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The Situation is the Boss, Man: Surviving A Ninja-Snowstorm in the Cairngorms of the Scottish Highlands

Onward we go with our The GRATEFUL DEAD documentary "Long Strange Trip" inspired series. In it, Steve Parish–perhaps their most infamous roadie–described the period during the "Wall of Sound" era that featured the PA and speaker system that was the size of a small town. He reflected on the chaotic and unhinged ordeal of transporting the equipment from place to place and getting it set up by showtime, and how when the police, venue managers, etc. asked the inevitable question, "Who's in charge around here?", their response was always, "THE SITUATION IS THE BOSS, MAN." We couldn't help but wonder how many times the adventurers in our orbit have felt the same way in the situations they've found themselves in. Here, Dubai-based Michel Grebenikof shares his harrowing trip through the remnants of Storm Arwen in the Cairngorms of the Scottish Highlands.

Words and Photos by Michel Grebenikof

This year, I decided to take on the Cairngorms National Park mountain range in the upper Scottish Highlands, the largest national park in Great Britain. But you will soon realize that the phrasal verb "take on," used here, was quite a pretentious undertaking. I had prepared for this one-week self-reflection trip for months, from my apartment in Dubai, where I live. I arrived in Scotland, adding a one-night buffer to my journey before treading into the wilderness on Nov 26th. After a near-death(s) experience last year on the island of Jura, I designed this Cairngorms trip to be a 200km medium-difficulty challenge; less map-and-compass, more trail paths.  

The goal was to trek the southern hemisphere of the Cairngorms, cutting through the Monadhliath Mountains on the Corrieyairack Pass, while attempting a day-side-trip to pay homage to the source of the River Spey.  

I arrived at Fort Augustus on an agitated, close-to-sub-zero degree morning. The air was viscous, grey, and opaque. When I checked out at dawn from the Hotel, I noticed what seemed to be the iconograph of a snow-cloud on a weather forecast issue printed and taped on the covid19-protective shield of the reception desk. "Are they announcing snow over the coming days?" I asked the older lady behind the counter. "Oh yes, it is coming our way," she answered without lifting her eyes from what she was dabbling her hands with. "Wonderful," I cheered, "because I'm going to be out there camping!" She suddenly stopped rustling papers, bent her head down, looking at me straight outside of her black squared eyeglasses. "Well, you be careful now, young man."

The first few kilometers are always the trickiest; finding the right point of entry off the tarmac into the mouth of the pass. Let's immediately get rid of the excessiveness of topography–the Pass from Fort Augustus to Laggan is around 40km long, almost all of it in varying altitudes, cut through the mountains slopes' skin like a peeled orange. North of the 57' parallel (i.e. above Moscow, Russia, and Fort McMurray in Alberta), the summit rested calmly at 770m high. For an Alpinist, or for someone like me who was partly raised in the Lebanese mountains, that's considered a coast-line. 

Snow covered mountains and valleys

Four kilometers into the ascent, the wind became excited–jesting tree leaves, with cute little hail, wet dust, and tiny snowflakes. I purchased the Hyperlite Camera Pod for my bronze-age Leica M3, but its shutter lever got stuck on the way, so I instead used it to hold my on-the-route, energy-boosting chocolate bars and a small flask filled with joint-warming single-malt scotch whisky. I promised myself I'd buy a new Leica and take that quantum leap into the digital world for my next trip (we'll see about that in the next story). A bite and a dram later, I was humming, enjoying the ride and the cold wind that was refreshing to my sweating face. 

