My Perfect Night Out – Cairngorm Solstice

“It is the eye that discovers the mystery of light, not only the moon and the stars and the vast splendours of the Aurora, but the endless changes the earth undergoes under changing lights.”

― Nan Shepherd, The Living Mountain

There are some things in life that just can’t be adequately described with words. A heavy rucksack, for example. You really need to feel the weight of it as you heft it on to your shoulders, leaning forward to buckle the straps. You need to have that moment of doubt as you look up at the hill and think:

‘How on earth am I going to carry this all the way up there?’

But another thing that can’t be adequately described is watching the midsummer sun rise over the Cairngorms. And, because of that – because I wanted so desperately to go see it for myself, I buckled up my straps and started up the ridge.

Prison. Monastery. Cloister. Cave.

Prison. Monastery. Cloister. Cave.

My great friend Pete Long told me, a few years ago, about this mantra from the movie Midnight Express. I’ll confess I’ve still not watched it, but nonetheless I still use it when walking uphill, letting my mind and body sink into its rhythm, hypnotically plodding upwards one foot at a time. With eyes on the ground I try not to look at the view ahead or behind. One step at a time will get me where I want to go.

As I gained height on Fiacaill a Choire Cas it grew colder. There was a surprisingly strong northerly wind blowing and it was very chilly by the time I reached the magnificent cairn at Point 1141. Maybe I had not read the weather forecast closely enough, but I was glad I had erred on the side of warmth. At the top of the ridge I took a break to look across the splendour of the northern coires to Braeriach, and south to the wild interior of the Cairngorms. That way lay my path.

It was an absolute joy to be up high on a summer evening, walking across the lichen spotted boulders and grasses of the high hills. Occasionally the overcast sky would brighten, letting a wash of sunlight flow across the mountainside. Now accustomed to the weight of my bag I walked at close to a normal speed as I made my way across the side of Coire Raibert to the top of Stag Rocks.

I quote Nan Shepherd a lot on this blog, but then no-one has ever written as beautifully or insightfully about these hills as she did. While I walked I reflected once again on her description of being ‘in’ the mountain, not ‘on’ it – an expression of mountain experience as well as geography. As I approached the side of the Loch Avon basin I once again understood how profoundly right she was. I looked across at the magnificent sight of Etchachan and MacDui, as sunlight drifted across acres of bare rock. There were no words for the vastness of the view, its grandeur and beauty. It seemed as if the surrounding hills were ramparts, guarding this sacred beauty that lay within.

For a while I simply stood and looked and looked. I felt profoundly glad to be here once again. To be able, once more, to make this journey, and commit myself to the hill. This is where true happiness lays; in moments like these. In using a fleeting life to steal moments of beauty from the infinite.

Pseudo-profundity would have to wait though. I felt some spots of rain on the back of my neck, and noticing the lowering cloud I wanted to get the tent up quickly. Casting around I found a decently flat spot carpeted with a thick and comfy mat of crowberry. That would do. In short order I had the tent up, despite the strongly gusting wind which threatened to make a sail of it and carry it down to Loch Avon. That would not be a good outcome.

I set about the simple tasks of camp. Make bed. Fetch water. Cook food. Feed body. I also deployed my secret weapon of a hot water bottle in the sleeping bag to make sure it would be nice and toasty when I got in. Outside the wind was blowing and it was seriously cold.

I didn’t mind though. I had one of the most tremendous views in the country, all to myself. I spent at least an hour wandering back and forth above the cliffs between Coire Domhain and Coire Raibert, looking for compositions that might work next morning in the dawn light.

The sun faded away behind cloud and showed no sign of reappearing, so I took to the tent to warm up and rest. I did worry slightly that the cloud might still be there come morning, but all I could do now was wait.

