Country diary: winter is slow to leave the high ground

Cairn Gorm, Highlands: Ptarmigan waddle determinedly between pockets of snow and rocks feathered with frost

As we followed the remains of the old ski lift into the hills, the wind whipped at my hair and dragged at my clothes, pulling the breath from my lungs and filling me with a peculiar light feeling. The hills were smooth and sculptural: the burnt umber of heather as a base coat, then leopard-spotted and marbled by layers of heavy, wet snow.

Hoping to practise our “winter skills”, we were over-dressed for the occasion, bearing ice axes and crampons. Counting our steps, we took a circuitous path to the top, tacking between the deepest snow patches, leaving them pocked and printed in our wake.

As we climbed the ridge overlooking Coire Cas, a silver flash betrayed the mountain hares dashing between the boulders in the bowl below. Ahead of us on the path, a pair of mottled ptarmigan broke cover, grunting dissatisfaction. They waddled determinedly away – reluctant to use up energy to fly – on feathered feet, bright against the wet vegetation.

Further along, we came across small hollows in the snow where they had been roosting overnight. The ptarmigan will dig down for shelter and sit atop their own fibrous droppings, using them as a sort of bedstraw.

Ptarmigan in winter plumage in snow
Dressed for snow: a ptarmigan in winter plumage. Photograph: Alamy

These birds are endemic to the sparse, tundra-like habitat of the Cairngorm plateau, and can be found there year-round. Like the mountain hare, they change their clothing to match the seasons. But it is difficult to match the fast-changing countenance of the Scottish hills, which shifts from the dark tones of exposed rock to glittering snowbank and back again in the space of a few days.

At the summit of Cairn Gorm, the rocks were feathered with hard frost. The wind came battering in from the east, making me stagger. Across the iced-over band of Loch Avon, a happy surprise: snow buntings. Dainty, white-bellied and marked out in black and buff, they flitted from rock to rock. Nothing like them to put you in a wintery mood.

Because it is still winter, on the high ground at least. After we plodded home I checked the conditions, out of habit. All change up there: deep banks, white-out, snowpack, wind slab. The season’s last gasp. Those crampons might have been useful after all.


Cal Flyn

The GuardianTramp

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