The March equinox may mark the beginning of spring but it’s often hard to see much sign of change from winter in the Scottish Highlands. High in the hills the lengthening daylight hours are often the only indication that winter is fading. This year is different though, with warm sunshine, bright skies and vanishing snow making late March seem more like May. To celebrate the sunny weather and the turning of the year and unable to resist the clear views and blue sky I headed up into the high Cairngorms for the first summits and the first mountain camp of the spring. Wandering across the Cairngorm Plateau in thin summer shirt and trousers and mesh trail shoes and with sunscreen and sunglasses the most important items of equipment I found it hard to believe it was really this time of year, especially as the hills were golden brown in the sunlight with the last snow patches restricted to steep north and east facing slopes.
I crossed the bare, stony, snowfree summit of Ben Macdui then dropped down a few hundred metres to the nearest stream, fed by some big snow banks. Here I pitched my shelter, facing across stony slopes to the big, rounded summit of Cairn Gorm, where I had stood a few hours earlier. As the sun slid below the ridge above my camp the air began to cool and I felt the chill of the breeze sweeping down over the snow. The illusion of summer was quickly gone. High above the constellations appeared along with bright planets, the big disk of Jupiter dominant. The night was magnificent with the land a series of shadowed ridges and pale snow fields and the sky a brilliant mass of diamonds.
Dawn came with frost on the grass and thin slivers of ice on the edge of the stream. Far to the north-east a thin dark red line spread across the horizon. I photographed it from inside my shelter, my sleeping bag pulled up to my chest, with the tripod set up in the doorway while water came to a boil on the stove for the first warming drink of the day. Outside the sun crept down the snowfields, turning them faintly pink, then slid across the cold grass to finally light my camp. I always love this slow wakening of the natural world, this return of heat and life to the cold stillness of night. I wait for the sun to stir me before I stir. Then it is up and out into the bright air and away back up the hills with the joy of sunshine driving me on.
By the time I was back on the summit of Ben Macdui the sky was deep blue and the hills were shining and splendid. To the south and west I could see clouds though and a gradually spreading haze. The glory would not last. The wind was picking up too, a chilly wind that had me donning a windshirt. I dropped down into the great gash of the Lairig Ghru pass, admiring, as always, the dramatic mountain wall encircling the huge scoop of An Garbh Choire – the rough corrie. Crossing the stony heart of the pass beside the cold Pools of Dee I felt exhilarated and stimulated by the sparkling little streams that vanished into boulder heaps then suddenly bubbled up again, rippling and surging over the clean mica-speckled granite boulders. Two ptarmigan, wisely lying on a snow bank as their plumage was still winter white, gave themselves away by flying up loudly as I passed too close for their nerves to hold.
Leaving the straight cut of the pass I followed the recently built stone staircase path up to boggy moorland and then the boulder-filled chasm of the Chalamain Gap, in which narrow notch I met the first other walkers of the day, clambering over the rough boulders. Just a rough walk across heathery slopes and my spring journey was over.