‘It is too dangerous,’ they say. ‘More people die on Ben Fraoch than the rest of Scotland’s mountains put together,’ they add with suitable levels of hand wringing. Of course, like every sensible person on the planet I ignore the doom mongers and ‘ealth and safety Nazis and get on with my life. All I want to do is go hill walking. If you know what you are doing – i.e. you can read a map – you’ll be fine. The folk who get into trouble are the ones who go walking in flip-flops and Hawaiian shirts.
Ben Fraoch isn’t a difficult walk, you don’t even need any climbing equipment. Just follow the brown paths that split between the purple heather that stains the mountainside and I mean the whole of it. Purple covers everything, so much so I haven’t seen a single rock for my garden’s cairn, a pile of rocks from every Munro in Scotland – well except Ben Fraoch of course. That rock will be the centre piece that looks down from its high vantage point onto the souvenirs from my hill walking adventures around the world. Now they were dangerous. In Kenya you had to watch out for everything from elephants to mosquitoes and that was just the animals. In Scotland there is nothing but sheep and midges. One is a probably one of the dumbest animals in existence while the other is the most annoying but neither is deadly. If your days were ended by a sheep the coroner would probably change the cause of death to something less embarrassing.
The climb increases in gradient. Sweat dampens my armpits and forehead, thanks more to the sun than anything else. Hope grips me, the summit is only a short distance away. Experience warns me of false dawns and false summits. I should trust my cynicism. I don’t and my reward is a thump the size of the summit hiding behind the one I’m walking up. I stop at the top and gulp down the remains of my bottled water, the plastic already affecting the taste. I slosh the water around my mouth until the taste of dryness is gone and I spit it out over the heather. The tiny purple leaves are dyed a harder shade. A gurgle of water whispers under the strengthening wind. I follow the sound to find a small waterfall, just big enough to fit my water bottle under. With no dead animals in view further up the stream I take the invitation. There is no better taste in the world than fresh water off the Scottish mountains. From the waterfall is a spider’s web of paths, all but one leads down. I follow the exception and start my walk again, cynicism now in control powered by the knowledge I’m almost done. My final Munro is about to be bagged.
A tingle tickles my ankle. The skin between my trousers and socks is red but nothing more, probably rubbed against some heather on my way past. A quick scratch and the tingle becomes a memory. The view at the top of the summit removes it completely. A low whistle escapes my lips, magical doesn’t come close to describing it. All I can see is mountain crests amongst a sea of pink clouds. The smell is freshness and nature, how I imagine the Earth smelt before we took control.
In the centre of the summit is a large flat rock, cool to the touch. I pull off my shirt to refresh my back as I watch the clouds. Calm is now my only emotion, happy and content. A pain starts in the small of my back. A flat, smooth rock, like a table top sits, the same size as my palm. I smile, big wide happiness. The perfect finishing piece. The rock to show I've bagged them all.
A shiver shakes my body. I pull my shirt back around my shoulders. Unbuttoned I leave the sides to flap in the wind. I exchange the rock for my warm, metal flask from my bag. The hot liquid curls into its former lid. I toast both Ben Fraoch and my victory.
The tingle returns to the same place as last time. A single, tiny branch of heather rests against my ankle. I brush it away to scratch only to feel the leaves against my fingers. The tingle spreads, stronger. My sock is sticks to my feet; the cotton tears my flesh as I move my toes. My boots won't move, hidden under a flow of purple. Another tingle, strongest one yet, lacerates my body. The heather wraps round my legs, the tiny flowers sit between my leg hairs. My skin goes white; the only colour left is my veins pumping blue in time with the tingle’s pulse. The view smears into the purple claiming my body.
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