The Great Inversion, Part One: The Scallywag and the Pilgrim

Day One: Friday 17th December

I only happened to glance at my phone, on Thursday night, when I saw the synoptic chart that had just been published by the Mountain Weather Information Service. There were those magic words: fog in valleys. A temperature inversion was predicted. As soon as I knew that, not going to the mountain was never an option.

I needed the mountain; needed it to flood all of my senses. To feel its rough stones, its cold snows. I needed to taste its waters and breathe its airs. I needed to fill my eyes with its sights, to be swallowed among its huge spaces. I needed it to show me how to be, and what to do.

Dawn was no more than a promise in the air when we set off. The sky held just enough light to see as our walk began. But I already worried that perhaps we had started too late, and that we would not be on the plateau when the sun came up. I reassured myself that winter sunrises are long affairs. The sun doesn’t leap over the horizon but sidles up to it, takes a peak over, and then slowly slides away again. So we started, gradually climbing up toward the faintly glowing sky.

The air was cold, the ground frosty, and the snow diamond hard. My rucksack sat snug but heavy on my shoulders, weighed down by the extra needs of winter. Equipment I supposed I might not need, if the weather forecast was anything to go by. It promised a warm day, with no winds and thawing snows. But it’s always better in winter to have and not need, than the other way around. So I carried a full winter load; with axe, crampons and all the usual paraphernalia.

The extra weight meant I had already made significant choices. This camera or that? Should I bring a tripod? What about my drone? But then I had realised this was not really the question. The question was why I was going in the first place. Was I going to film? To photograph? To write?

No. I just needed the mountain. I needed encounter. Just to be there. To feel snow, and water, and stone, and pumping blood, muscle and bone. For the sake of life itself I must go.

Just a camera then. Just me, the dog, my bag and my camera. And the mountain.

Together Scout and I headed upwards, mostly harmoniously. He was headstrong and wilful, full of morning enthusiasm. Occasionally we disagreed about which way to go. But with some give and take, and a steady pace, we tackled the ridge of Fiacall a’ Choire Chais in the growing light. Always heading upward toward the burgeoning sky.

The ridge was laborious, and I fell into old habits of negative thought for a while. I unfairly berated myself for my supposed lack of fitness. I was pathetic, I thought. Weak, useless, slow. I got angry at myself when I ran out of breath. It took me some while to remind myself that when climbing a ridge with a heavy bag it’s normal to feel out of breath. And that I had already done the hardest part, which is simply committing to being there.

So I took a break to recover my breath and rebalance my attitude. I allowed myself to enjoy the moment I had already won. Looking back the way I had come, out beyond the hills to the vastness beyond, I could see a vast and tender beauty that lay over the land. Swelling curtains of mist gathered like floes of ice among hillside islands as far as I could see. The sky glowed above it all; a gentle red in the first rays of the rising sun, save for a thick strip of darkness along the horizon.

Earth’s penumbra – also known as ‘The Belt of Venus’ above Meall a Buachaille and temperature inversion in Strathspey

The dark strip was the shadow of the earth. And, though I did not linger to watch, I knew that it grew narrower second by second as the red light neared the horizon. When it vanished altogether we would have sunrise. The shadows would shrink away then; beneath stones and angles of the mountain, hiding and waiting until time came for them to spread and make night once again.

Scout and I plodded onward and upward, keeping mostly to snow free ground. We crossed the spine of the ridge, opening up the view toward the northern coires of Cairngorm. There, I saw with surprise that the high slopes of Cairn Lochan were already glowing a soft red, and all my new resolve to just go easy on myself vanished. I badly, badly wanted to see the sun rise from the vantage of Point 1141. But it was still several hundred metres of ascent above us.

With renewed urgency we dug into the task of our climb. I pushed as hard as my legs would take, feeling helpless before the irresistible turning of the world. I raced counter to it, hoping that sunrise and I would meet one another at a needle point of exquisiteness.

Sunlight on the upper slopes of Cairn Lochan.

My breath was short, my legs painful as we pushed upward. An endless stair of boulders thrust itself at me, and I pummelled it downward with both foot and hand. I glanced constantly at the peak of Cairn Lochan, seeing the light grow stronger there, draping the mountain in colour. Uselessly I wished we had started 30 minutes sooner. Scout steadily bounded beside me, eating up the climb with his powerful legs.

