Monday, 10 August 2009

Touching The Nerve

Occasionally I need to throw myself into the Scottish wilderness to find that space I crave and to clear my head of the chaos of modern life. I had such an opportunity this weekend with my two best friends, Pauline and Andrew. Our destination? The mountain of Braeriach, third highest mountain in the UK, surpassed only by Ben Macdui and Ben Nevis, and a trek through the mighty Lairig Ghru in the Cairngorm.

We had traveled the night before to stay in Aviemore YHA to get an early start on the following morning.

Friday morning welcomed us with warm sunshine and blue skies. Our route took us through the Chalamain Gap, a boulder strewn ravine used for centuries as a route between the Lairig Ghru and Glenmore. It is a spectacular scramble over boulders the size of camper vans and you feel as if you are passing into the land that time forgot. Thus began our glorious weekend in the Scottish mountains.

From the Lairig Ghru the path starts its relentless climb to the summit of Braeriach, but we had the weather on our side, and settled in to a steady pace. Once you are onto the summit of Braeriach, you then stay high and follow a ridge around glacial bowls created 10,000 years ago, taking in Angels Peak, Cairntoul and Devils Point, and for good reason it is my favourite route in this area, which I last walked some 25-plus years ago.

We had made good progress up Braeriach and within a couple of hours we were stood on the summit. Snow has only completely melted five times in the last century on this mountain, and some of the patches that linger are the longest lying patches in Scotland. We had no sooner arrived than we were treated to some great wildlife. First, a rare treat, as not just one, but five Dotterel, an arctic bird by origin, which spends all year in our Scottish highlands. As it ran in short bursts it ducked its head down and it's spindly legs moved quickly. But it ran so smoothly as if it were on tiny rails. A comical sight. On the adjacent hill were a herd of wild reindeer, and Andrew, known for writing his own material, cracked what could be categorised as a joke; The weather had clouded over a bit and rain had just started to fall. At that moment I asked Andrew "where's the reindeer", to which he replied, 'falling on your head darling"!

Our trip was to treat us to many sites of Scottish fauna, such as the reindeer and dotterel already mentioned, plus frogs of every size, Ptarmigan birds, Meadow Pippets, and not forgetting . . . midgies! Millions of them! The fauna was equally enthralling, with the heather in vivid pruple, bright blue Harebells, the rich orange/red trunks of the Scots Pine, and the lush rich greens of the ferns.

Our walk following the edge of the ridge was excellent, and very relaxing. We enjoyed the views down to the glistening rock faces that looked almost prehistoric in their reptilian scale-like textures, and the rivers snaking through the glens into the distance, like lines of mercury as they reflected the sunlight. Our conversation put the worlds to rights, with healthy disagreements at moments, the details of which I'll keep to myself.

Our campsite on the two nights were in idylic settings, the first at a small lochan called Loch nan Stuirbeag below Cairntoul, and the second at the Pools of Dee in the Lairig Ghru, and each night the landscape was floodlit by the almost-full bright moon. Unfortunately, both nights, though we were camping high, were infested with billions of midges. So many in fact, that in combination with a midgie head-net the available light was somewhat diminished, and my bright blue top turned grey, so vast were they in number!

Our second day was short and took us to the summit of Devils Point, where Andrew just had to see if his new acquisition of a mobile phone, his first since the day they were invented, would get mobile reception. It did, and depsite only having had the phone for 3 days had already joined the rest of society in the addiction sweeping the world, that of texting! It was at this point that I had a moment of getting my phrases a little mixed up. I wanted to ask Andrew if his phone was set up to do predictive text, but instead it came out as protective sex! The wonders of modern technology!

What our leader and organiser Pauline, aka Mountain Ninja, thought of the two of us, I dread to think.

Our route took us steeply down into the Lairig Ghru once more and past the Corrour bothy, where we met an American ex-military man on a three-month tour of Scotland, then on to the Pools of Dee.

On the way Pauline extolled once again her knowledge of the great Scotish outdoors, and related a story to us as we stood beside three enormous wind-carved stones next to the path;

Clach nan Taillear, litereally "Stone of the Tailors";

Named after certain tailors who for a wager attempted to dance, during the hours of a winter day, at the “three Dells” - the Dell of Abernethy, the Dell of Rothiemurchus and Dalmore in Mar. They danced at Abernethy and at Rothiemurchus and had crossed the most exposed miles of the Lairig when a blizzard overtook them in Glen Dee, and they succumbed as they vainly sought shelter behind the stone that is their memorial.

On arrival at the Pools of Dee, the highest point of the Lairig Ghru, the heavens opened and for fifteen minutes, the time it took for me to get my tent up and kit inside, there was a deluge. This then brought out Victor Meldrew in me for a moment, as I had a rant about the rain, as one does. Pauline and Andrew just let me get on with it, having witnessed this many times on a variety of subjects that constantly touch a nerve with me.

On the last day our team only had a five-hour pleasant trek from the Pools of Dee back to Aviemore. The sun shone all day, which increased the intense pleasure of meandering down through the ancient Caledonian forest of Rothiemurcus, with intense smells of the sweetness of the Scots pines and the sharpness of the Juniper bushes, an enslaught to the senses.

As a species it is our meaningful connection with other people that can change our view of life, transform our opinions. Every time I share these wilderness experiences I connect with something greater than myself. I understand that need for love and why we make alliances, and why we grieve so much when they go. And we worry about things that the majority of time are not worth worrying about, distracting us from our true path. To use a lesson that I learned in my motorcycle training as an analogy here, and which was also mentioned in a great book, The Uneasy Rider by Mike Carter; when negotiating a corner if you keep your eye on the huge potentially problematic tree on that corner, you will hit it, with disastrous results. Better to acknowledge it is there, ignore it, and keep your eye on the road ahead and all will be well. Mike Carter also says in his book, which I find personally quite poignant; we all have bad memories, regrets, but slowly we create fresh memories, like splashing a new coat of paint on: what lies beneath will always be there, but that's no longer the first thing you see now.

Before our train home we indulged in some culinary delights of cullen skink soup, french toast with crispy bacon drizzled in maple syrup, followed by scone and cappuccino, at the Ord Ban restaurant at the Rothiemurcus Centre. The restaurant was busy, but I think Andrew's brain hadn't quite twigged that we had renentered civilisation, and he let rip an impressive loud burp!

I think Pauline is planning a solo trip next.

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