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It wasn’t a particularly tall mountain, but it was a mountain nonetheless. Its heights were often shrouded in mist, as places in Scotland generally are. It loomed over the forested valley in which my lodge was nestled between tall pines and where narrow trails led off in various directions through the heather.
I had followed one or another of the trails each year that I visited the lodge, and each year I had attempted the one that would ultimately lead to the craggy peak above the treeline and from which, I had been told by locals, I could see all of the Cairngorms National Park spread before me.
Bearing in mind the aforementioned mist and the fact that the furthest reaches of the Cairngorms must surely be too far to view (curvature of the Earth and all that, you know), I had my doubts about the promised panorama. Given my experience in scaling Alpine peaks in Bavaria when I was much, much younger, I had tried with each passing year to follow at least one of the steeper trails and, each year over the past decade, turned back to the valley, the duck pond and the gentler and less taxing trails that would lead down into the village.
I was reminded each year that neither I nor time have been kind to my overall health and that with each passing year the likelihood of scaling that mountain was becoming ever more remote.
Last year, I probably made it less than a third of the way.
Still, the mountain beckoned.
Before traveling to Scotland this year, I spent more than two months engaged in flexibility training, to put a technical term to what amounted to nightly swimming exercises. I was going to do everything I could to prepare for a lot of walking, hiking and climbing.
Morning broke over the valley, bringing September sunshine that only faintly warmed the face, and deep dewy shadows that might remain dark and wet until the snows come in only a matter of weeks. If I was to climb that mountain, it would have to be now or never. I was as prepared as I’d ever be.
Adequately caffeinated and stuffed with some sort of Scottish pastry into which someone had angrily shoved the wobbly bits of a long-cooked pig, I set forth on the trail.
I didn’t stop at the first marker. I didn’t stop at the second. I paused at the third and realized I had already bested my previous record, such as it was.
The trail became aggressively steep. The mountainside was strewn with boulders that had been left by the last Ice Age, as big as houses and decked in patches of hardy moss.
I refused to contemplate turning back. If my knees or ankles were going to fail me, I wanted them to do so somewhere high, somewhere remote, somewhere with a view.
The forest eventually thinned and the earthy path became a stair-climb of shelf-like rocks, and then even this small mercy was taken away and my steady ascent degenerated into a scramble over loose stones, shuffles between crags and precipices, and the sky became lighter.
The summit itself had been hidden from view. Looking up from the lodge I had only seen a portion of the mountain. The pile of stones known as a cairn that marked the peak was in fact far higher and far more distant than it had seemed from below.
When I reached it along a final ridge, the cairn offered little shade in a barren emptiness, but I didn’t want shade now. I wanted to see what I had come for, and it was glorious.
Scotland lay at my feet in purple, blue, pink and grey. The landscape rolled and rose, then plunged into valleys in which no man or motorcar ventured. Lochs fed by springs or replenished with snowmelt glistened at improbable heights. Deep forests decked the lower hillsides above the occasional twisting road or railway line.
I couldn’t stay forever. I could breathe in as much of it as my lungs would allow, feel the ancient stone with my fingertips, but eventually I’d have to leave. I’d have to return to the life that I’d left down there in the heathery glen.
Upon the first of ten thousand steps down, my knees shrieked in harmony, “Wait, we’re going to do all this again, but in reverse?”
“Yes, you are. Until you bring me here again.”