The bulk of the ridge still hid the sunward view, but I could practically feel the beautiful red light washing the opposite side of the mountain. Maybe creating a moment of surpassing beauty as the sun breached the horizon, flooding across the sea of clouds that washed around the flanks of all Scotland’s mountains this winter day. It was right there, just a stone’s throw away. Just this dark mountain top between me and it.

Finally the slope eased, and there was the cairn, as a stitch burned in my side. I realised that we were just in time. The sun was half risen above the torr-crested summit of Beinn Mheadhoin. Red light streamed horizontally over the ground, dragging out shadows from the rocks here and there, and illuminating the cairn of Point 1141 in a brilliant orange glow.

Point 1141 at the moment of sunrise.

We had made it, and with deep relief and gratitude I relaxed into the moment for which I had yearned. Far away I could see an ocean of cloud lying over the Highlands, pierced only by the tops of Creag Meagaidh, Ben Nevis and the Torridon hills.Heaven glowed; Earth glimmered. Golden sunlight stroked the tops of mountain and cloud. My heart was thundering, but finally was at peace. The restless compulsion to be among the mountains was satisfied.

I felt the weight of petty cares and problems fall from me. Nothing mattered. Not the stitch that burned at my side, my shaking legs or any of the problems I had left at the foot of the mountain. I was back again at last. Back again in that place where the world does not respond to our negligible perplexities, but is proof against them. That place which beckons us to fill ourselves at the well of stillness.

Sunrise over the Cairngorm Plateau

Only just over a year ago I returned to these hills after an undesired absence, forced upon me by lingering illness. For the first time in too long I had stood on the edge of the plateau, feeling its call. Its appeal to the soul. Come further up, come further in. But I hadn’t, that day. Too tired, too nervous. Not yet ready.

Not this time. I gave myself to the call, and together Scout and I went onward into the beauty of the morning. We had no specific intentions. No goal or objective other than to be drifters among the wild places. To be seekers of things. Together we were a scallywag and a pilgrim on a mountain that was both playground and temple.

Alone we traversed the rim of Coire an-t Sneachda. A pair of ravens flapped and quorked over our heads, soaring down the ridgeline. Our eyes were drawn to the slowly rising sun, and to the many little wonders of snow patterns between rocks. Further off to the west I could see sunlight now painting a golden edge to the top of the low clouds. I wondered who might be on the distant peaks I could see rising through the fog, and if they might be looking this way at the Cairngorms, wondering the same thing.

We dawdled for a while around the slopes of Coire Domhainn, and peered into holes in the snowpack where gushing black waters were born. We sat and listened to the deepness of silence, touched only by the distant echoing roar of the swelling waters that fell to Loch Avon. With absolute delight I strolled across gleaming snows, taking time to listen to every satisfying crunch.

I studied the texture of the snow, seeing in it something I recognised. Scalloped was the word, I supposed, to describe its dimpled and rippled surface. But that wasn’t it. Its pattern was alike to the dancing light that flashed and flowed beneath the waves of Loch Avon, which I had seen when I swam there this summer. And it was like wind blown sand in the desert. And it was like an ocean storm. And it was like the intersecting filaments of the cosmic web. The pattern of the universe.

That thought sent my mind to wander along on its own course for a time, while my body crunched across the snows of the plateau. Why, I pondered, do we call it the universe? Why is there no all-encompassing name in English that applies universally to everything? A name for all that there is?

I suppose it is because here in the west the only concept we have of any universal presence is God. But if I were to tell you I was walking the plateau that day in search of God then you would misunderstand. If I write God then I don’t mean what you probably think I mean. Not even close. This is the problem with words. They carry meanings we might not intend. They are weighted with inherited significances. It’s important sometimes to remember that the world is not made of words.

So let’s just say that I walked the plateau, step by crunching step, in search of ‘It‘ Though ‘search’ is wrong too. Wandering, yes, but I knew what I was about. I’d been called there, as if the ‘It’ itself had left me a message pinned to my boots the night before. It read ‘meet me on the plateau at sunrise.’

