Grease, Gales and Grace from On High

The forecast, sadly, was bang on. We wake in an overheated hostel to heavy rain and strong winds and decide to shun heroics and head directly for the café. I mainline caffeine while James chows down a Scottish breakfast of saturated fats, then the rain stops and it’s time to head high for some storm force walking. Wind I can cope with; it’s rain on the lens which stops play.

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Unsurprisingly, we seem to be the only ones on the hill today. We walk around to Coire an t’Sneachter, stomping through the slush of yesterday’s snow, jumping the rivulets that now run everywhere as winter drains to the distilleries and salmon rivers below. In the bottom of the coire we hunker amongst the boulders and film some incidentals, occasionally taking a batting from great the slugs of wind. They career around with the roar of a turbine: you can hear them coming. Then we head up, kicking steps into melting snow, heading for the ridge where cloud curls over in a dramatic, wind-borne arc.

As it turns out, the wind’s roar is worse than it’s bite and we can in fact walk in it. Which is good, since I can get some of the shots I want in order to offset the beauty of yesterday. As everyone who’s walked in Scotland knows, winter is rarely all blue sky and great conditions. It’s more usually a mix of rain, snow, cloud and high winds: an elemental melee that gives lasting memories. And so I shoot figures braced against the storm, struggling along the ridge as the cloud whips past, and find myself thinking that this is the antithesis to our comfortable, ordered modern lives. This is an antidote to my ever-connected existence.

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Next morning I’m up before dawn to try and shoot some cutaways for the end sequence I have planned. James opts to stay in bed, so I plough up the path in the darkness on my own. My body is beginning to feel the strain of repeatedly lugging a heavy pack of camera gear up the hill, but it’s all good training for Patagonia. I’m off there in January, which gives me less than six weeks to get fit. And it’s that thought – of fitness, of Patagonia – which pushes me on as dawn breaks grey, tepid and unspectacular. Today I’ll not find the views I seek; only aching legs. And – some time later – a bit more fitness.

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I have no luck with filming until dropping off the summit and down into the Loch Avon basin. Here the cloud parts, cleaved by the great bulk of the Shelter Stone crag, and I get some spectacular footage of the last slivers of snow before they disappear entirely. I love the way mountains take on tiger stripes during a thaw, where banks and drifts of snow stubbornly cling as the rest of the snowpack disappears. Everywhere is running with water. It’s staggering how quickly winter has gone.

Driving south that afternoon, James and I bask in our fortune. The three days have gone well, allowing us a brief insight into what, hopefully, the coming winter will bring. And as we leave the mountains and come within sight of Glasgow, Dire Straits on the stereo, a gap opens up in the clouds and sunlight pores through. “It’s moments like these,” James shouts over the music, “that make life worthwhile!” Golden rays spilling down – God winking – it’s a spectacular end to the trip.

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Grabbing a wafer of winter

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This brings back memories of university mountaineering trips. Cheap, uncomfortable, cold. But adventurous.

We’ve rolled into a deep frozen Aviemore far too late to find accommodation; late enough for the milky way to be reflected in Loch Morlich and for a thick hoar to have covered the earth. James – who has never camped out before – and I throw down bags on crispy grass and fall unconscious in seconds. The South is a very long way away and tomorrow is the only day we have to film the winter walking video for the BMC.

Typically, the past few days have been perfect, blue skies and cloud inversions across the frozen highlands, but commitments have seen me pinned, pining, to the lowlands. And now we have a weather window measured in hours before the heavy rain and thaw sets in. But that’s what I love about Scotland – you end up doing daft things to grab the adventure while it lasts.

And that’s what I tell myself as the alarm goes off at 5.45am and we crawl from hoar frosted bivvis like a couple of slow witted animals. There’s a staggering spread of stars overhead. Semi conscious, we drive to the ski station carpark and slog our way up into the darkness, then rapidly wake as daylight breaks across the Cairngorms. And then suddenly I’m very wide awake indeed, excited, shooting pink clouds over summits and walkers dwarfed by landscape and frozen rocks and frost and all the wondrous fragments of a perfect mountain day. It’s the morning mountain photographers dream of; crystal light and atmospheric clouds and a visual alchemy that transcends the cliché of mere blue-skies. Combined with crisp neve that makes walking uphills easier than even in summer, we’re onto a winner. The gamble of Scotland – the long drive, the little sleep – it’s all paid off.

By the time evening comes around, we’ve had a long day on the plateau and created gigabytes of data; snow and mountain recorded in zeros and ones on a wafer of silicone chip. And so it’s down to Aviemore for an exhausted curry and to begin the long process of downloading and transcoding that form the less glorious aspects of the photographic life. But it’s been worth it. Tomorrow may rain and thaw, but we’ve had a beautiful day.

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