This winter largely passed me by. My book came out and I was plunged into the furnace of publicity. Social media postings, radio interviews, podcasts, a book tour, online events, in-person events, signings, train journeys, hotels—I travelled virtually, physically and emotionally up-and-down the UK, sharing the word of Time on Rock.
It was an odd transition. For two years I had worked largely alone on the text, moving between memory, imagination and page to slowly craft the book. Then, for another six months I dwelled in limbo, waiting for the moment when the book would cease to be my own private scheme and become a work on public display: there for reading, judging or casual indifference. The response was overwhelming. With dazzling reviews, seemingly endless signings and congregations of admiring audiences, this was a dream come true; but among the frenzied excitement, my thoughts wandered out from time to time to the mountains, longing to get away as one of the great seasons passed me by.
Winter is a mixed blessing. In the Highlands, at the 57th parallel, the cold, dormant season lasts for seven long months. The darkness is intense. Short days sharpen your focus—you rush out to seize the narrow window of daylight before the long night returns—but then there are all the long, somnolent hours when rain, sleet or snow patters down on your windows and the wind howls through the gaps. On rare days, the world is frozen hard and the sun blazes from a clear sky, offering moments of crystal clarity that cut through the long winter gloom; but such days are the exception, not the rule.
This winter I travelled around towns and cities, haunting cafes, bars, hotels, pubs and bookshops, confined to peopled places, talking about mountains and climbing rather than getting out into the wild uplands. In contrast, last winter I stayed north, landing upon a flat in Strathspey which a friend had abandoned when she took advantage of lockdown and remote working to escape to her mother’s warmer home in Fife. She needed someone to stop her flat from freezing and I needed an escape from the city lockdown. I thus saw out the darkness and lockdowns in the frozen eye of winter.
That was a hard winter. Everything was frozen. The flat looked out over a small town and from this elevated perch I watched the sun rise at 9am over the Cromdale Hills and the frozen forest. Avalanches scoured the roof and on stormy nights the wind roared around the rafters. Lochs turned white and solid, and people walked, skied and skated over the surfaces. Stilled by snow and darkness, the forests became sub-Arctic visions. When the sun rose and the long rays reached through the pines, the light briefly fondled the heavy white branches, conjuring a bewitching golden glow. Cutting holes in the lochs, we swam in the frozen sunrise; skiing and climbing, we embraced the austerity of the season, living in a state of Narnia.
But this winter was warm and wet. Gales ripped over the hilltops with wind speeds of 40, 60, 80 miles per hour. Snow came and went. It was a dreich winter, a confusing non-event, haunted by the malign spectre, the shadow presence, articulated with the fearful words climate change. Missing the mountains, I checked the forecasts and avalanche reports between book tours and readings, trying to keep an eye on conditions; yet with each check I signed off vaguely-disgruntled, the data showing I was not really missing anything.
Finally, in early April, work eased and I escaped north from the city, heading back to Strathspey unsure what to expect. Having been away for so long, it was hard to know where the mountains would be. Living locally, you build up the local knowledge, following the hills through their daily, weekly and monthly cycles, able to observe first-hand the patterns of freeze and thaw. Last winter, I had watched this all closely and knew what to expect when I went out. I knew when the snow had built up and when it had gone; I knew what the pack was doing, whether it was bullet-hard, soft, deep or the cornices were dropping. Having followed the mountain closely, I knew when and how to best access the plateau. But approaching this time from such a distance, it was all unknown. Would the plateau present a glistening ice field? Or a patchy mix of striped purple and white zebra-bands, as the sun-warmed slopes slough off their winter skin? Would we find spring thaw, pea-soup or a full thick winter plumage? The only way to know is to go.
And so, setting out with a couple of friends from Edinburgh, we headed up into Coire an t-Sneachda, the corrie of the snow. Cloud blew in and out, now revealing, now obscuring the corrie walls around us. Today, that rough glacial hollow was black and white; the monochrome palette of rock and ice. Through the stones of the boulder field, our feet slipped in soft, fluffy powder as we passed through the gateway into winter.
