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 mountain getting ever so slightly closer 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.

From the summit of Gulvain 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

Recommended Links:

Walk Highlands Route Description

“Cairn in the Mist” Blog Route Report

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TGO Challenger Passes Through

How do you tell a TGO Challenger from a normal West Highland Way walker when they enter your Post Office? Simple, he will be wearing a big rucksack. The majority of West Highland Way walkers tend to have smaller day sacks as their kit is ferried from stop-to-stop by a luggage company. There is no such luxury for a challenger.

Also, they will be carrying a four and a half kilo parcel that needs to be posted second class and ask just out of interest how heavy it is. That was the scenario this morning as my first challenger appeared in front of the counter. A brief conversation established that he had been carrying most of the contents of the parcel and that he was heading to Montrose.

I told him I had been following some of the challengers on their blogs. When asked, I listed a few, Alan Sloman’s alcohol assisted journey and the excellent Postcard from Timperley. My customer agreed they were both good blogs. He then asked if I looked at Whitespider. I am afraid I never have and he looked slightly crestfallen at my response. It was only after his departure that I realised he may have been the blogger himself. If that is so, my apologies, I will make sure I have a look at the Whitespider this evening.

Update: I have just looked at the Whitespider blog. My intrepid challenger wasn’t the same guy, but thanks for putting me on to another great blog.

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Alex & Bob’s Blue Sky Scotland

After the last week of poor weather in the Highlands I sometimes wonder if it ever stops raining in my part of the Highlands. So the premise behind Alex and Bob’s relatively new blog, that it doesn’t always rain in Scotland, is welcome. They take the attitude that it may rain frequently north of the border but it doesn’t the whole country all of the time. More importantly there is often an East-West split where one side can be in brilliant warm sunshine and the other enveloped cold grey drizzle.

Basing their walking trips on the weather forecast, they are flexible enough to head in the direction where the skies are clear, or clearer. This commonsense approach has allowed them to miss the worst of the British weather. As they are not chasing the high peaks it means less well-known areas of Scotland are featured. Recent reports have included Knockdolian (a 265m hill in Ayrshire) and Great Cumbrae Island off the north Ayrshire coast. This is great approach for a walking blog, proving that you don’t have to go high to be impressed.


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The Lochailort Pyramids

When asked to name the classic ridge routes in the Scottish mountains most hillwalkers would list Aonach Eagach, CMD arete, Forcan ridge and the Skye Cuillins among them. I suspect few would mention the Lochailort Pyramids hidden away in Moidart. That’s a shame as they offer a delightful day out in the hills, albeit one that does not involve tricky scrambling or nerves of steel to edge along exposed sections. Even better their relative anonymity means that you will have the three Corbett peaks and their interconnecting ridge virtually to yourself. Even on a fine Easter Sunday there were few out on these hills. In comparison, the Aonach Eagach would have been more crowded than the M6.

Open hillside to An Stac

 Starting from the small car park at Inverailort our walking club split in to two groups with the larger group opting to undertake the horseshoe route, whilst my smaller group headed off to tackle An Stac. Comments from walkers that had already climbed An Stac included, “It is relentlessly steep” and “I know if I climb An Stac I won’t want to continue beyond it.”

Yes, the north ridge of An Stac is steep but I have been up steeper. From the col below it does look at though the climb will go on for ever, but on a clear day you are rewarded with views of the azure clear waters of Loch Ailort and the Sound of Arisaig. Beyond An Sgurr on the Isle of Eigg points stubbornly upwards from the low lying island around it. Even further away are the proud peaks of Rum with a halo of cloud encircling them. Concentrate on these visual diversions and you will soon find yourself topping out on the summit, out of breath and ready for lunch. Loch Ailort and the Sound of Arisaig beyond

The real killer of this walk is the steep descent to the col on the south side, a 250m knee crushing descent when faced with an almost vertical climb of 160m up to the Bealach an Fhiona. There we decided we did not have enough energy to climb Rois-Bheinn and descend to the bealach again before tackling the third Corbett of Sgurr na Ba Glaise. Not wanting to descend to the road beyond Rois-Bheinn, instead wishing to prolong the delights of ridge walking on such a fine day, we headed straight up Sgurr na Ba Glaise instead. Fine views deep inland greeted us with the snowy top of Ben Nevis dominating.

Picking our way around the rocky outcrops along the ridge we continued round to the Druim Fiachlach enjoying gazing past its crag deep into the corries below. The small lochan below the Druim’s midpoint was our marker to strike north-west down heather clad slopes towards Inverailort, the white Lochailort Hotel our navigational beacon luring us with the promise of cold beer. How I managed to find the soggy parts of this hillside as I slid on my backside not once but three times I am still not sure. Reaching the valley floor with damp, tender and tired thighs was a relief. 

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