Awaking on an icy winter’s morning in the Scottish Highlands, I hear the welcome sound of a fast-boiling pot of water.
Scots Magazine Editor Robert is already up, busying himself with making breakfast and two cups of strong tea. Every so often, he blows fiercely on his bare hands and stamps his feet in his boots to force circulation into action.
I know I should also get up and help, but I’m still enjoying the heat of my sleeping bag and a warm dog curled up behind my knees.
Braving a little movement, I reach out and unzip my tent, peering out at the surprisingly bright morning. The sun is forcing its way through a blanket of clouds and the day holds the promise of being cold but calm and clear.
Despite the hot drink, the cold air on my face is a shock as I join Robert outside and subconsciously I’ve started to do the same strange dance routine to prevent my hands and feet freezing. We agree to quickly break camp and Wispa the whippet is forced to get up. We set off to join a snowy trail through Glen Gynack, reached from the town of Kingussie near Aviemore. Our goal is the summit of Carn an Fhreiceadain on a 17km (11-mile) circuit of tracks and rough terrain.
Wispa breaks the snowy trail to start with and frequently dips her head, snuffling and lightly sneezing at the sensation of snowflakes on her nose. As we climb higher, the snow deepens and we lose the track. While the route is described by the guidebooks as easy in summer, the snow slows our progress.
So many times, we sink to our knees in deep troughs of windblown snow and occasionally into holes that end in a stream below. Wispa makes easier work of the ascent by instinctively jumping over soft stuff to the harder-packed snow. By now, any memory of feeling chilled is forgotten as Robert and I start to overheat.
We stop to peel off layers and I enjoy a cold breeze that rushes into my jacket.
It’s an opportunity, too, to look back over our shoulders at Loch Gynack far below and the snow-topped hills and mountains of Strathspey and the wider Cairngorms National Park.
Although the sky is still heavily clouded, the sun is beginning to glow through and it sends a fan of light shards towards the snowy ground. The result is a radiant landscape of contrasting highlights and lowlights.
Suddenly, two hares run across the near horizon. They are almost camouflaged in their winter white fur except for a few small patches of brown that have yet to change.
As we reassess our clothing, Robert suggests we give our snowshoes a try. The lightweight devices strap on to our walking boots and allow us to walk more easily across the snow by enlarging the surface area of our feet.
From there we make much quicker work of the ascent, except where the snow is so light and powdery that we still end up sinking down a few inches.
There is a gentle rhythm to snowshoeing that becomes absorbing and, for a while, we climb in silence, simply focusing on pace and direction. Walking poles fitted with snow baskets – to stop them sinking in – help with balance and propulsion.
Wispa doesn’t have the advantage of snowshoes and as the snow becomes deeper she’s forced to use more energy to keep up. Thankfully she is a fit dog and the exertion helps to keep her thin body warm.
Carn an Fhreiceadain has a height of 878 metres (2,880ft), which means it is classified as a Corbett, one of 221 mountains in Scotland with a summit of between 2,500ft and 3,000ft.
The most obvious route is to climb the smaller Beinn Bhreac to a high point of 842m (2,765ft), where there is a small cairn, before heading west and then north-west for around a mile to the peak of Fhreiceadain.
At higher altitude, the ice-cold north-easterly wind becomes stronger and buffets our bare skin cruelly. We are forced to stop to add clothing and I pull on a woolly hat.
I have an extra jacket for Wispa and she is grateful for the additional fleece layer. I also put on down-filled gloves.
The Corbett summit is marked with a trig pillar and we stop to take in the views over the wild Monadhliath mountains. They look spectacular with their snowy cloaks set against a sky that has brightened to a patchy blue.
The return route curves south and then south-easterly around another rounded lump in the landscape, marked as Meall Unaig on the map. We use a compass until we spot a track towards the waters of Allt Mor.
The walk has taken us longer than we would normally expect in another season. The snow has hampered our pace, as well as the extra stops to take layers on and off, and more frequent breaks to eat and drink.
It has been a long, cold day for Wispa too, and towards the end of the adventure we could tell she was tiring as she has slowed almost to a halt.
Robert suggests that he carries her for a while and she seems unusually content to be lifted up on to his shoulders. Lying still, she enjoys her “ride” as she rests.
Eventually, the track descends into woodland and we cross Gynack Burn on a bridge to rejoin the track we ascended earlier in the day.
After a couple of miles, Wispa seems suddenly rejuvenated and she wriggles around to signal she wants to walk again. Robert is relieved to have the weight of Wispa off his back and he also seems to spring back to life. By now, we have removed our snowshoes and strapped them back on our packs.
The last part of the track crosses back to the other side of the burn. The water tumbles fast and furious thanks to snow-melt from higher up the slopes.
As we reached the end of our route, Robert and I reflected on our adventure. In the summer months it might have been a gentle jaunt, but winter conditions turned it into a rewarding big adventure.
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