I tried my best to sleep, but with the tent flapping away in the constant wind, and the excitement of what might lie ahead, I found it difficult. I drifted off for about an hour, but the dream that came was of me in the ruins of my tent, with my belongings scattered by the wind all across the mountain. I woke suddenly and bolt upright, feeling around and checking that everything was still where it was supposed to be. All was well.

I lay down again and looked at the time. 2 am. Even now it was still light enough to see, however. At midsummer there is no true night – only twilight. The sun was just dipping below the northern horizon for a short while.

Just above the noise of the wind I thought I heard a slight pattering of rain. Oh dear. Not a good sign. I unzipped the tent and poked my head out for a look.

The sight that greeted my head was not the grey misery I feared though. It was a sight beyond description, and beyond any photo, although I tried. Grey wisps of cloud were streaming across the plateau and down to the loch like silver ghosts. Pale banners drifted around the face of Carn Etchachan and the head of Ben Macdui. Just above the horizon of the mountain was a pale orange light shining through the ragged clouds. The moon was going down. I grabbed my camera and struggled, with manual focus and the highest ISO setting, to capture something of it. But the image was a poor interpretation of reality.

Part of me wanted to get out and explore, but good sense prevailed. Time for that later. For now stay warm and stay put. I snuggled back into my sleeping bag. I never managed to get back to sleep again though, and instead lay there, periodically checking the time, unzipping the tent and looking at the weather.

By 3am things had already changed markedly. The sky was considerably brighter, and I began to see the first hints of colour on the slopes of the hill. The sky had completely cleared, too, and beyond Loch Etchachan I could see Venus shining brilliantly in the indigo morning air. High above it a streak of mauve was just visible. The first rays of the sun shining way above the horizon.

By 3.50am I decided it was time for action. I was bored of lying awake in the tent, and the sunrise was now only minutes away in any case. I pulled on plenty of layers, and stepped out into the morning air, noting the layer of frost on the skin of the tent. No wonder it had been a chilly night.

I quickly forgot about that though. I made my way down to the edge of the rocks and looked out east over Loch Avon. The sun was rising just to the left of the hills, and out beyond the loch a layer of cloud rolled over the low countryside. The clouds seemed to be playing at being mountains, adding layer upon layer to the distant hills. I instantly remembered a similar sight from many years before, during my Mountain Leader Assessment, when the moon rose above clouds just such as these during our night navigation. Two moments in time suddenly stitched together.

Slowly the light grew and grew. The belt of Venus graced the sky above Ben Macdui, and I waited for its red glow to touch the tops of the hills. Suddenly it arrived, with Carn Etchachan glowing ruby red. The madness took me, and I began running this way and that with my camera, snapping away madly. I’ve never been one of those photographers who just sits with one particular composition. I want it all.

I ran to the left to get the view down the loch, then back to the right for another of the mountains. Back to the left again, then back to the right, for the light is always changing, always building. Then it was touching the foreground too, adding a new dimension. So now I had to run to the left again, than back to the right. Loch, then mountain. Loch, then mountain.

Carn Etchachan

A certain euphoria came over me as I dashed back and forth. This was living. My heart was bursting with the joy of the mountain. My lungs breathed the clarity of the air. My blood flowed with the purity of the water that flowed and pooled in the rocks. My eyes sparkled with richness of the morning light. My body felt the coldness of the wind and stone, but met it with its own life and warmth. A part of everything. Not apart from it.

I turned from the grand views to the details – the small things that in aggregate were the large things. The weathered stones, painted in red sunlight, had a beauty that spanned the cosmos. The water that gathered in pools upon the rock had a beauty that penetrated to the heart of the earth.

Cairngorm Granite

By 5 am the sun was risen and rising higher. A bright and hot day lay ahead, and no doubt many people would be making their way to the mountains later. For now though I still had the mountain – seemingly the whole world – to myself. I ate some breakfast, decamped and was walking by 6 am. By the time I had returned to the car it already seemed as if the whole had thing had happened within some alternative extension to reality. Too perfect, too special, to be part of ordinary life.

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