Uath Lochans, The Cairngorms
I started the day eating porridge at a viewpoint overlooking the Uath Lochans, a series of glassy pools south of Aviemore, surrounded by pine forest. Elated from the sunrise, I pondered what to do with the rest of the day.
I had toyed with the idea of heading back to Glasgow to begin wading through a mountain of emails, but after seeing the forecast for a clear night ahead I flushed that idea straight down the toilet. I was heading south, so I aimed for Schiehallion, a lonely fin-shaped mountain with a steady well graded track almost all of the way to the summit. It’s in central Scotland and can have stunning views (if you get the weather) of other prominent mountains in the distance beyond.
I arrived at the car park around 14.00 when everyone else was returning from the mountain. I hastily loaded up a rucksack and added a few essentials - coffee, tent, sleeping bag and a flask of malt. I also strapped a tripod onto the side - handy for keeping the camera steady for nightscapes.
I promptly missed all of the best light at sunset, eager to make headway up the hill. With the sun winking its farewell in the west, I passed the last of the stragglers from the day heading down to their cars. I pitched the tent in a patch of frozen heather, which I moulded into a perfect hollow. My tent pegs were practically useless in the snow, so I had to use rocks to anchor the guy lines, getting mild frostbite for my troubles. My fingerless commuter cycling gloves just weren’t cutting it.
Like a textbook novice, I had brought with me a litre of tonic, but very little actual water to speak of. I had checked beforehand and found there were no mapped streams near the summit, but planned on melting snow to cook with later. I had seen this done by the pros on arctic expeditions and thought it would be easy. The snow was as fine as sawdust, with my first scoop of the white powder yielding barely enough for half a cup of tea. I got smarter after the second try, using my hip flask to compact the snow into my stove. In the end, I had just about managed to whip up a bolognese, with clumps of half hydrated mystery meat floating on the surface. It could have been worse.
The best thing about winter camping is how sociable the sunrise time is. You can laze around in your cosy fluorescent cocoon until at least 7.30AM and slowly emerge for the golden light around 8ish. I peeked out of a narrow slit in the zip and saw a haze of orange and pink and thought I’d better get up and make the most of it.
I slithered my way up the summit, leaving the tent behind, delighted at the prospect of being able to now see more than a foot in front of me. Cloud skimmed either side of me, giving glimpses of the sprawling Loch Rannoch in the valley below. I summited triumphantly, the first of the brave few to boldly venture through the icy waste- only to realise there were two blokes sharing a beer and some laughs on a ledge below. The early birds had caught the worm, but I was happy enough have them in my photos to give some scale to the rocky summit. After spending ten minutes revelling in their flattery for my hardiness of staying out overnight in the cold, I left them in peace.
After returning to the tent, I lazed around a little, drinking coffee and trying to warm my feet up in the sun (didn’t work- it was too cold, but made for a good photograph). I brushed the rime from my tent and packed up ready for home. On my descent I had some time to contemplate my little trip.
Yes, I missed the sunset, meeting elated photographer Adrian Kopczynski (@landscape_uk) bouncing his way down the hill after witnessing the colours from the summit. Yes, I froze my damn hands off weighing the tent guys down with rocks due to my matchstick pegs being less than adequate for the snowy conditions. But after all that? I truly felt like the king of the mountain, at home amongst the hares and the ptarmigan, witnessing both the milky way and a perfect dawn. It’s that kind of closeness to nature that canvas allows, a wee reward for those who are willing to bust a gut with a heavy pack and brave the cold of a Scottish winter.