Field trip: Scotland, part 1


With crampons strapped to my boots and an ice-axe in my hand I should have felt more like a mountaineer than an invalid, but on hands and knees, legs burning and shaky, hauling myself slowly up a steep, snow-covered slope and stopping frequently to catch my breath, I could hear the viscerally persuasive message my body was delivering: I still hadn’t recovered.

My original plan was to make the journey to Scotland in February, part of a carefully organized schedule that slotted field trips amongst school holidays, and home and work commitments, but then the van’s gearbox broke beyond repair and I was hit by the worst ‘flu I’ve ever had. For weeks the van sat in the garage, waiting for a donor gearbox, and I lay in bed waiting to feel better, or die. In feverish dreams I saw gears chewing hungrily at each other, grinding and mashing. In these dreams, I knew that if I could only put them right and get them to mesh smoothly I’d feel better, my congested lungs and the van’s crumbling gearbox became conflated by delirium into a single, mechanical problem that I felt I should be able to solve, but couldn’t. Scotland would have to wait.

Things slowly improved, a course of antibiotics for the chest infection that followed my ‘flu and a reconditioned gearbox fetched from Germany finally put us both back on track, and one month later than planned I took to the road for the far North.

Strong winds buffeted the van all the way up the motorway, making for a exhaustingly twitchy drive, but as I drove into the Cairngorms I got my first view of the snow capped peaks I’d been nervously looking for since crossing the border. Of the twenty or so features I was hoping to photograph 6 or 7 were snow and ice formations and the thought that I might have missed my chance to find them had been dogging me, now I felt calmer and so did the wind. Beside the road silver birches with trunks slender and white as strips of torn paper and branches the colour of hennaed hair, shone in the afternoon sun against the dark clouds that clotted the horizon – good light, a shame to be travelling and not taking pictures.

It was the following day that I found myself climbing up Fiacill a’Choire Chas, a ridge to the west of Cairn Gorm, and realizing that although I was better, the illness and the weeks of convalescing had left me weaker than I’d expected, and that the next few days were going to be a hard slog. Luckily I had expert help from mountain guides Graeme, Liam, and later Ian, who made sure I got to where I needed, and did so safely. It was Graeme who was with me that first day and when, as I struggled up to the summit of Cairn Gorm, the wind started blasting needles of ice into my face I asked him why he wasn’t cowering behind his hood as I was, he merrily replied “I suppose it’s because I know it can get much worse”. The days in the mountains were hard, but productive. In the evenings I had barely enough energy to cook a meal make some notes before crashing out. But as the days went by I found some of my strength returning and felt glad of it, I was glad of the growing pile of exposed film too. I never got used to wearing crampons though, and shredded the shins of my waterproof trousers by stumbling and raking the prongs against them.

In the Cairngorms I photographed snow-cornices, cantilevered horizontally out from ridge-lines, finely balanced between the material properties of snow and the force of gravity. Eventually gravity always wins and beneath many ridges were the signs of recent small avalanches started by a fallen cornice. In Coire Domhain I heard what sounded like a distant train and turned to see just such an avalanche spread a long smear down a perfect white slope. Liam was my guide that day and he told me that in the Scottish mountains the snow is heavy, dense and wet, so that even small avalanches are a serious danger. In the lighter, dryer snow of the alps you might hope to survive burial and, if you did survive, hope again to be dug out by rescuers, but here the initial crush of the snow would almost certainly kill you. [edit 27/06/2014 – I was mistaken about the cause of the avalanche I saw, it was actually caused by the warming temperatures, the snowpack becoming heavier and the bond between the layers failing. Thanks to Liam for putting me right, he also adds, “We get these along with a lot of windslab avalanches… In the Alps you get these in the spring time when it gets warmer, but mainly they get dry snow avalanches and windslab. They all form in different weather conditions and have different triggers, but all can cause serious harm!” my links, Liam’s expertise.]

The weather was warming and this was not good news for my snow and ice features. The ptarmigan on the hills were feeling the onset of spring too and we saw males strutting around females and bickering with other males in their strange croaking voices. Hoping temperatures would drop in a few days we left the Cairngorms and the snow and ice features to look for peak shapes in the Grey Corries to the West.

Several Gaelic words are used for different kinds of peak in Scotland but the typology is fuzzy. A ben might look like a stob, a stob might look like a stuc and a stuc might look like a sgurr. There are differences, some subtle others obvious, between these peaks but their characteristics are spread along a complex continuum that involves factors of sharpness, shape, rockiness and relation to other peaks. So, while it’s possible to look at a peak and guess from it’s smooth, tall, conical shape that it’s a stob, you wouldn’t always be right. Having said that, some peaks have a kind of stob-iness or sgurr-iness that is hard to define, and some types are relatively easy to distinguish between – the shapeless mound of a meall looks very different from the sharp pinnacles of a storr.

I also wanted to photograph an arête, which is a ridge between two coires (or corries) and with Liam’s advice settled on Aonach Eagach in Glencoe. Arête is the French word for an edge (as between faces on a cube) and also for a fish bone; one meaning describes the landscape feature geometrically while the other does so metaphorically. In Gaelic, two words are used for a ridge: aonach and druim, the first also meaning “a steep place” and the second “back” or “keel”. Druims tend to be sharper than aonachs but as with the peak names there are many exceptions to this generalization and Aonach Eagach is certainly one of them. In fact this ridge’s sharpness has given it a reputation for being particularly tricky, or “greasy” to navigate. We started the trek up to the ridge before sunrise, both of us walking in the small pools of light from our head-torches. From Glencoe the path quickly steepened and then coincided with a stream before opening out onto bare rocks. As we climbed the sky brightened and the summits around us began to glow in the warm light of dawn. I switched off my torch and suddenly moved from the tunnel-vision of a narrow beam of light to a stunning panorama. At one point I turned to look back over the valley and at that moment, away to the south, a meteor streaked through the sky, burning bright white to blue and then green before fading. Ben Nevis is clear of cloud for an average of fifty days each year, lucky then that as we approached the aonach we could look north and see Britain’s highest mountain outlined against a blue sky.

Aonach Eagach looking south © Liam Irving - www.mountainandwatersafety.co.uk

Aonach Eagach looking south © Liam Irving – www.mountainandwatersafety.co.uk


Next: Skye and Lewis