Sunset on Cairngorm

I needed a moment to pause as I took in the ridge that I was about to climb.

‘Oh boy. Here we go.’

Sometimes I think it would be nice if these mountains would just stay the same size for once. But they seem to grow and they shrink. Tonight the ridge seems long.

‘No rush’ I told myself, as I set a foot forward into the heather and took the very first step up.

Golden sunlight flowed across the Cairngorms from the westering sun. At the edge of light and shadow I climbed away from the ordinary world. Yearning for the reward of stone, air, space and light.

My breathing began to quicken as I started to press the ridge into the ground. I set myself a deliberately steady pace and tried to stay there, half as fast as I wanted to go. I knew that the effort would soon meet me here anyway soon. Like a man in a pushing contest I leaned forward, into the weight of the mountain, taking the strain.

After twenty minutes of effort I expected my body to give me the signal for a rest, and I was keen for the deep relief of a break. But to my surprise I found my legs weren’t there yet; they still had plenty more to give.

Experimentally I quickened the pace, hopping from rock to rock, leaping up through the boulder fields. It felt fine. Better than fine. It felt good. No… fantastic.

With spirits rising I passed by the halfway cairn, crossed the flat part of the ridge, and got stuck in to the steeper section beyond. I set my pace as fast as my breathing would allow, but even at the edge of breath I felt strong. My legs were going like the steam pistons they had once been.

To my right the view grew steadily into itself; blossoming and unfolding. The faces of the northern coires glowed brilliantly in the sun. Beyond them I had a glimpse of the slopes of Braeriach. But I resisted the urge to stop and bring out the camera, pressing on for the top and the greater prize.

At last it rolled over the horizon toward me. The jumbled, spectacular mass of the cairn that marks the top of the ridge at 1141 metres; Point 1141. Gateway to the plateau.

Point 1141 – available as a print in the Highland Wildscapes shop

The rocks were spattered with a dressing of snow that still spread itself across the plateau, which I now could finally see once more. Spread out across half of the world, receding into infinite distance, marked by the rugged peaks and troughs of Scotland’s wildest peaks. An infinity of possibility.

The other half of the world lay to the north and west. But despite the clear horizon and the lowering sun I could little detail that way; it seemed as if a shadow lay across the land. Even the slopes of nearby Meall a Buachaille caught only a little light, and the low land of Strathspey was dim. The light was only here, on the plateau.

My sweat began to cool off but I did not want to waste time faffing around with layers and rucksacks. With my camera I searched here and there, eager to seek out the finest light and compositions before the sun vanished behind some errant cloud.

I felt something as I dashed down the gentle slope toward the plateau, with my camera in hand and the light alive around me. But it was so much deeper than our typical, transitory emotions, so much closer to my core, that I could never adequately express it. It was a gut-wrenching sense of joy. A heart clasping feeling of exultation. Laughter and love, though I did not laugh. I did not cry, or whoop with joy. I did not even smile. But my fingers trembled.

The sun caressed the mountains with an infinite tenderness. Rose soft light painted itself onto the red granite and decorated the snowline with a copper stripe. Far out west the sun was silhouetting the dragon’s teeth of west-coast peaks. How many had I stood on? In the east a deep shadow was growing just under the horizon; its purple bruise about to swallow the sky. I had minutes.

In the last moments of light I put down my camera and sat, watching. It is a timeless wonder to watch those golden edged minutes of sunset, until the sun at last recedes to a final brilliant ruby; a needle point of light sliding across the edge of the earth and piercing my eye, on its mountaintop.

I closed my eyes for a moment, took a breath, and when I opened them the sun was gone.

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