Scout, meanwhile, carried on a pure and joyful exploration of the physical nature of the mountain. Inhaling the scent of heather clumps, stopping to roll in the snow, lapping meltwater from puddles and cantering with lively tail around me in circles. He was proving that life has no less significance if we don’t stop to ponder It, but just make sure to experience It completely. And he was right. The biggest idiot on the mountain is the one who thinks he’s going to figure the mountain out.

I felt the heart of the mountains calling. It seemed inevitable that my feet would gradually guide me back to a place I loved; where the waters of the Feith Buidhe cascade from the plateau. A place of deep personal significance. The epicentre of beauty and meaning. Though also, never to be forgotten, the scene of disaster and tragedy. Bittersweet irony, for this place whose water tastes like a fountain of youth is a place where children died.

And that, more so than anything, should be a reminder that you never quite know this place. The beauty of the plateau is a haunting, troubling one, because there is no understanding It. It is a beauty that can never be possessed. But It touches you in your soul, privately, and something inside you stirs in response.

The rippled snowpack still held a mix of blue and orange hues from the low sun as Scout and I reached the Feith Buidhe. We carefully picked our way down slopes of alternating rock and rieve. We scrambled down among boulders as we approached the swollen waters. The feith rushed and crashed out from beneath the snow, dashing down across the rocks and then plunging down back underneath broken boulders of hjarn.

Waters of the Feith Buidhe

I made no move for a long while. I simply sat in the water’s presence, and looked. The waters did not flow. There was no smoothness in their descent. They were torn apart by the energy of their rush. The air above the rock was thick with flying, atomic motion as the waters burst and roared like sparks from a raging, spitting fire. Then gone, snuffed out beneath the snow, as if the mountain were consuming itself.

Scout and I retreated from the edge, and sat overlooking the view of Loch Avon as we devoured a cheese sandwich together. Save for one another we were totally alone amid a vast expanse of white and dark mountains. Save for the endless rushing of the water, the world was silent.

Loch Avon from Feith Buidhe

After a long while we pulled together our energy to start the journey back. It was early – only just 11am in fact – but I like to leave as wide a margin of daylight as possible in winter. Besides, there was really nowhere else I wanted to go now. We had drunk from the waters; we had breathed the air; we had passed soft skin across hard stone and filled our eyes with the light of the sun. We had seen and done all I had hoped for, and I was tired.

I strapped on my old crampons (since I had brought them all this way) and we began to head uphill. We were crossing the largest snowfield that seemed to remain on the mountain, blanketing the plateau between the Feith Buidhe and Cairn Lochan. The snowpack was still deep, as could be seen at the places where water had carved down through it to the stony soil.

Crampons on!

A fresh breeze had sprung up which kept me cool as we headed west. I chipped away at the snow slope with little steps, front pointing with my spikes. Scout’s paw prints showed he was doing the same. I had to stop several times to get my breath back, which confirmed my feeling that I was done with going uphill this day. We’d cross Cairn Lochan, drop down the opposite side, and head back to the carpark from there.

We crossed the whaleback of the plateau the western view reappeared. Braeriach, Cairn Toul, the Feshie Hills, Creag Meagaidh and more, all floating above an ocean of sunlit cloud. It seemed that all of Scotland lay beneath a temperature inversion this day. Its beauty was oceanic in scope.

Westward view from Cairn Lochan, with views toward Creag Meagaidh over the cloud.

I looked out at that gigantic view, and suddenly realised just how ridiculous landscape photography was. Not the act of taking photos, but the idea behind it. For years and years I’ve been playing a game with the world. Making predictions, and staking my bet against the conditions of light, weather and land, that just there would be the most beautiful place to be.

I felt very small, very quickly. Folly, to think that I might have ever tried to find – in all that elysian land – the one point of absolute greatest beauty, at any given moment.

Tantalising; but impossible.

Beauty was an ocean, not an island. And, on such a day, you barely had to set foot at all on the mountain to become drenched in It.

Scout nibbled at my finger, demanding biscuits and attention. My reverie broken, I scratched his ears and chucked him a few crumbs from my pocket. He crunched happily. His wagging tail confirmed everything I knew; that happiness is biscuits on a mountaintop, and that’s all that matters.

Scout with noble mode activated

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