Ben Mhor Assynt towered over me as I worked quickly to ‘un-peg’, ‘un-pole’ and ‘un-tent’. I’d arrived last night in soft gloaming light, relishing this wild space, this wild isolation. Rain was promised so I made haste.
This thought was interrupted by the sight of a figure on horizon. He was tall and lithe. A climber perhaps? As he drew closer I saw his face wore weathering and kindness. Maybe in his 50s? His eyes smiled, and he offered words. I in return offered some of mine. And we walk on, he to the Ben and I, hiking alone towards Inchnadamph.
They say the hardest part of a walk is finding the start. They were right. I mistakenly turned up the path to the Estate House, rather than keeping straight till the turning off at the small bridge over the burn. Upon realising my error and I stopped, found my position on the map and I retraced my steps.
But as I did so I felt I was being watched. I felt eyes burning into the back of my neck. Were they laughing at me? Sniggering at my foolish mistake? I wondered if I caught a flash of eyes watching me with concerned pity.
The last time I’d seen that look of concerned pity in another’s eyes had been on my summer mountain leadership course.
It was 7pm and darkness was falling on the plateau of the Cairngorms. The air felt bitterly cold as I merged from the relative warmth of my tent. I was already flustered as my headtorch light was low, having accidentally knocked the ‘on’ switched in my backpack.
As my Instructor rightly chastised me for not carrying spare batteries, I was transported from my adult self to 12-year-old me. A girl who had a very strong belief that she wasn’t enough.
From that moment the night navigation session went from bad to worse. I struggled with the cold but mostly I struggle with my own head and self-doubt – I performed terribly.
I hadn’t felt my heart beat so fast nor felt so panickily since my nervous teenage years. I caught a glimpse of Paul looking at me with what I read to be pity.
I responded with shame.
For the remaining two days of the course I shrunk from my course colleagues.
I felt like half of me was missing: my personality and my words. It was as if the truth I’d managed to keep hidden all these years was finally revealed – I was stupid and had no right to be there. It even affected the way I perceived my appearance – I felt hugely unattractive. Such a visceral memory.
I was still on the hill above Inchnadamph and had walked on for several kilometres, climbing the steep heathery land, making my way to the Beallach.
My heart was pounding healthily, I was moving well. Maybe I was alone and unwatched again.
I started picking my way down the hillside when the fog gathered in about me as. Rain spit turned to a deafening pour. My firm ground became slippery. I was getting cold and wet. On went my Gore-Tex jacket and trousers.
As I checked my map, I knew was again being followed by the gaze. Despite the fog I was being seen, being judged and being found wanting.
And as full grey clouds darken overhead, my thoughts darkened:
“I shouldn’t be here.
What was I thinking?
Who was I kidding?
This isn’t my place.
I don’t belong here.”
Sunlight floods through the clouds and it’s warmth penetrates beyond my skin, into my spirit.
It’s like someone has just pressed the ‘play’ button and the birds are singing in obedient response.
The sight of Glen Coul Bothy has made the last two hours of bracken and bog trodding worth my toil. She stands on a small hillock by the sea loch. Led by her insatiable pull, the sight of the fastened silver bolt on the glossy emerald green door fills me with joy. No one’s inside – I have this bothy all to myself. It’s late, just gone 7pm and its remote enough that no one’s likely to arrive.
I quickly get to work, making home.
Sweeping first the dusty sleeping platform in the bedroom, then the kitchen floor. As I lay kindling and start the fire, I’m grateful to the kind stranger who left ample supply of wood.
I hang my sodden trousers, jacket, tops, boots and backpack on the pulley above the fire place and sort out my kit. Kneeling on the floor I saw more wood down to size, intending to keep the blaze going until bed. In the fire’s warmth and woody/smoky smell I lose myself in thought and in reading extracts of the Bothy Book.
It’s 10pm before I have any interest in boiling water for my dinner. Food feels strangely unimportant tonight. I just want to savour this rich place and these precious moments.
Yet my veggie pasta packet dinner only adds to the blissful contentment that’s filling my belly, my chest, my whole being.
The fire‘s down to embers as I leave my kitchen den for the bedroom. It’s cold. A simple, sparse room with a curtainless window looming large.
I turn off my headtorch and coorie into myself, searching for warmth in my sleeping bag. As I look out into the sheer black-velvety darkness I know I’m completely alone.
No one is watching, no one is judging.
And as I drift into a deep, tired, peaceful sleep I’m no longer watching nor judging either.
I’m both in love with, and relatively new to, mountaineering. In this blog I’ve given voice to my feelings of watched and judged when I’m facing challenge in the outdoor environment.
I recently attended a summer mountain leadership course. With hindsight, I wasn’t experienced enough to gain all I could have from the course and this knocked my confidence. I’m a work in progress and am continuing to walk, to learn from others and to practice my navigation skills.
My self-judgement comes from my own old limiting beliefs – a combination of internalising cultural narratives and my own meaning making. I sometimes catch myself projecting these onto an unseen watcher. When my watcher is at its loudest, as it was on my course, I feel horrendous.
Paradoxically my watcher shows up on my journeys to wild places – the very places where I feel most ‘me’, most connected and most free.
My watcher may continue to hang around for a while longer on my outdoor journeys but as I learn to pay attention I realise it’s not because she is mean and bitchy but because she wants to keep me safe. When she next comes to watch over me, I’ll thank her and gently remind her that I’m okay. I’ll continue to live and act in spite of my fear.
Can you related to any of this? Do you feel judged and watched? The feeling may show up for you out doors, or somewhere completely different like the gym or at work? Are you tired of watching and judging yourself?
I’m passionate about helping people finding freedom from self-limiting thoughts, life scripts and stuckness. I do this through one to one life coaching and also through running Women’s Treks for Wellbeing in the beauty of the Cairngorms. (Don’t worry we have a well-qualified Mountain Guide also!!)