Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Cairngorms - Changes

The icy winds picked up freezing air from the plateau, blasted down Gleann Einich, squeezed between the Rothiemurchus pines and sneaked under the flysheet of our tent, confining us to duvet jackets and an evening indoors. With idle time, my mind wandered to a favourite line from a favourite book. In “The Sea Room” Adam Nicolson, recalling his time on the Shiant Islands off the west coast of Scotland, writes about the arrival and departure of the winter geese. He says “nothing has changed, except the thing that changes everything”. It made me ponder moments in life when a seemingly small factor alters the course of events and I recalled a moment that changed my life.

When I was 21 and studying medicine at university, I was browsing the medical textbooks in Thins, that much-loved Edinburgh bookstore, when a poster on the wall caught my eye. It was an advertisement seeking volunteers to work for the charity, Friends of the Earth. At that moment I decided to take a year out of university and become a volunteer. That decision changed my life. Working with Friends of the Earth, meeting new people and opening myself up to new experiences gave me the deep love and appreciation of nature and the outdoors that has enriched my life ever since. It was during that year that I got a mountain bike for my 21st birthday to start exploring hill trails and some cheap walking and camping equipment to get me out into the mountains. I made dolphin-watching trips, planted trees in Glen Affric, cleared rhododendrons from native woodlands and took part in numerous beach cleans. I changed my life.

Earlier in the day Bart and I had changed our plans to bag a few tops in the Cairngorms and instead we decided to stay low out of the worst blasts of the gale force winds. We found ourselves trekking through another moment of change, that moment in the year when winter gives way to spring. We trekked along the edge of the great corries of Braeriach, setting fresh footprints in the powder snow. We trekked along the very edge of winter. To our left the corries of the mountain were still plastered with snow whose surface was scoured by a fierce wind that drove a fine layer of spindrift into our face and down our necks when we crouched behind a boulder for lunch. Grey clouds gathered above the dark crags of the corrie walls and our limited view was a monochrome world of white. But to our right the Spey Valley with its blanket of Scots pines was bathed in sunshine and free of snow. Down there the season was changing.

And so we left winter and followed a small stream down the mountainside into spring. At times the stream disappeared under bridges of snow that we nervously crossed, wondering if they would give way under our combined weight. We pitched our tent close to the Tree of the Return, the last tree in Gleann Einich that traditionally marked the place where people would turn back after walking their cattle to the summer grazing higher in the glen. During the night the winds gathered even more strength and so we took the tent down and walked in the half-light to a new spot lower in the glen. When we unzipped the tent next morning we found ourselves surrounded by dozens of toads who were taking advantage of the changing seasons and a moist morning to make their way to the nearby lochan to mate.

Not far from our camp spot was the Chalamain Gap,  a narrow, boulder-filled defile that provides a natural route between Glen More and the Lairig Ghru, that mighty pass that bisects the Cairngorms. The Gap was the scene earlier in the winter of an avalanche that tragically killed three people. As Bart and I trekked through we came upon the huge slabs of avalanche debris that fell there but more poignant than this were three pits, several feet deep, dug into the snow. It was an incredibly sad scene and we stood there in quiet reflection for many minutes. We wondered if a seemingly small factor, even as simple as lingering over a second coffee at breakfast, had altered the course of the day ahead for those people and placed them in the wrong place at the wrong time. 

How easily, in just a moment, life can change.

For more photos click here.

Fact file
Start/finish: Glen More served by bus from Aviemore
Map: OS Landranger 36
Route: We followed the pretty Allt Mhor path up through Glen More and left it below the ski slopes to join the route through the Chalamain Gap. Where the path from the Gap meets the Lairig Ghru we ascended the slopes of Braeriach and contoured west through the corries before dropping down into Gleann Einich. We camped in the woods and next day ambled back to Glen More through the Rothiemurchus pine forests.

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