Cold Mountain(s)

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After the success of my last Scottish-trekking-adventure, during which we managed to forget all warm clothes and useful camping equipment, I decided to embark on another. This time I would master the wilderness—and make my new partner responsible for sleeping bags.

We arrived in Perthshire’s Blair Atholl after a train journey back and forth through Scotland (N.B. check train destinations before climbing aboard). A sheet of clouds put a grey filter over the terrain, but I would not allow the freezing weather to dampen our spirits; this was my chance to shine as a camping professional. Rusty highland cows mooed us pass as we headed to the Cairngorms, whose snowy peaks rose ahead.

We followed intermittent signposts, most of which hid in the forest that lined a steep gorge. The water ran beneath us, and, as the sun went down, I took a last look at the vibrant evergreens. After a good four hours and a fair few blisters, we came to a residential road. I began to wonder how a mountain bothy (basic shelter built permanently for hikers) could be tucked somewhere between a cosy-looking house and a coffee shop.

The sun was down, so time-constraints called for that classic, Extreme Camper’s strategy of limping up to a door to ask directions. In my defence, a nice Scottish farmer told us that LOTS of walkers do the same full-circle that we had done, although he did imply they were all very stupid. Looking somewhat doubtful about my ability to survive the night, he kindly drove us up to the starting point of a ‘three mile’ walk to the bothy itself.

My shoes immediately filled with snow and visibility was only as far as my companion shone our torch across the moor; off course, if I had had batteries in mine, it would have been brighter. Someone else’s footsteps in the snow reassured me that we were in fact heading somewhere. However, as I listened to total nothingness and felt vertiginous black space around me, those lonely imprints in the snow began to look sinister. Surely he/she… it… must be going somewhere. What if it was the bothy? What if they have a knife, gun?! Eventually I aired my fears, which seemed less rational than in the privacy of my imagination. Awkward.

Either way, the walk by this time had been two hours, and we were sure it should only have been one and a half at most. Bear Grylls would have told us to dig a snow hole, clamber into our sleeping bags and then inside a bivi bag. Then, miraculously, the bothy appeared in the darkness, just in time: a snow blizzard whistled around it all night, twice blowing open the door with its force.

When we walked back the following morning, we were awed by the heather-strewn moors and the dazzling snow dispersed through them. I thought of Keats’ ‘masque of new soft-fallen snow/across the mountains and the moors…’ and experienced a sensation of sublimity.

It was truly beautiful, and I recommend anyone to brave the conditions and try some extreme(ly disorganised) camping: it’s all about the challenge, after all.

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