I arrived just after midday. I wasn’t expected until later but events caused me to wander into the mountains early. After finding my mountain legs while I hiked up to the Hare’s Gap I then sat down to eat lunch. Later that day I was due to let another leader go home, but I thought I might try and spot the groups as they passed along the Brandy Pad. My eyes strained to try and pick them out, but all I could spot were walkers on the path, no groups.
After a quick lunch I decided to try and make contact with the other leaders, as I had no radio and my mobile signal was zero, I decided to head up the nearest mountain for a signal. As I plodded slowly up I pondered how it is not unusual for groups to be this slow. I learned a lesson when I contacted one of the other leaders; the groups were long gone and on the way to camp. I had sat and watched a path already trodden.
Later that day I was walking a path with two other leaders, one of which I had convinced to bivvy out. We had my tent on my back and I used it to convince him that it was a good idea. I told him that if it rains too much we could simply crawl into the tent and hide from the elements. This settled his mind as the forecast was questionable. As we headed along the path we kept an eye out for a decent campsite not too far from the groups. I had my eye on the peaks. As one leader departed towards the groups my fellow camper and I decided that a summit was best. On the summit both phone and radio signal would be good. These were just excuses, it was the eve of the longest day and the weather was fine, what better place to sleep than on top of a mountain.
As we head up the mountain me fellow traveller commented on my walking stick and admitted his jealously. I have had a walking stick for years. I often carried a cheap modern walking stick strapped to my pack. I used it for steep ascents and as a standby for injured ankles. I always loved to walk with these sticks but hated the feel of them. Then, a couple of months ago, I found myself sitting in a hazel coppice waiting for a group. I took a look around and found a piece of hazel lying on the ground. It had the look of being cut down that winter and forgotten about. As I waited I had just enough time to cut and trim it to staff size and it has been with me ever since. They say that a hazel stick is bewitched and inspires poetry in the walker. I can believe a slither of this idea. Walking with any stick inspires something. It adds a rhythm to the walk, a tempo. More importantly, if the size is right, it urges you to stop and lean on the stick holding it just under the chin. With the stick I find myself stopping and listening more, smelling, lingering, and soaking up the poetry. When we arrived at the summit the first thing I did was to plunge the hazel stick into the ground.
The second thing we did was to set up the refuge of the tent. In reverse order of importance, the third thing was the cooker being set up next to brew up some coffee. We sat for a long time and watched the view around us change. The mist rolled into the valleys and the clouds slowly thickened above us. As the light faded we choose our bed spaces. On the summit of a mountain there are always some hollows and comfortable looking places. I avoided these places. If they look good to me they look good to sheep. If they look good to sheep then they look good to ticks; ticks which crawl all over sheep and man alike and feast on their blood. I settled on a flat area which looked not too comfortable, and not too rocky and unkind to my back.
You would think that coffee and dark chocolate would be a recipe for little sleep, but after walking all over the mountains all day the caffeine has little effect. I slipped into sleep with the mountains as a fantastic silhouette around me. As we began to slip into sleep we wondered if we were the highest beds in Northern Ireland. This was likely as the higher points were in front of us and could be counted on our hand. Were we the highest in all of Ireland; possibly? The wind and the light rain sent me to sleep. Previously I have only told a few people this; When I find it difficult to sleep and my mind is racing, I imagine that I am not in my comfortable warm bed. I imagine that I am curled up under a rock on the side of a mountain, or in a ditch, or on some mossy forest floor. It’s not right, but it sends me to sleep.
I woke around 4 am. I did not have a watch, but I knew it was the solstice so it must be around four when the light pulled me back into the world. I looked around and noticed an absence. I noticed the absence of my fellow sleeper who should have been in a bright orange plastic bag only feet away. Either he had retreated into the tent or rolled over and slipped off the mountain, sliding over the slick wet moor in his bivvy bag. I assured myself that I would have been woken by the screams and that to shout over to the tent to confirm his presence would have been rude. I pulled my hat over my eyes and let myself slip back into sleep as the rain fell again on my face and the wind whistled around. There was no sunset over still air, there was no soul filling moment of spiritual fulfilment. There was just me lying sleeping on a mountain with my hazel stick beside me and a packet of bacon waiting to be cooked for breakfast on the longest day of the year. Perfect.