Things come and things go. Yesterday, metaphorically speaking, there was nothing here but wilderness. Today there is an asphalt road. Tomorrow there will be rubble and wild moors. But the sun has always risen, has risen today and will rise for ever. And this morning, as Glencoe shivers under a blanket of mist beneath a milky grey sky, the sun ascends through a translucent veil – a disc of pale gold above the A82.
The ancients worshipped the sun because they were always relieved to see it. They knew it would return – but after spending the night in a cold, damp hut with the chillness of the pre-dawn mist sucking warmth from the body, the first few rays warmed the spirit as well as the land.
I stand and watch the sun rise above the pass, and like the ancients I feel a sense of relief and gratitude, knowing that soon there will be warmth in my bones and fingers. Because it has been a long, cold night. And on these nights, when frost forms on the shell of your tent, you wonder if the sun is ever going to rise again.
I’m in a philosophical mood. I got dressed in the dark, had my breakfast in the dark and went to the campsite toilet in the dark. And while I was cleaning my teeth this chap came out of a cubical, washed his hands in the sink next to mine, glanced at me in the mirror and said: “We’ve made it through another one, then,” before zipping his thermal jacket up to his thermal hat and disappearing into the blackness.
His words are on my mind as the sky turns from milky grey to milky blue and I tramp through a lay-by to the start of the Buachaille Etive Beag path, passing a transit van in which two blokes are sleeping with their heads on the dashboard. The engine is running to provide warmth. It’s the only sound in the world – bar the occasional roar of a stag in the high mountains rising before my boots.
That chap in the campsite toilet, what did he mean by: “We’ve made it through another one, then”? I’m trying to recall my scripture classes. When is the feast of the Passover? Was he, like me, an eldest child? Was last night the night the angel of death passed over the homes of the unrighteous, plucking the firstborn in a trail of misery from Bethel to Ballachulish?
Or, like me, did he know the sun was about to rise? In the inky-black air of pre-dawn Glencoe, had he pulled the chain, washed his hands, glanced at his watch, seen me cleaning my teeth in readiness for the fresh new day, and uttered his curious words before shuffling off to tell his wife to get the bacon on?
Buachaille Etive Beag is a fine mountain comprising two Munros at opposite ends of a connecting ridge. I climb to the col between the two peaks, up what can only be described as a first-rate path, and am on the summit of the lower Munro – Stob Coire Raineach – for 10am.
I am alone in the brilliance of a perfect morning. The sun is warm, the air is still, the sky a flawless blue – and ground mist still lingers like snow in the hollows of Rannoch Moor. This is what climbing mountains is all about. A morning like this makes a hundred mediocre mountain days worth every painful step.
I sit on a rock and admire the view for half an hour or so. Then I shoulder my pack, rattle across the connecting ridge to the summit of Stob Dubh, and sit there for nearly an hour – gazing along the pale water of Loch Etive, across to the high crags of Bidean nam Bian, and the graceful blue mountains in the south and the east.
With a sense of reluctance I return to the col and drop down to Lairig Gartain and the River Coupall, taking the path back to the road with a hot sun on the back of my neck.
On the A82, as I watch lorries and camper vans tearing east and west, an RAF jet roars overhead – about 200ft above the tarmac – and disappears into the folds of Glencoe. And I think: when the last camper van has rotted to dust, the last lorry has been consumed by the boglands and the last jet has been swallowed by the eternal sky – the sun will still rise through the mists of Glencoe. And, hopefully, there will still be people glad to see it.
Provided we all make it through another one, that is.