Exploring the Scottish Highlands: A Lesson in Overcoming Common Sense
I’m cringing on the edge of a tiny wooden platform less than one meter square, contemplating a leap from the equivalent of a three-storey building.
I’m not suicidal, only slightly insane. In theory, you see, the cable that a fresh-faced young lad strapped to my harness will allow me to make a controlled, but nonetheless stomach-churning, descent into the abyss.
The “Skydive,” one of the most popular attractions at Landmark Forest Adventure Park in Carrbridge, Scotland, didn’t look so high from the ground.
But as I stand frozen to my perch, where I’m treated to a bird’s eye view of energy-sapping pursuits guaranteed to exhaust even the most hyperactive children and their parents (a rock-climbing pillar, water slides, mini-racetrack and the like), I’m beginning to regret the black pudding I had for breakfast.
Normally, I don’t like to be any further off the ground than the length of my stubby little legs. But in a miraculous victory over common sense, I finally jump.
I leave my guts somewhere in the stratosphere as the rest of me hurtles through space, screaming like a disposable extra in a slasher film, to gracelessly greet the ground with my bum.
My knees are shaking but my adrenalin is pumping, and I’m ridiculously invigorated. So when a park employee asks if I want to try the ropes course, I dazedly agree.
Although I’m still strapped into a crotch-hugging harness and tethered to a cable overhead, my inner-coward takes control as I confront a series of swinging logs and tightropes that lead me in a circle through the leafy canopy, softly muttering four-letter epithets which I sincerely hope don’t make it to the little ears below.
Not that the children are paying me any attention. They scamper to the top of the Skydive pole, as agile as monkeys, leaping without a thought—except for one wide-eyed lassie planted on the platform.
“Come on, Ashling! You can do it,” her mother shouts encouragingly from below. “I’ll give you a tenner!”
Hearing this, Ashling’s brother pauses on the opposite perch, knees already bent as he prepares to jump. “Will you give me a tenner, too?” he shouts.
Not waiting for a response, the boy insouciantly launches himself into thin air.
Give the kid points for bravery, but he could use a few pointers in the fine art of negotiation.
I might have been shown-up by the fearless, pint-sized commandos at Landmark, but I resolve to prove my mettle on a hike up CairnGorm, the sixth highest peak in Britain.
My companions and I converge at Glenmore Lodge, Scotland’s National Outdoor Training Centre in Cairngorms National Park. We’re met by Nigel Williams, a wiry guide with ice blue eyes offset by a sunburned face and cropped white hair.
“Anyone for a brew?” he enquires, snowy brows raised in anticipation.
I reflect that 10 AM may be a bit early for a beer, but surveying a print-out of the weather conditions—with constant rain and winds gusting to 100 miles per hour at the summit—I think I could do with a pint of liquid courage.
So it is with some disappointment that I realize Williams is actually offering us a cup of coffee.
It’s probably just as well, however, as warmth is what we’ll really need.
I thought I had come prepared in two-ply nylon trousers, but Williams shakes his head and leads me to the equipment room, where I’m kitted out with waterproof trousers, gloves as thick as oven mitts, and a black ninja-style balaclava that covers everything except my eyes and mouth. “Just how cold is it at the top?” one fellow asks a girl at the counter. “Cold,” she replies, with the faintest of shudders.
As plumply insulated as a team of Michelin men, we begin our ascent to the summit from CairnGorm’s Base Camp. It’s only 3-4 kilometers to the top, and Williams, at least, is undeterred by the rain slicing sideways through the gale.
He allows, however, that “the wind is the one thing that will stop you.” A 50 mile-per-hour wind will have you stumbling along as though you’ve had five drinks, he says, and every 10-miles-per-hour equates to one more down the hatch. (Good thing I didn’t have a beer, after all).
But we’re an enthusiastic bunch, and Williams assures us that we can turn around at any time. So we set off towards the cloud-shrouded peak, which rises 600 meters above Base Camp.
Eschewing exposed ridges, we crunch along a gravel and stone-strewn track, which is partially protected by rounded hills carpeted with moss, lichen and stubby shrubs parted by a tumbling stream. In the winter, the slopes will be thick with skiers, but today, we have the mountain almost to ourselves, except for a few grazing reindeer.
Despite the gray skies, the views of the valley below are inspiring, especially when a furtive beam of sunlight breaks through to play like a searchlight upon the gleaming village of Aviemore and steely Loch Morlich. A moment later, a brilliant rainbow arcs across the landscape, but my reverie is interrupted when we round a bend and confront the gale head-on.
Pelted with stinging rain—or perhaps bits of gravel, as I’m too numb to tell the difference—I remind myself that, with the right PR, a spa could charge a lot of money for this “Highlands Facial.”
As we near the shelter of the Ptarmigan–at nearly 1100 meters, the highest restaurant in the United Kingdom—the wind is once again at our backs, propelling us so forcefully up the slope that I feel like a human kite. Alas, the Ptarmigan is closed due to the weather, as is the funicular, which we had hoped would ferry us back to the warmth and hospitality of the Cas Bar at Base Camp.
From here, though, the summit is tantalizingly close, so we shoulder on up the rocky path, clinging to ropes to help us keep our footing. I’m still blown onto my much-abused backside, but I refuse to surrender—at least until we reach the end of the track, where we recline (okay, collapse) and take stock of the situation.
The peak is less than 600 meters away, through a field of gray rubble, but Williams’ face is as stony as the landscape.
“I really wouldn’t recommend going any further,” he says grimly. “You could get your foot caught between the rocks, and if the wind blows you over, you’ll break your ankle.”
I could feign disappointment, but in fact, I’m filled with a huge sense of accomplishment at having made it this far. Twice in two days I’ve pushed myself to my limits, battling internal fears and inhospitable elements. Pausing to take in the view before heading back down the slopes (a decidedly more sedate descent than my leap from Landmark’s Skydive), I am, in every sense, on top of the world.
More info: www.visitscotland.com, www.cairngorms.co.uk
What to See and Do
Landmark Forest Adventure Park, Main Street, Carrbridge, Inverness-shire www.landmarkpark.co.uk
Glenmore Lodge, Aviemore, Inverness-shire, www.glenmorelodge.org.uk. Offers courses in rock climbing, skiing, mountaineering, mountain biking, paddle sports, first aid and more.
CairnGorm Mountain, Cairn Gorm Ski Area, Aviemore, Inverness-shire, www.cairngormmountain.co.uk. This hotspot for hiking and skiing also operates the U.K.’s highest mountain railway, which takes visitors from Base Camp to the Ptarmigan Restaurant and viewing platform.