Guardian Country Diary: Cairn Gorm in winter

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I recently made another contribution to The Guardian’s Country Diary. I love writing for this small regular feature, which publishes snippets of seasonal nature writing from around the UK daily.

It can be found on the Guardian website here, or (in a slightly longer form) after the break:

Country diary: winter is slow to leave the high ground

Cairn Gorm, Highlands: Ptarmigan waddle determinedly between pockets of snow and rocks feathered with frost

We followed the remains of the old ski lift into the hills, and as we climbed the wind was rising too. It whipped at my hair and dragged at my clothes, pulling the breath from my lungs and filling me with a peculiar light feeling. The hills were smooth and sculptural: the burnt umber of heather as base coat, then leopard-spotted and marbled by gouache layers of heavy, wet snow.

We were over-dressed for the occasion, hoping to practice our ‘winter skills’ – bearing ice axes and crampons, counting our steps – and so took a circuitous path to the top, tacking between the deepest snow patches we could find and leaving them pocked and printed in our wake.

We weren’t the only ones. As we climbed the ridge overlooking Coire Cas a silver flash betrayed the mountain hares who dashed away between the boulders in the bowl below. Ahead of us on the path, a pair of mottled ptarmigans broke cover, grunting their dissatisfaction. They waddled determinedly away – reluctant to use up energy to fly – on feathered feet, standing bright against the wet vegetation.

Near to where we’d spotted them, we came across small hollows in the snow where they had been roosting overnight. The ptarmigan will dig down for shelter and sit atop its own fibrous droppings, using them as a sort of bedstraw.

They are endemic to the sparse, tundra-like habitat of the Cairngorm plateau, and can be found there year-round. Like the mountain hare, they change their clothing to match the seasons. But it is difficult to match with the fast-changing countenance of the Scottish hills, which colour shift from the dark tones of exposed rock to gleaming, glittering snowbank to rock again in the space of a few days.

At the summit of Cairn Gorm, the rocks were feathered with hard frost. The wind came battering in from the east, making me stagger. As we stood on high ground, looking out across the iced-over band of Loch Avon, a happy surprise: snow buntings. Dainty, white bellied and marked out in black and buff, they flitted from rock to rock. Nothing like them to put you in a wintery mood.

Because it is still winter, on the high ground at least. After we plodded home I checked the conditions, out of habit. All change up there: deep banks, white-out, snowpack, wind slab. The season’s last gasp. Our crampons might have been useful after all.

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