Saturday 19 January 2013

A night on the mountain

July 2006: James wakes up on a summit in Wales
A night spent on the summit of a mountain is like no other experience. Since the days of my earliest adventures in the hills I have been captivated by the idea of a mountain bivouac; I imagined it to be a profoundly spiritual experience, characterised by long hours awake but unthinking, allowing ones self to be absorbed by the ground, simply existing in the high cradle between heaven and earth.

I spent many nights as a teen bivouacking in the local forest, but as I came to discover, a forest camp is a different experience. The wood shivers and shifts around you, a living entity awake with watchful eyes and sharp movements. A deer might stand six feet from the mossy hollow where you crouch. She sniffs the air, paws the turf with a hoof, and then suddenly she is gone. The real and the unreal intertwine with the dreams in your mind. In the morning you are tired but rarely cold, and as you pack your bivvy bag and leave the dawn-splashed clearing, a bird will call and remind you of the teeming life that surrounded you as you slept.

The life you see on a mountain at night is of a different kind. You are not surrounded by living creatures, but the mountain breathes beneath you, and the ethereal beauty of the sky draws your thoughts upwards.

Sept 2009: dawn on the summit of Sgurr an Iubhair
I have witnessed more beauty and profound truth from the summit of a mountain at night than anywhere else at any time. The whole experience is magical and somehow vital, resonant of an ancient time when man had to fight for his daily existence. First there is the climb up the summit at dusk. On some occasions my night out was simply part of a longer expedition, and as dusk fell I would be tired and footsore, keen to find the first comfortable spot to unroll my bivvy bag. On other occasions the bivouac was the objective in itself and I would start late, timing my ascent to catch sunset on the summit.

If the weather is kind, this hour between day and night is very special. I put on my spare fleece and gloves, find a comfortable rock to sit on next to my chosen bed for the night. I unroll my sleeping mat and my bivvy bag, calculate what time to get up in the morning. Then, after making a brew and having a bite to eat, I sit and let my mind run blank.

February 2010: a cold night out on Binnein Mor

The sun sinks like a fireball below the brow of the hill, throwing a veil of fire into the sky above. The colours morph and blend in ways incomprehensible to the casual observer: only the bivvyist, with time to sit and stare, can appreciate a mountain sunset to the full. Night encroaches from the east, drawing a curtain of sparkling darkness over the mountains. The air grows chill, and perhaps down in the glen beneath the roar of a fountain or the braying of a stag will echo in the silence. The world feels empty and yet so alive.

Finally the stars win their battle against the dying day and the cold really begins to bite. I retreat to my bag and zip myself in tight, sleepy and yet hoping that sleep never comes. As the hours pass, the stars wheel overhead and if my mind is blank enough I begin to feel that I have become an infinitesimally small cog in the grand mechanism of the heavens: an integral part of the stars and frosty sky, a being of awareness only, my physical self irrelevant.

August 2008: dawn from the shoulder of Ben Starav
Sleep, when it finally comes, is blank and dreamless. If I'm lucky, I awake before the dawn and get to see last night's sunset reverse itself on the other side of the sky. It's bitterly cold and it takes willpower to extricate myself from the sleeping bag, but finally I am tugging on my boots and stamping up and down to warm myself up. No time for breakfast: my kit goes back in my rucksack and the journey resumes.

May 2010: bivvy outside the Garb Coire bothy prior to an ascent of Braeriach
It isn't always a magical experience with perfect weather, of course. I have experienced plenty of bad weather bivvies as well in my time. Back in 2006 I found myself curled up in a ball somewhere near Glaslyn halfway up Snowdon, shivering in the pouring rain and wondering if I should go back down. I have slept on mountains in gale force winds, soaking rain, blizzards, and deep frost. Perhaps the most uncomfortable bivvy I ever endured was in July 2007 just beneath the summit of Mettelhorn in the Alps. James and I had spent four hour hours digging a snow hole in the glacier, but we hit a 45 degree bed of hard ice and were unable to excavate a level platform to lie on. To make matters worse, we didn't think to take waterproof bivvy bags; over the course of that very uncomfortable night our sleeping bags gradually soaked up a lot of water.

July 2007: digging the snow cave
Uncomfortable it may have been, but it was certainly memorable and it's an anecdote we enjoy telling to this day. There's something about an uncomfortable mountain experience, particularly if it involves a night in the open, that seems to make a good tale. A night spent on a mountain, without a tent, is invariably a memorable and revelatory experience--regardless of the weather. I think it's something everyone should experience at least once in their lives.

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