How to ascend through the frozen walls? How to access the plateau overhead? Here was the glittering world of high consequence, where each choice, each decision, each foot-placement carries the utmost significance. Stopping to fasten crampons to our winter boots, we tried for Central Gully, an easy plod we reckoned, ice axes pushing in to brace each step as we waded up the snow bay to the rocks and gullies above. But among the granite, conditions changed. On our chosen line, the forgiving powder gave way to bullet-hard névé and at a wall of ice we paused. Tom advanced—Beth and I retreated.
Plunging back down into the corrie, feet rhythmically sinking into the powder hollows we had only just created, we stopped again in the boulder field, wondering what to do. The ice was too hard, too lean, too technical for us, and we knew the dangers and the consequences. Just metres from where we stood, around this same time of year, a friend had gone. Pete’s accident was six years ago and we still miss him, toasting his memory each Easter with a dram and a candle, letting the ritual flame light our shared grief for a few hours.
Inside the corrie, clouds pressed in, obscuring the walls, hiding the ways out. Where to go? How to proceed? I longed to reach the plateau, not simply in order to wrestle some achievement from our day, but because I wanted to get up into that elevated realm. I wanted to be within that open rolling expanse of mountain wilderness while it still wore the guise of winter; to see the Cairngorms wrapped up in the shining brilliance of white snow and blue shadow.
Another line of footprints crossed the bowl in a promising direction, disappearing up into the cloud. Beth and I checked in, talking over our options. A decision was made. We would follow this new lead, pacing out the trail broken in by another partnership.
The prints led a rising traverse across a clean sweep of snow, broken only by a third set of prints which bisected our line, heading directly uphill. These prints showed two large paws and two smaller front ones, barely sinking into the deep powder. It was a mountain hare who had loped uphill from the rocks, untroubled by the angle. We paused, marvelling. For all its austerity, the winter season gives a rare opportunity to glimpse lives unseen. These footprints are a ghostly score of another life. They reveal movement, decision and desire: the patterned wanderings of fellow creatures in the frozen mountains.
The human prints took us into a gully where the score betrayed the work of a professional. First zig-zagging across the lower sweeps on the steepening ground, the footwork led to corners where we paused for breath, measuring the height, holding the flow. Now moving again, front-pointing in the steepening white channel, crampons biting hard, ice-axes picking out security from the crisp névé, focus sharpened in this heightened stretch, the gravity soon emptying all other thought from mind except a burning blank of concentration. But the mountain had not heard our call for silence. The atmosphere was stirring and shifting with us, vapour lifting, hearts in mouths, corrie clearing as we ascended up into the blue sky above, meeting a glittering coat of frozen feathers; the winged cornice at the edge of the plateau.
Out of the frozen corrie and into sunlight, our bodies delighted in the return to the horizontal plane. No wind, no white-out, no spindrift: none of the horrors that so often haunt this frozen upland. Thick banks of soft snow stretched across that rolling sunlit expanse, interrupted only by the graceful curls scored by skiers. From my winter of distanced dreaming and wondering, I had finally made it back up onto the plateau.
With hugs and laughter, we reconvened with Tom and made plans for the next leg of the journey. We would take advantage of our morning’s labour and go a little way further. And so on we marched, feet plunging deep into the radiant powder, circling the hill, basking in the wonder of it all.
Rounding the corner (but can one really talk of corners, I wonder, in the great rounded expanse of the Cairngorm plateau, which is all slopes and mounds and interiors?), there in the distance, bringing perspective to the vast rolling white emerged a series of little black specks padding up the distant horizon. There was a pair, another pair and a group of seven tramping up towards the blue shadowed dome of Ben Macdui. Seeing this ensemble, a peculiar feeling stirred in me. After the emptiness of last winter, when this plateau was quiet and roamed only by the privileged few who lived close enough to call these hills local, it was a relief to see this group on the move. Our mountain culture, practised by so many folk across Britain, was back; resurrected and restored after an unnatural leave of absence. Trooping along our own trail in the hot April sunshine, high in the frozen spring sublime, finally came that sense of blessing; the ice etching one last vision from a season, passing.