A totally silent and still day on the Cairngorm plateau
Being surprised by the sound of your own thumping heartbeat has become a bit of a cliche, but it happened to me for perhaps the first time ever a few days ago. I wasn't having a close-call whilst soloing a climb, or dodging an avalanche. It was the moment that a male capercaillie startled the crap out of me, flying out of a tree only a few yards away, close to my home in the Cairngorms. There are few greater thrills in Britain in terms of the natural world, the capercaillie one of the last true symbols of wild land remaining in this country. It made me give thought to just how much I have come to love this place.
The Angel's Peak
The month I spent on Skye after leaving Glencoe was in some ways a strange time, a period of transition between life in the glen and a new life in the Cairngorms. I won't lie, the thought of living amongst the landscapes of the East Highlands felt like it could be quite a down-grade after Trotternish and the Cuillin. But they have crept up on me, the fond feelings I now have for the Cairngorms, a very different experience to the "love at first sight" that happened with Glencoe. Whilst the West Highlands are widely acknowledged as one of the most beautiful landscapes in the world, you have to be more patient with the Cairngorms. You have to work on it and seek it out, and accept there is so much more about this area than the mountains.
As I plodded up the ever-pleasant Fiacaill Ridge at dawn this morning, the first light of dawn cast a misty red glow over the pine forest sprawling over Rothiemurchus below. I wonder how many people forget just how stunning that drive up to the ski-centre really is? I know that I did during the summer, thoughts of more shapely summits and cliffs that towered higher sometimes getting the better of me and making me fail to notice just how remarkable my surroundings were.
The sun through the fog on Fiacaill Ridge/
Into the fog on Fiaciall Ridge, but through the murk the sun was showing it intended to make a rare appearance. A pair of snow buntings flew straight at my head, darting away at the last minute and performing a victory role over Fluted Buttress. Maybe they knew what was about to happen?
It doesn't matter how often it happens, I still struggle to get used to just how quickly a sky chocked with clouds can clear entirely. You know that feeling when someone opens the curtains on a really bright morning?
For once I just sat and watched. My head wasn't filled with the pressures and thoughts of a day soloing winter routes, and I had no morning shift at a job to rush back to. I'm pretty sure I lost about half an hour sat on the boulder without noticing, watching as the landscape filled with that quality and quantity of light that has been absent for the past 5 months. The warmth of the sun on my skin not long past 8am, and now at last there are breaks in the unbelievable snow cover that has defined this winter season. A few yards away a ptarmigan hops onto a boulder and prances in the sunshine, grey feathers starting to show through its recently pure-white plumage.
I thought of its larger cousin the capercaillie, which had given me such a jump in Abernethy, and the many hours in the past months that I have spent exploring the quite remarkably beautiful Caledonian pine forests that lie below the plateau. Those times are all about stopping, staring andlistening. On occasions it can pull me fully into the present almost as much as climbing, the thrill of looking for birds and animals that are so rare and elusive many wildlife-watchers can look for a decade without any sightings.
But isn't it so good sometimes to not be looking for anything, to not have an aim or a goal? The contentment I now feel with the climbing I've done this winter allowed me to sit and look over the plateau today without an agenda or an objective blurring the view. Bizarre to think I only ever used to come to the Cairngorms as a last resort when the weather was too poor out West!