There’s nothing quite like the steady stillness of nighttime on the hills.
The roar of cars and buses and lorries are hushed, and what’s of left of them are left behind the country roads and forest tracks which bring you to the foot of the hill. The clunks and bangs and squeals that humans and their various wares make are disconnected for now, and so even your portable reminder of the chaotic world we live in stops tweetering and snapping and loudly declaring it likes things for a while.
At nighttime, even the natural chorus that’s been playing millions of years before we added our mechanical allegro enters a lull. Instead, there is only the steady stillness of the night, punctuated by the occasional phuttering of Ptarmigan, and your own thoughts. How scary.
Earlier in the week our weekend plans to climb a Munro evolved into plans to climb a Munro at sunrise. My friends, Sarah and Iris, and Iris’s two dogs, would meet at a car park in Edzell at 3am in order to greet Saturday morning at the top of Mount Keen. While we’d all walked hills in the dark, none of us had ever walked in the wee hours of morning with the purpose of catching the sunrise. How exciting.
I’d stayed at Sarah’s flat in Stonehaven the night before, and we’d dutifully put ourselves to bed at the early hour of 8pm in order to catch some sleep before our alarms went off at the ungodly hour of 2am. The 18 year-old Natalie would have thought the 28 year old Natalie was a total loser. A lot has changed since then.
For one, I fell asleep maybe eight minutes after my head hit the pillow. After a busy week at work and six months into a new job, I’m still “settling in”. Between work and weddings and tweeting and binging on Netflix and catching up with friends, I’m struggled to find the time or the resolve to blog. This work/life balance thing is pretty tough.
Drunk on a flask of syrupy strong coffee, Sarah and I giggled our way from Stonehaven to Edzell. Is this the stupidest idea we’d ever had? Who in the world goes to bed early on a Friday to climb a hill?!
We met Iris in Edzell, jumped into her truck and headed to the car park at Invermark.
It was just after 3am that we began the pre-hill walking ritual of packing bags, putting on layers, carefully folding away maps, putting on boots, zipping up waterproofs, fighting with head torches that never sit quite at the right angle on your head, cursing at how bloody cold it is and triple checking that you are as prepared as you can be for any of the apocalyptic scenarios which could take place at the hands of unpredictable Scottish hills.
So it was, that in the early hours of Saturday morning, we left the empty car park and set off to catch the sun rise on Mount Keen, Scotland’s most easterly Munro.
The eleven-mile-round walk from Glen Esk to Mount Keen is made relatively easy by a decent path leading most of the way to the summit at 939 metres. There’s only a few opportunities to go wayward, so as with every hill, maps and navigational skills are still needed should the weather take a turn. We walked for a short time until we reached the glen, identified only by shadows of the surrounding hills lit by the full moon. Walking alongside the river, our head torches lit up the eyes of herds of deer resting on the embankment.
Shortly after we arrived at a hunting lodge and stopped for something to eat on the bench outside. It was so quiet.
With an hour and a half walk to the summit, we headed off again into the silence. One of us said what we’d all been thinking, that the dark and quiet and glower of the hills around us made it a wee bit creepy. Thinking about it now, it’s probably creepy because we’re so used to the clunks and bangs and tweets of our chaotic daily lives.
From there we headed across the stepping stones over the Easter Burn, and towards the Ladder Glen. The path began to ascend quickly and the phuttering of Ptarmigan increased in frequency. The light of the morning was beginning to grow from the east, bringing the colour of the surrounding hills into view with every strip of pink hue. We could hear stags barking up the hill, and the mist began to rise in sleepy clouds from the glens down below. We zagged our way up the steep path towards the summit, keeping right at the fork in the path which otherwise leads you on to the original Mounth Road towards Glen Tanar.
Sunrise was due at 6.40am – some three hours after we’d left the car park.
We’d turned off our head torches by this point and made the last leg enjoying the full moon on our left and the pink stream of sunrise on our right. Every few paces or so one of us stopped in awe of the view. The early morning start had meant the surroundings had been wrapped up in darkness, like a treat we’d be rewarded with only once the summit had been reached at sunset. Without the light we’d had little sense of the height we’d gained, or context of our surroundings.
What a bloody treat it was. After the obligatory tap of the trig point, we plonked ourselves down, poured a coffee and ate our breakfast just as the sun began to rise from the east. In minutes, the glens around us were lit up as the sun came into full view. Behind us we could see the craggy terrain of Lochnagar, and around us the Grampians came into view. It was a new day, and we’d started it at the top of a Munro.
I’m not normally one for “mindfulness”.
But there’s something about the steady stillness of watching the sun rise from the top of Mount Keen that brought out the new age hippy in me. It was calm. Peaceful. Instagrammable. Facebook-live-able. I instinctively reached into my pocket for my iPhone, only to watch the screen blinker and go black as the battery died in front of my eyes. Ha. Divine Providence or pure chance, I’d just have to enjoy the moment. Imagine that.
After a while of sitting and oohing and aahing the cold creeped in again, and we made our way back down the hill. The usual carelessness which comes with following the same route back was brushed away by the joy of seeing it all for the first time. Glen Mark is postcard perfect, with sheep grazing in amongst the heather as we approached the granite arches of the Queens Well. The well was built by Lord Dalhousie to commemorate the visit of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, who rode the 15 mile journey from Balmoral to meet him in September 1861. Fair play to them.
We made it back to the car for 9.30am, some six hours after we’d left.
A whole Munro complete and the day had only just begun for the steady stream of walkers leaving the now busy car park. I couldn’t help but feel a wee bit smug.
But more than that, the refreshing feeling of doing something new and exciting served as a good reminder of why I should spend more time doing the things I love, namely hill walking and writing. All I needed was a good dose of perspective, which, it turns out, can be freely found on top of any hill at sunrise.