry plantation desperate to get to higher ground. There I knew I would be out of reach of the slashing, slicing razor-sharp teeth of the clegs that hovered around me, ready to silently ambush any exposed piece of skin. They had plenty to aim for as I had foolishly opted to wear walking shorts for this outing, providing a Heathrow-sized space for these airborne insect terrorists to hijack my blood. A decision that I came to regret the next day as my legs turned to itchy islands of blotchy, red inflammation and swelling.
The welcome first glimpse of the twin-peaked Gulvain, the footpath leaving a clear stony scar on its lower slopes, encouraged me onwards. Yet no matter how many steps I took forward the mountain never seemed to get any closer.
Push forward one hundred metres. Stop. Look upwards. The mountain seemed further away than ever.
Focus on the summit whilst walking. Surely, then it will gradually seem closer.
Another kilometre effortlessly glides by and the grassy slopes obstinately stand still.
Temporary distance perception disorder had definitely kicked in. Then all of a sudden it disappears as the steep slope towers above you, shutting out any view of the first summit. The path zigzags relentlessly upwards, the clegs left safely behind. Instead I am joined by bumblebees heavily laden with ruby red pollen and jewel-like dragonflies, emerald green, sapphire blue and jet-black darting to and fro. Their target the carpets of wild thyme and lady’s mantle providing a purple and yellow fringe to the path. These natural delights divert me from the climb and soon I am leaning against the trig point of the minor top. Glancing at the Munro beyond, I wondered if my brain is playing distance tricks again. The summit looks suspiciously close and the drop before any re-ascent only minimal. Not wanting to risk a step too far I check the map. It’s only six hundred metres with a drop of fifty. No delusional distances.
On fine summer days you linger at the top desperately wanting to make up for all those days where, blasted by wind and rain you barely pause at a summit. I did just that on Gulvain carefully crossing off the other mountains I could identify, noting the enticing ones not yet climbed. I wanted to remain high for as long as possible as I retraced my steps along the ridge. Even more so, when confronted with a squadron of flying insects primed for their next kamikaze mission towards human skin.
Heat, tiredness and mountain air all contributed to severe distance distortion when I reached the track below. Six kilometres seemed like sixty. The landmarks I had mentally noted in the morning, the tumble-down croft, the fire-break in the trees, the small bend in the track were all further apart than before. The car was never just round that corner or over that hump, instead I was always confronted with just dusty track stretching off into the distance. Eventually that track ran out and slumped against my car I realised that time, distance and space often have no real meaning in the mountains
Walk Highlands Route Description
“Cairn in the Mist” Blog Route Report