They parked their small car in the parking space. The snow swept car park was dotted with vehicles, most of which, like herding animals, clustered close to the imagined protection of the ski centres buildings. The vehicle's engine's soft growl died away and the wind's high whistle filled the silent void in its place with a eerie ghost like cry of warning.
The driver smiled, excitement lighting soft hazel eyes. The smile broadened until it lighted up the cars interior with a magic to counter the winds dark menace. The passenger took a moment to enjoy that smile before, steadying himself, opening the door and stepping from the vehicle.
The wind, like a wild beast set free and starved for blood, attacked. It surrounded the passenger, it's cold fingers probing and seeking gaps in clothing as it tried to steal away that which it hated most .... the body heat, trapped in layers of clothing, which defied its dark intent and maintained life.
Quickly, rucksacks were pulled from the vehicle and donned, now was not the time to allow bodies to cool. Ahead lay the mountains, snow and adventure.
High above the touristy, nay ski bummy, town of Aviemore (which is, all joking aside a lovely little town, which if you look at it a little squinty eyed could easily be a town in Colorado butting up the Rocky mountains) stand the Cairngorms. Snow capped and wild, these Scottish mountains please the eye with a cold danger that whispers, "come try me ..... if you dare" and dare they did for this was their reason for being there.
Oh and for my American reader can I just point out Scotland is the knobbly bit of Britain at the top and it has about as much to do with the movie Braveheart as the movie Braveheart does with historical accuracy. For the record!!
Anyway ......... packs on, our hero and his trusty side kick quickly take a selfie, all smiles and confidence, watched over by the mountains and buffeted by the ice blown wind.
The path up to the foot of the hills was a unremarkable thing - yet still it held surprises as our hikers slowly walked pass red grouse among the snow sprinkled heather. Not the brightest of birds they trusted their camouflage for protection and merely sat in patient confidence less than a arms reach away.
Onward and upward, the path winding higher and higher and growing more snow covered as it went. Here our travellers meet up with a small pump man dressed for winter warfare and cradling in his arms a large scope ........ like a father nursing a poorly child he stood there, unsure, uncomfortable ........ a fish out of water.
"Hi ya," our hero nodded in passing, "how you doing?" Well friendly enough eh?
"Ya good," came back the fellow, his soft, slightly northern accent seemingly concerned, "I'm looking for Ptarmigan, and they told me to come up here ...... about a hundred meters pass the trail.!"
"Seen any? We saw a couple of birds back there!" Tossing a nod back down the trail.
"Those red grouse?"
"Ah ya, red eye brows ......... guess so"
Interest died then, Twitcher not he. A bird with plump breast yes, but only if the feathers are dropping from a fluffy boa!!
Onward and upward once more. Our intrepid pair climb higher. But briefly as from the rear, the smiling one, questions the route! Maps and compasses appear, GPS's glow and come alive amid the snowy landscape.
Lo there, what devilry is this? The track, plain upon the map and plain upon the ground is going the wrong way?? How can this be so??
Our hero, soldier and adventurer, his side kick Mountain Leader and well known know it all appear to be on a slightly wrong course!!
Maybe the map is wrong??
No OS seem to have been as good as their word for on closure inspection our courageous pair find they are following their planned route after all ............ only backwards.
Plan b then ........... reverse the route .......... easily done.
The new wrong track now right is followed. A pair of fellow hikers, slightly higher up cross before them and they gain confidence in their, all bit long range, companionship. Sheep like they decide these people must be on the same and correct path.
Until, once again questioning their own route having, it appears, drifted to far left, they see their distant unknown companions back tracking and wading through the knee and thigh deep snow toward them.
OK navigation isn't easy in the snow when the tracks are covered ............. get over it .......... but come on get a grip. More map flapping and GPS gazing .......... more compass twisting and chatter.
Then the eureka moment - the enlightening moment, where the sleepy comfortable city slicker part of the brain screams in terror bowing in humble submission before the mountain man (or women), the Wildman (or women) the ancestor (or women). The eyes open, the ears hear and the mind steps up to the mark.
They had drifted again - fools.
"Hi ya," Smiler says to the strangers who now pass.
"Hi," they echo back, accents as Italian and the first Roman ashore before Caesar's legions.
Location decided, the weather until now a pissy arse mix of wind and wet snow and ice decides to change. Step it up a gear and keep em guessing.
So a new route is decided - where no track exists - they will make their own. Cut across back onto the original route they had followed and here (they hope) pick up the track proper.
