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The Great Outdoors: The best days are highlights of winter, as mist falls and snow lingers across vistas

Red deer (Cervus elaphus) stag in west Highland landscape, Lochcarron, Wester Ross, Scotland
Red deer (Cervus elaphus) stag in west Highland landscape, Lochcarron, Wester Ross, Scotland

There is always that old reluctance about letting autumn go, for autumn was always the flagship of the wild year. But consolation has always been that the best days of all are the very best winter days.

And what do the very best winter days look like? Well, snow of course, along the summits and the ridges, a fetching snowline girdling the neighbourhood mountains somewhere about 1,000ft. Frost, of course, thick as lichen on the trees, plush as Axminster on open ground, noble as poetry on the tall grasses and tussocks. Mist at dawn, of course, so that surfacing sun throws tree shadows on to mist curtains.

There comes a moment when the sun tips the balance against the mist and in favour of the cloudless sky. It begins when the mist relents enough to allow a glimpse of the tallest summit, and you imagine that nothing in all infinity is whiter than that. The sense of the planet having reinvented itself in the night to emerge pristine and utterly new is not unusual.

Your eyes are locked on to that summit which has materialised above the mist, or through a hole in the mist, so enthralled that you miss the arrival among the tree-shadowed curtains of a single red deer.

At first it would have looked like one more tree shadow with broken branches, but its presence began to formalise and darken as it advanced. But you missed all that because of the mountain, and only when it uttered its first sound did you drag your gaze back to earth and there it was, a young red deer stag in its first antlers, pointed twigs of gently curving bone gleaming wetly where sunlight touches the tips.

In this meeting of moods, yours and the winter morning’s, this could easily be the first deer ever to walk this portion of the Earth, shouldering aside the primeval mist from which emerged life as we know it. You recognise each other for what you are in the same instant; you where you lean against a Scots pine, the deer perhaps 50 paces away motionless in the drift of the stirring mist. That sound again, between a grunt and a bleat, but soft. For a moment, after that second syllable of deer speech, the head turns to look back. Perhaps there are others in the mist.

The pink-footed geese had gone over at first light, up from the lochan beyond the birchwood in the east, hidden by mist. They had come directly overhead well above the mist.

They had resonated too, animating the stillness in the pre-dawn. You had heard foxes bark as you half-expected, for mating season often coincides with the shortest days and on into February – so they must look forward to the winter too. Their voices were far off and harsh as the cold. Then silence. Silence as deep and uncompromising as oceans.

If you have ever entertained notions about sacred ground or sacred moments in nature’s company, then that final hour of winter’s night between the last syllables of the fox and the first of the geese might well fulfil everything you ask of such moments.

The geese voices lingered long, long after they had crossed the pines. The clear air and the silence into which their voices fell conspired to cherish their echoes, relaying them again and again around the rock walls of the mountains, so you became conscious of nothing but the act of straining to keep their anthemic cadences within your hearing.

But the silence rolled in again with the mist and these held it captive the way you tried to hold the geese voices. Then suddenly the sun, then the mountaintop, then the deer.

He was a red deer but wrapped in grey for the winter. He stood dead-still in his misted-in portion of the world, but you never saw anything more vitally alive. You could see only his lean, youthful front. Then he took a step forward; all four feet placed with such care that they moved in utter silence.

You saw the small cloud of warm breath, and somehow that exhalation – but not the sound – had the effect of bridging the distance between you and the deer, and you warmed towards him. You even made a reciprocal gesture – not an answering sound which seemed inappropriate, but you blew your own small cloud of air, a token offering of warmth.

The deer did not see it at all. He turned and walked back into the mist, so that he seemed to dematerialise gradually, became a blur, then vanished. In its place was just the drawn curtain of the mist.

You had still not moved from the pine trunk when your attention drifted back to the mountain. Such was the capacity of that midwinter mist to play tricks, it now appeared the top of the mountain was growing taller.

The temptation now is to stir, to climb to where you can see the sun begin to gild the high pines above and behind you. You resist because you like to think you know this land a bit, because where others pound over summits to tick them off on a list determined by height rather than the qualities of particular mountains, your approach is rather to come to some kind of understanding with the mountain. Instead of pausing by the summit cairns of say, 20 mountains in a week or a season, you will work with one mountain, perhaps two, with which you are already familiar.

It is a judgment call, whether the understanding you crave is best served by two mountains or 20, by plotting the fastest route to the summit or seeking out the elusive qualities of what Nan Shepherd called “the total mountain” and Seton Gordon called “the spirit of the high and lonely places”.

So you trust for a while longer to stillness. Let the sunlight find you. It will take half an hour more. By then, the sun will have unwrapped the low ground from its cold, cloying shroud. It will reveal the young stag has walked no more than 50 yards, watched over by a grey-muzzled matriarch. She is staring directly at you as the last of the mist fades.

She communicates your presence to the others with a look but no sound, so that they all raise their heads. She leads them away quietly and the thing is done.

Now you can go on, climb with the sun on your back, up through the pines to the high waterfall which will slither quietly among icicles where a month ago it was a hoary ferment.

You hope for a high golden eagle. Perhaps it has begun the ritualised sky dance, a precursor to mating season, a midwinter intimation of spring. The best winter days never last long.