As a small child, more years ago now than I care to remember, I would trudge through feet of fluffy snow on my way to school. In fact getting to school and coming home were the best parts of the day in winter. It seems nowadays if the family’s four wheel drive can’t get out of the suburbia paved driveway, then junior cannot possibly make it the eight hundred yards to school. Not that it matters though, because today there are three inches of snow in the playground and the school has been shut!
I arrived in Aviemore in the highlands late afternoon on Sunday. All around was quite still and the temperature was several degrees below freezing, the snow glistening in the glow of the sodium street lights. I had opted to stay at the youth hostel on the outskirts of the town, now wrapped in billows of fluffy powdery snow.
Monday. Cloudless blue skies. Not a breath of wind. Minus ten degrees.
Seven miles out of town, heading toward the Cairngorm mountain range, is a small settlement called Glenmore. Here is Scotland’s national outdoor training centre, full of tough outdoorsy instructors, rugged, who stand with one foot on a rock as they tell you of their exploits. Also in Glenmore is the Glenmore café, right on the edge of the campsite, now buried in half a metre of snow. The café is my number one stop when I come to play in this area. A great start to the day with lashings of hot tea and bulging bacon rolls, with a backdrop of the forest birds coming down to feeders at the windows, chased away occasionally by marauding red squirrels, arguably the cutest creatures in the world.
I hired bright yellow snow-shoes and headed out into the sea of snow for the day. The large loch nearby, Loch Morlich, was frozen over and the beach was covered in two feet of fresh snow. The snow-shoes still sank in, bringing the snow almost up to my knees, but try and walk through this landscape without them and very quickly you would be telling the rest of the party to leave you there to die, struggle as you would to make any progress.
Today though, I was alone, and fortunate that I knew the area very well. Every path and recognisable feature was invisible under the white blanket with not a single track breaking the surface.
At one point I stopped and held my breath.
Not a sound. Perfectly still.
A few deer were surprised by my approach and pranced off, leaping through the snow like dolphins breaking the surface waters. Snow flakes started to float gently to the ground and the suns rays, breaking through the snow covered branches of giant Scots Pine trees, caught the flakes as they fell, illuminating them like millions of little light bulbs.
By early afternoon the landscape was at it’s most glorious and I stopped to eat my lunch on a snowy log pile. I was alone and by now far from the main road, deep in Rothiemurcus forest, tucking into my cheese and ham filled baguette. A puffed up robin came to say hello and we shared a bit of mature cheddar cheese.
By 4pm the last of the suns light was fading as I emerged from the forest, back onto the main road near Coylumbridge, then made my way down to the Ord Ban café for thick, frothy hot chocolate and mulled wine. Bliss.
Tuesday and Wednesday I traded in my snow-shoes for cross-country skis and pottered around the same forest, retracing my snow-shoe tracks from Monday. They were still the first lines through the snow and it felt very much like this was my forest, at least for the day. At times I felt I could have be hundreds of miles into a wild mountainous country, all alone except for the deer and birds. Nearby a stream was battling to keep its course open as the falling temperatures crystallised the clear waters. As the stream tumbled over rocks, water vapour rose and instantly froze into a thin fog, picking up the suns rays like smoke from a fire.
My final day was spent skiing downhill on the nearby mountains. This was such a contrast to the peace and sincerity of the forest far below. Here was noise and fierce commercial enterprise, with the focus on squeezing every last buck out of you. I felt very disappointed and ripped off, the centre charging high season full price for equipment and lift passes, with only a third of the area open. The runs were glorious though, I have to admit, with perfect conditions and the sun illuminating every run. Three thousand feet below the valley was filled with low cloud and looking down on the clouds at that point made me feel I was at far higher altitudes.
On reflection, though the downhill skiing was a slightly disappointing experience, it put everything into perspective. For the first time I found myself longing to be back on cross country skis or snow shoes, exploring my way through virgin powder snow. This from someone who would thrive on the thrill of the red and black downhill runs of smoothly pisted mountain sides.
I will still enjoy those moments but nothing will ever beat the thrill of using my own power to glide through pristine wilderness on cross country skis, or trudging through on snow shoes, with only the forest and its permanent residents for company.