Wading through patches of thigh deep snow they labour on a easterly bearing. Patches of heather, laying just below the surface, mark the best spots for footing to stray aside is to sink deep in the snow and flounder.
Crossing rivers and bogs, snow fields and rocky pastures they go ever eastward.
Then a cry, a wild scream of terror, banshee like, echoing across the snow. Our hero's heart freezes and terror grips him for a moment. What cruel fate has befallen Smiler.
He turns and sees. Smiler is down, waist deep in the snow. Purple goretex harsh against virgin snow and grey granite. The boulder bigger than a dragons arse.
Something is very wrong, usually Smiler is smiling. Not so now?
"My foots stuck!" Fear edges that voice, the wind howls with manic like laughter. The mountain braces itself for the kill. "It's stuck between two rocks and I cant move it."
"Shit." Off comes the pack. Scrambling in the snow on hands and knees to reach his trapped buddy .
And then amid the anguish and the uncertainty a laugh bubbles to the surface as our hero sees Smiler digging through the slowly deepening snow with what? A shovel? A snow shovel? Nope, the cap of a water bottle .......... ah yes, that trusted scooper of snow since man, fur clad and primal, first ventured out across the snow in search of mammoth.
Bare hands scrape and dig. Snow is dragged aside. Down, down the leg to the Ankle. Here we meet Moss covered stone and the mystery reveals itself. The rocks must have had moss growing over them and over the gap between them and the snow when it fell covered the lot creating what might be considered a mini crevasse.
And it is into this space that Smilers foot is now wedged. Thoughts whirl ......... can smiler be freed? Would cutting the laces of those Merrels free the foot or should our hero remove the foot entirely??
"If we can not free the foot," he thinks, "I'll put smiler on sleeping mats, in a sleeping bag and use the tent as a cover from the wind and snow. GPS waymark the location and go fetch help."
But fortune favours the brave and dragging all matter that is not rock clear finally the foot wiggles lose (with more than a little tugging)
Now is the time for laughter. Relief.
Yet still the mountain awaits. Maybe its dark intent is stalled, maybe forgotten.
Onward they go finally reaching the track they seek. The before them footprints in the snow stretch up the hillside the like imprint of a giant spine.
Up young man, up! And so they climb.
Now the Scottish weather does that which it does best and changes. Gone the wind and the driven wet, in its place a white out. Snow and hail, thicken to a fog crushing visibility.
His eyes are hurting now - the strain of seeking the track burning them and he thanks the Gods he had the foresight to pack a pair of sunglasses to guard against this.
The incline is steep, his legs burn - his arms likewise as he slowly plods and poles his way up the mountain ............ Smiler ever faithful, behind him stepping into his foot prints allowing him to break trail ahead.
The storm rages on. The snow, wind blown, soon fills their tracks and the tracks of those before them. Cleansing the hill, turning a Scottish Munro into, in his mind at least, The Hardangervidda or some equally distance and romantic frozen land.
Speaking of Norway ........... slowly the white out lifts and there before them materialises a stone figure. A figure more Inuit than Viking .........wrapped in white, standing upon a cairn they came across an INUKSHUK. How exciting and strangely appropriate.
The storm abates and there in the distance another cairn can be seen, Smiler leads covering the distance quickly. The snow here wind swept and compressed, crusted with ice and yet treacle like as they cross it. Finally the second cairn and more importantly the half way point - the point of no return.
Smiler says what they both think ........... should be go back and camp in the valley? The challenge is tempting but they know, now, that they lack several critical items and while they will survive they know it will be a hard won fight.
The mountain will be there tomorrow.
A coin is tossed and fate is decided. They turn back faces into the ice storm and retrace their steps back, slowly, to the Inukshuk.
Here the stop. The storm rages and our hero builds a shelter, producing coffee and hot chocolate and porridge, flapjacks and wine gums complete the chilly picnic at the top of the world.
Time for a quick snap of his trusted LK70 beside the Inukshuk and then they are off once more, heading down hill into the mouth of the storm.
So why did they turn back? Inexperience in that climate meant they were lacking critical kit - snow shoes, snow shovel and goggles would have been good items to include in the future for example. As would a second set of poles.
But also, and more importantly was the realisation that they could do it, but sheer power of will but also that common sense dictated that the discretion was the better part of valour on that occasion.
So here ends our little tale - the moral of the story is that it is always a good thing to test oneself ... to go a little outside the comfort zone but the wise man tempers this with common sense.
Remember the mountain will always be there tomorrow.