IF there is a finer mountain experience than sitting alone at a summit watching the sun rise, I have yet to discover it.
Company has its place and its advantages, but for that supreme sense of solitude nothing compares to thinking you are the only person for miles.
Around two-thirds of my walks are solo affairs, but there is never a feeling of loneliness. On the contrary, being alone lifts mind and spirit. It brings everything down to its purest level and presents a richer feeling of being attuned to nature.
I suppose it's the by-product of all those years of lone night walks. It always felt a more sensory experience than walking in daylight. Sound and smell were heightened, while sight became primarily about shifting shape and shadow.
Distant noises of running water, the sudden, shrill cry of an animal or bird piercing the still air, the gentle drip from overnight rain through the branches, the scent of wet pine or damp earth, they all crept up on me. I learned to appreciate these things almost without noticing at first, but the memories burrowed deep and they have transferred seamlessly.
They may seem to be the little things, but they are the most important. It works best when you are alone, when the focus is simply on what is around you and there are no distractions, no small talk. Silence is the best medium for listening.
Over the years I've been able to write chapters in my head while striding out, the elements acting as a kind of ethereal thesaurus, a constant and welcome inspiration. On one occasion, high on the wide ridges of Am Faochagach, my walking partner had to shout to slow me down. I had been so excited in finally working out the solution to a difficult writing passage that I hadn't realised how fast I had been striding away from her.
Disputes have been settled, problems solved. A couple of hours' hard ascent can reset the whole thought process, and suddenly all is right with the world. My little world that is, not the wider one. I'm afraid we're past the point of no return there. It's the perfect time to talk to yourself, but it's probably best to keep your voice down. Passing strangers may not have the same philosophy, though on the plus side, you are almost guaranteed to avoid having unwanted company.
When the Italian climber Felice Benuzzi confessed he was worried that talking to himself was a bad sign, he was reassured by an elderly African farmer: “Talking to oneself means nothing. The trouble starts only when one begins to reply.” I'm not always right, but I have learned never to argue with myself.
A great anomaly of being alone so often is the realisation that I am certainly not alone. There are countless others who feel the same need, and there are many different reasons why they do so.
The customary etiquette in the Scottish hills is to greet passing travellers, but even if the greeting should be ignored or half-heartedly returned, I no longer feel slighted. We cannot assume to know what is occupying another's mind at any time. Sometimes being temporarily in your own world can be the perfect antidote to the rigours and stresses of every day life. Sometimes it's about walkies with the black dog.
Alone and yet not lonely: For instance, when sitting in a bothy having my lunch, listening to the chatter of groups of strangers, welcoming yet not intrusive. Small moments of human warmth, and then you are back out on your own path.
There's no doubt there's a touch of selfishness about it. Over those years of lone trekking, I never had to rely on anyone else, never had to bend to someone else's wishes. I did what I wanted when I wanted, and I find it hard to go in any other direction now.
The freedom to change plans and routes at a whim, without consultation or argument, is strong. But no matter how overpowering the need to wander without any kind of restraint, there is a balance to be struck, especially during the winter months. Someone, somewhere, should have some idea of where you are and when you are expected back, if not for your peace of mind, then for those who will come looking.
There have been too many instances of mountain rescue teams searching for days with scant information. Time wasted can be a matter of life or death. Freedom often comes at a price but this one would be just too high.