"Och, It's a Bit Blowy Out"
|Is Scottish weather blustery? Is the sky blue?|
The day started with the pine tree outside Ron Woodwark's kitchen window moving slightly in the breeze. "When it does that, that means there's no skiing on the hill," says Ron, a wiry Englishman who left his job as a statistician in a Yorkshire nylon factory 12 years ago and moved to the Highlands. Here he has room to store his five kayaks and work as a mountain guide and ski instructor in the Cairngorm Mountains, a massive outcropping of heather-clad granite that forms the heart of the Scottish Highlands. "Sometimes, in the evening, the beauty just annihilates you," he says.
Once we got into the hills, annihilation seemed like a word I could make use of. The wind was so strong it occasionally sucked the air out of my lungs. It yowled. It bludgeoned the trunks of the stunted pines; it whipped the surface of a tiny glass-green lake into whitecaps. Bruce the dog set his sleek, strong body lower to the ground and looked back at us to see if we had gone completely insane.
The mountain is called Meall a Bhuachaillel, which is Gaelic for Shepherd's Mountain. Sheep seem to lack the necessary aerodynamics for life in this part of Scotland; there were none in sight. I was wondering if the ancient Highlanders had really, truly herded sheep up here on the eaves of the world, where the winds of the Atlantic Ocean slam into the winds of the North Sea, when an invisible hand pushed me into a sitting position on a rock. I got up and staggered on.
The only shelter on the path had a tin roof held down by wires wrapped around enormous boulders. Our latitude lay north of Moscow's; the tree line here is about 2,000 feet above sea level.
"I've seen people blow across the car park," Ron told me when we reached the shelter, which the Scots call a bothy. The ski area where Ron works across the valley regularly closes down once or twice a week because of the wind. "One woman, she was gone," he said. "She was away."
To my shock, we soon had company in the shelter. We weren't the only people trying to climb a mountain in Scotland in November. A foursometwo prosperous looking couples of about 60, wearing knickers and windbreakersjoined us. We nodded and spoke in low voices. Mostly, we sipped tea, looked through the cracked window at the sweep of heather, gone amber with autumn, curving down to the conifers below, and listened to the wind, which sounded like surf crashing on a beach.
Ron, Bruce the dog, and I left the bothy first. The wind got worse. It was freezing, but putting on my raincoat was unthinkable. I'm still sure I would have blown off the mountain if I had. I looked back. Our companions were no longer behind us. Relieved that they'd had the sense to get out of the wind, I tried to adjust my glasses with hands that kept missing my face. It was as if gravity was coming from an entirely new direction. By the time we reached the summit, we were stumbling like the drunk, like the injured, like the dying. Later I heard that when the wind gets really bad, the rocks start flying around.
We didn't turn around but went straight off the side of the mountain, a curve of heather as sure and mild as the curve of the Earth; a few hundred yards down, the wind let up, and we bounced in the springy stuff, jubilant, silly, and laughing.
Walking down the road toward town, we were watching the clouds scudding over the bleak face of the Cairngorms and the Spey Valley below us turning gold in the evening when a car pulled up. It was the foursome we'd met at the bothy, apparently running late.
"Och, it was a good climb, wasn't it?" asked the gray-haired woman at the wheel. Well, yes, it was, and how far had they gone? "To the top," they said. My jaw nearly dented the hood of their car: These were retirees, people who looked sensible and who apparently liked the comforts of life. "It was good," said the woman, unconcerned. "We just went slowly."
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication