Last updated on 25th April 2012
I wrote a post at the beginning of the week entitled "Looking ahead to the walking retreat". Now it's happening - Thursday morning 6.30am. It takes some effort of will to emerge from the only-just-warm-enough sleeping bag, put on more layers of clothes and bring this little computer back to bed. I haven't used this one man tent - a Hilleberg Akto - on an expedition before and I'm still very much learning about headroom, storage space and other essentials. Same goes for this little Eee PC computer I'm typing into.
So here I am, camped by the Allt 'a Mhadaidh, a stream leading from the high Loch a' Mhadaidh down to Loch Droma at the side of the A835 road where I parked my car last night. Then there was 'grunt' time, humping a double pack up a track towards Loch a' Mhadaidh. Hard 'grunt'. Predictably I'd packed a bit too much and carrying the load uphill was fairly tough. I was pleased when I spotted a little flat area by the stream where I could pitch tent without going all the way up to the higher loch. Then putting up the tent, cooking a meal, and snuggling down early - partly because I was tired after working the morning and then driving for four or so hours get up here, partly because there's not a whole lot to do in a small, cold, darkening tent and snuggling down into the warm becomes increasingly appealing.
It feels nearly time to get going. I have a long day planned ahead - climbing up onto the main ridge of the Fannaichs and, if all goes well, taking 10 or so hours to climb four Munros (a name for Scottish hills over 3,000 feet high - there are 284 of them by current reckoning) by heading mostly a bit South of East along the undulating ridge - with a detour or two - to An Coileachan and then back.
Three entwining strands to this. One is that it's quite a challenging adventure. A second is that I intend to use the time as an opportunity to practise mindfulness. Thirdly is something about connection - to the hills , the weather, landscape, the Earth. I can hear a bird calling. Time to get going.
... and now it's 4.00pm and I've been back an hour, so 'only' seven hours walking. The whole time up on the ridge was in very limited visibility. I climbed the first two Munros - Sgurr Mor and the side ridge to Beinn Liath Mhor Fainnaich - but I took a couple of wrong turns in the enveloping low cloud and knew that if I had tried to get back to the main ridge and gone on to climb the two further Munros I'd planned to, it was going to get very late with plenty of opportunity to make further mistakes in the mist as I got tireder. "Discretion is the better part of valour" as my dad used to say. When I considered going on I had a schoolboy memory of being taught about the doomed charge of the light brigade under withering cannon fire with a French observer being reported to have said "C'est magnifique, mais ce n'est pas la guerre", which should translate as something like "It's magnificent, but it isn't war" - more a self-induced massacre. I found myself thinking quite a lot about risk. I remembered how a friend abroad recently slipped onto a rock and badly fractured their kneecap, or my sister's visit to our local park where she twisted her ankle in a hole and had a hard time hobbling the few hundred yards home. How sensible is it for me to take several days in the mountains on my own when I'm out of mobile range and if I fell it might be some days before I was found?
I find it a really interesting question - how much risk is it reasonable to take in our lives? Not taking risks is risky. People who are habitually cautious probably tend not to have as wide a set of life experiences and limit their opportunities for learning. Excessive risk takers however simply tend to damage themselves and possibly others. So how much risk is a good middle way - not too much, not too little? I reassure myself that I'm 58 and haven't damaged myself much over a lifetime of taking moderately challenging risks. I seem to have got it about right so far - possibly partly because I'm prepared to both challenge myself and also pull back like I did climbing only two Munros today. I've also been lucky ... and I've tried to prepare for the risks I take. I've been on mountain navigation/survival courses, I have an agreed time to check in by phone with my wife and I've left her a map of where I intend to walk. I might hurt myself or die taking on challenges, but I'd hate to die of stupidity.
The rain showers pass repeatedly bouncing and rattling off the roof of the tent. I brew myself a coffee, write this 'diary', read 'Pilgrim at Tinker Creek', and snooze. I feel kind of primitive and simple sheltering from the rain in this little personal space.
Walking earlier today, I tried a simple mindfulness exercise that I used a lot just over a year ago on a five day walking holiday in the Sahara. It consists of initially noting things I can see. Silently inside I say to myself "Observing ... Observing ... Observing ... ", describing briefly each time what my eyes are seeing. So it might run something like "Observing the light-coloured stones on the track." "Observing the snow splashes on the hill." "Observing the puddle of water." Then I note three things I'm sensing, for example "Sensing the wind on my face." "Sensing the unevenness of the ground." "Sensing the cold in the tips of my fingers." Then I note three things I'm hearing, and so on. A mindfulness exercise of coming to my senses. I find it helpful especially when I'm moving through an environment - walking, running, cycling, even looking out of the window of a train or car. Usually I'll slightly "privilege" sight by having Observing three time come alternately - so Observing x 3, Sensing x 3, Observing x 3, Hearing x3, Observing x3, and so on. This works well on short walks back in Edinburgh, and it worked beautifully in the Sahara, following our guides and the camels. It seems to be most helpful when I'm not needing to think specifically about other things. Trying it while walking today felt harder. Partly, no doubt, this was because my mind was wandering easily. Partly though it seemed that it clashed with the need to constantly watch my step amongst the uneven rocks, and repeatedly scan for signs of a vague path in the mist or check my compass bearing in relation to the various landmarks. My mindfulness practice that kept bringing me back to the present wasn't the Observing/Sensing/Hearing exercise, or a more traditional observing of my breath. Instead it was keeping safe, watching my footing, keeping on track. In some ways this is easier - in the extreme, my life itself might depend on getting it right, so it can become a compelling object of attention. I don't know how much, though, that it promotes inner quietness. Somewhat I guess!