Monday, 1 December 2008
A Spectacular Day in the Cairngorms
November is not a good month for bright sunny days and clear light in the Scottish Highlands. Storms are the norm, winds whip the last leaves from the trees, nights are long, daylight hours short and when the sun does appear it stays low in the sky and has no warmth or power. And the darkness lengthens as the month grows older and we head towards the depths of winter. But just sometimes the air clears, the winds drop and the mountains sparkle in unaccustomed sunlight. The penultimate day of the month was one of those days this year. After a hard frost – my thermometer recorded -7°C outside my house at 300 metres – Saturday dawned without a cloud in the sky nor a breath of wind.
Climbing up to the Cairngorm Plateau from the north I was in shade and I felt cold in the frosty air despite the effort. The ground was frozen hard and there was thick frost on the rocks. As I gained altitude patches of old refrozen crusty snow appeared edged with ripples of ice. I crested the plateau and was suddenly in dazzlingly bright sunshine that had me groping in my pack for dark glasses. The eastern and northern slopes of the hills, shaded from south-westerly winds, were white with snow and frost, the western and southern slopes dappled and streaked with brown and grey where the warm air, wind and rain of the previous week had thawed the thin covering of white. I traversed the slopes of Cairn Lochan, crunching through the deep drifts, then passed Lochan Buidhe with just one small circular hole of water amidst the ice, presumably where the spring that feeds the pool emerges from the ground. The northern slopes of Ben Macdui were icy and I stepped from granite boulder to granite boulder to avoid the slipperiness. From the summit I looked down on a gently swaying sea of cloud filling Glen Dee. Anyone under that grey clag would be thinking it a dull and dismal day. The cloud crept up the southern end of the Lairig Ghru to fade away below Bod an Deamhain. To the north Strathspey was in sunshine with clouds further north. Lochnagar, Beinn A’Ghlo, Ben Alder and Creag Meagaidh all stood out, sharp and clear. Across the Lairig Ghru massive Cairn Toul rose in shadow while Braeriach to its north caught the sun. I sat on the edge of Ben Macdui above the steep drop into the Lairig and gazed at the tremendous mountains rising out of the depths, looking bigger and more glorious than ever in this sharp light and low sun. The world felt arctic and cold, alien and inhospitable and warm and welcoming all at the same time. It was hard to imagine the blizzards that sweep these hills.
Leaving Ben Macdui to the last of the sun I crossed back over the plateau as the hills darkened and the light behind them turned pink and a deep red. Towering clouds caught the sun long after it had left the summits, pink confections soaring into the dark blue sky. The jagged rock arête of the Fiacaill Coire an t-Sneachda was etched black against the fading light. By the time the descent was over it was dark and the first bright planets appeared – Jupiter and Venus hanging above the south-western horizon.
Photo info: Looking across the Lairig Ghru from Ben Macdui to Braeriach. Sigma DP1, f10@1/80, ISO 50, tripod, raw file converted to JPEG in Sigma Photo Pro.