By: Blonde Two
The gate onto the track swung shut behind her, Jean turned to check that it had latched properly and glanced at the truck. Paul was getting his bike out; the plan was that she would walk up the long side of the Ben Rinnes ridge; and that he would cycle back along the road, and then up the steeper but tracked side. She set off up her track; it was already steep and she leaned against her rucksack straps, Scottish hills it would appear, didn’t come in the form of ‘gentle’.
She reached the first bend; the path’s yellow stone zigzags had been clear from the road, they wound all of the way up to the Ben Rinnes summit, getting worryingly tighter and tighter at the top. A zigzagging path could only indicate steepness, she doubted that the sensible Scots would choose an indirect route for any other reason. At bend two, Jean glanced down behind her, Paul was already cycling along the road, an orange shape moving much faster than she had imagined he would. She plodded on. The plan was a meeting at the summit; lunch had been prepared and divided equally into freezer bags. It had been unclear to both of them whether or not there was a sense of competition as to who would get there first. There was no doubt in Jean’s mind who would if they were both taking the same route; even on foot, Paul was much fitter than her. The difference in routes and modes of travel however made a prediction almost impossible. The hope was there of course; although she always got there eventually, Jean was used to being last up hills. She imagined being at the top and watching Paul cycle his last steep leg; there would be quiet triumph of course, but lots of encouragement.
Despite her firmly laced walking boots, Jean’s right ankle almost turned on one of the larger stones. The path was of the loose variety, various sizes of stones, dumped in such an arrangement either small enough to slip under each footstep or big enough to unbalance the unwary. There were temptingly flat paths of grass and heather either side, but she resisted the temptation to use them. The ‘Friends of Ben Rinnes’ had been very clear in their instructions on the sign by the gate; erosion was not to be permitted, especially Jean imagined, erosion by the English. Some inner stubbornness had insisted that her walking poles remain strapped to the outside of her rucksack. She had no doubts that she would need them on the descent; but for now pride dictated that she walk up the hill unaided. She felt the breeze quicken as she reached the ridge; it had been clear even from the cottage window that this walk was going to be an uphill slog all of the way, but even this low ridge marked a point in the proceedings, the only way now was along it, all of the way along.Jean lengthened her stride as the gradient lessened. Whether or not the expedition was a competition between her and Paul, she had her own goal. The Corbetts guide book had described Ben Rinnes as, ‘an easy ascent’ that would take an hour and a half. She had not been prepared to believe the ‘easy’ but was determined not to take longer than the allotted time. She was enjoying the first two sections of the ridge; The map was in her bag as she wanted to avoid distractions, but Round Hill and then Roy’s Hill had been committed to memory. She wandered vaguely who ‘Roy’ had been, but that was as far as the thought went. Her watch told her that a focus on speed was the only way that she would make the guide book time. The track stretched on ahead of her, straight until it started to zigzag again up Ben Rinnes itself.
The track became a thinly gravelled path, and the way ahead looked challenging; Jean started to count the zigzags to the top. Eight main ones to the left and then innumerable smaller ones to the summit. Except that now, she couldn’t see the summit, she was too close under the hill. As she counted, Jean spotted a lone walker coming down the path; she lessened her stride, it was funny what experience taught you, she thought. Never reach someone so out of breath that you can’t talk; it is rarely a good experience for either of you. The path was steeper than Jean had imagined; steeper, with tighter zigzags and with rough stone steps! Steps were bad, they meant that the way ahead was going to be hard. She was about to walk up a kilometre long staircase. About ten metres away from the man, of course it was a man, she stopped to sip water and ‘admire the view’. She had a system for being out of breath, five deep breaths and then it was time to move on. The man obviously hadn’t been fooled by the view watching. He looked concerned, concerned and experienced.
“It’s a wee bit steep.”
“Yes.” Was all that Jean managed to get out, but she added what she hoped was a winning and confident smile.
“You have a wee way to go yet.”
Again, “Yes.” and another, maybe more resigned smile.
She continued up the next set of steps with what she hoped the man would interpret as vigour should he be watching her. She couldn’t keep this up for very long and slowed to what felt like to be a level of ridiculous slowness. She didn’t know how to react to the man’s words. A determined woman would maybe have seen them as a challenge and take umbrage; how dare a man presume to hint that she might not be capable of making the ascent? Jean didn’t want to feel that way, she decided instead to see an encouragement; at the same time as wishing that she had some of way of telling him that she had done it when she got to the top.
The next twenty minutes went too quickly, in a blur of path, step and false summit. She set little goals for herself; stop for breath at the top of the next set of steps, a sip of water next to that heather tuft. She started swearing under her breath as each false summit revealed its duplicity. Her breathing consisted of long breaths out and short, sharp breaths in, as she pondered the possibility of the stitch pain in her chest actually being the beginnings of a heart attack. She wanted desperately to get the poles off her bag and be able to push against them to the top, but there was no time, ten minutes and she had no idea which false summit was going to be the final one.
And then she saw it. Not the distinctive summit rock or the trig point to start with, but the streak of orange. He was already there; Paul had got to the summit before her. She lifted her arms in a weak wave but carried on. There was no hint of disappointment at not being first, she was relieved to see him because he represented the summit. Jean glanced at her watch, two minutes until guide book time! She estimated the distance, maybe a hundred metres and then a little scramble to the trig point. In a normal world that would be easy within the two minutes; but the world that she currently inhabited was made up of ragged breathing and a painful chest. She pushed on. Paul came down the path to meet her.
“One minute.” she gasped as she reached him, pointing vaguely at the trig point, “One minute.”
He didn’t say anything but turned around and led the way. Jean thought that she might have to stop before she got there, everything hurt. And then she was there; she flung herself at the concrete post, simultaneously hugging it and laying her face on the metal information plate. She looked at the watch, she had done it! She had beaten the time! The guide book had been right, Ben Rinnes was easy!