STANDING at the summit cairn, mountains as far as the eye could see, lighting up one by one as the rays of the fast-rising sun spilled over the horizon.
It was 4.34am. I didn't need to look at my wrist to know – the sun is always on time. Not that it would have helped anyway. I don't wear a watch in the hills.
The beauty and appeal of the mountains is timeless, and I long ago decided that my days wandering along the high tops should follow suit.
The last time I wore a watch was on The Cobbler more than 20 years ago. It wasn't expensive or unique. No flash extras, no gimmicks. It didn't measure distance, altitude or heartbeat, and it wasn't able to make me a cup of tea while I walked along. It kept time and did little else, but it was special to me.
I managed to shatter the face on the scramble down from the summit block. It stopped working that day, but I still have it, stored away for sentimental value. Its untimely demise felt like an omen, a sign that maybe being unconsciously tempted to regularly check the time every few minutes defeated the purpose of escaping to the hills.
Besides, the night ascents provided their own timing: you started in darkness, walked with the moon, the day stirring slowly with every upward step. And when you reached the summit, you sat and waited for the sun to clock in. It was simplicity squared, and it seems timely to remember the hugely positive effect these climbs in the wee small hours had in this week of mental health awareness.
I found that heading for the hills at midnight after another punishing 12 or 15-hour day in the office sparked an anticipation and excitement that managed to overwhelm the tiredness and frustrations of what had gone before.
There was the few hours' calm on empty roads with musical accompaniment; the dark silhouetted shapes along the side of the road, hiding their secrets and their promise; the silence when the starting point was reached, a complete contrast to what had been going on hours before; the few moments of quiet contemplation in the car before setting off.
Then the hard work began: the concentrated uphill effort, trying to convince the body that it was perfectly normal to be climbing a hill when everyone else was in bed, that sleep was merely a state of mind, that substituting the mental stresses with the physical was wiping the slate clean.
Every contour seemed to nibble away another piece of the blackness. And when I reached the summit, the worry vault was empty. This was the perfect antidote to the strains of everyday life. There's no doubt it was tiring, but I never felt more alive. By the time I arrived back for work next day, my clock had been completely reset. Which is more than could be said for the clock in the office.
This had been permanently – and rather fittingly for such an often hostile environment – stuck on half past angry since one editor famously booted it across the room in a fit of fury after he had lost his money trying to buy a Mars Bar. It seemed even the vending machines found him unpalatable.
I left the newspaper business a long time ago with a lot of great memories but no regrets. It a landscape of chaos much of the time, and you had to have antidote to that chaos. The mountains provided that, and they still do to this day. I believe they protected my health and sanity – others may quibble about the exact level; it's all a question of degrees to each individual – that I might not have enjoyed had I not had that outlet.
Lockdown has been tough for everyone, but it has re-emphasised how important it is for body and mind to get outside and clear the mind. It doesn't need to be all about climbing mountains. It can be sight, or sound, or smell: nature at its most verdant, be it trees, flowers or wildlife; moments of silence listening to birdsong; the smell of the earth and the air; the noise of the water.
Weather doesn't matter either. It's nice to have blue skies and sunshine, but walking in the rain can also wash everything clean, physically and mentally. Losing yourself in the moment can be the prescription to a happier and healthier outlook.
The formula is simple but effective, and with that in mind I shall continue to try and keep my days timeless. Until they invent a watch that can provide a good foot massage, that is.