Saturday 27 October 2012


21st of October 2008: the excitement of new snow
The beauty of living far away from the mountains is simply this: contrast.

In my everyday life I travel to work in Skegness on the bus, sign in with a fingerprint scanner, talk to customers about smartphones, ask them to sign on the dotted line. I come home again, kiss Hannah, ask her about her day, and sit down for a few hours of writing. On my days off I walk in the Wolds or go cycling. It's a pretty happy life as they go, but it is not a dangerous one, and my exposure to awesome natural splendour is limited.

This is very deliberate. Everyone is different; for me, constant exposure to the spectacular, savage qualities of nature desensitised me to its wonders. I had to step away to truly appreciate it.

Autumn is a special time in Glen Coe. After the drab lighting and heavy rain of August, September is often a quiet month of subtle beauty. Soft rains sweep the hills as the grass slowly changes in tone. The robust summer greens fade; bracken turns crisp, and here and there fringes of copper break through. Gradually the green surrenders to the more varied shades of autumn. The temperature drops and the light takes on a magical quality, smiling askance at the landscape, illuminating sparkling pools and crystal facets high on the crags: hidden moments of beauty invisible in the summer months.

Then the rumours of snow begin to fly. The first snowflake is usually felt in late August or September, and across the land winter mountaineers start to think back to the triumphs of previous years: a hard day battling up some iced-up chimney, perhaps, or a sunlit dance over a ridge that felt like it belonged in the Alps. We look at the box of equipment marked "winter gear", and think soon, soon to ourselves.

We start to wonder when the season can officially start. Has anyone done a route yet? Something in the Northern Corries must be in nick, surely--? Then the climbing blogs explode with activity, someone at the Clachaig opens their bedroom curtains and sees a fringe of snow low down on the Aonach Dubh, and the first routes start getting logged on UKC. The season has begun!

The moments exist to be savoured: the first time you plunge your ice axe into a new drift of snow; the texture of rime ice, delicate and fern-like, on a fence post; the golden lighting in the glen far beneath.

Late October is special because that initial pulse of winter activity doesn't always happen, and even when it does, you can be sure there will be a lot of wind and rain on the other side before the real meat of the season gets underway. But in the meantime, those of us who live far from the hills can think back to old adventures and dream ahead to the many yet to be enjoyed. It is special precisely because we cannot have it in our daily lives.

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