After a couple of more hours of steeper ascent, the cute refreshing weather puppy started to turn into a hairy terrifying rictus-faced werewolf. "Dude, it is getting cold, no joke," I told myself as the blizzard kicked my face's ass with cold bullets and as the brownish and green mountains around me slipped their white fur coat. "It will be dark in half an hour, and I better find me a place to lay camp for the night while I can still feel my limbs." And so I did. But 15mn later, I was unpacking like a madman. Based on the thickening snowflakes, the incessantly deafening wind, and the darkening flesh tones of the dusk, I had some sort of a premonition to smurf myself out of there right away. I was ill-equipped for a snowstorm in sub-zero degrees. I had packed lighter gear and apparel for a medium challenge trip. My immediate reaction was to continue climbing to the Blackburn bothy, a small but theoretically effective refuge, 20-30mn away. I had my all-in bets on actually being in a middle of a ninja-snowstorm that was here to stay, reminding me of being in the Arctic. 

Bending to the blizzard's flow and trying to keep alignment with the bends and edges of the path, I finally got to the bothy in equal parts slow-motion and fast-forward. The mere sight of its contrasted roof color was an immediate emotional relief. "I made it." I opened the first wooden door and closed it behind me as it back-slapped the crazy wind, and entered the main room through another wooden door. I took off my full 20kg Southwest backpack (4kgs worth of food, I know–ten years of serious trekking, and I just can't get my food rations right. I need help).  

The temperature inside the empty room was around zero degrees Celsius, the same as outside. There was a tiny matchbox-sized chimney, more suited for leprechaun refugees. I faced my desolation and realized that there wasn't a single splinter of firewood around apart from the wood that made up the floor. I have been in more than a couple of dozen bothies in Scotland in my life, and I can pretty confidently conclude that I had only found them built in the most barren lands of the country. Not even Jeremiah Johnson was going to make a difference here. 

I slipped myself in my sleeping bag with my back against the wall. I turned on my headlamp and sat under a large glass-sealed window, trying in vain to read passages from Sylvain Tesson's Berezina–not the best-suited book for a snowstorm. 

A couple of hours later, the thermometer on my bag waved at me from the -8 degrees Celsius (18F) mark with a grin. It wasn't even seven p.m. yet. I came to the realization that I needed to survive another 12 hours of meat-marbling in this freezer while I hoped for a better tomorrow. In a fetus position, I wrapped myself with every shred of clothes I had brought–double socks, double trousers, triple t-shirts, a windbreaker, a beanie, gloves, and full-on hiking shoes. I zipped my world tight inside the sleeping bag and breathed like a woman in labor for a long sleepless night. Everything on me and around me was frozen like a moment interrupted by a photograph, including my drinking water. The only things left breathing were my lungs and whisky in the flask. 

Serious hiker stays warm

At around seven a.m. the next day, the siren-wind took a break, and I felt a breach opening up on a chance to leave the altitudes towards lower grounds where I could hope for milder temperatures. I was certain not to last another day nor another night at -10 degree Celsius. 

I opened the door of the bothy and surreptitiously walked outside in the still darkness like a thief. I had a 25km trek ahead of me before the next and only small village that sat at the other end of the serpentine Corrieyairack Pass. The snow in most areas was knee-deep, and without snowshoes, it was taking me a long time to cross a 100m slope. The sky was entirely covered with a thick black veil, and when the Cairngorms guarding sirens came back with a vengeance, exhaustion crept in. Ice was crystallizing on the inner walls of my trachea. My will started to falter. 

I shouldn't have come out of the bothy. At least inside, I stood a chance. Now I was turning into a whisky-ingurgitated-popsicle without means of communication. I hadn't even crossed one-third of the Pass yet. Breathless, hopeless, I wanted to give up and die. Tempting, comforting, relieving, it felt nice to let go.  

And I went through the moment of truth. First, I doubted myself. "Am I a failure?" Then I scrutinized my predicament. "What would I have done differently equipment and planning-wise for this trip?" Before going into denial, "Am I really going to perish in a snowstorm? How idiotic would that sound in my eulogy?" 

After that, in the lamest form of sentimentalism, I started making promises and taking pledges if I made it through, eventually getting an arcane glimpse of what is really worth living for–my loved one, my cat, my family, making love, poetry, good whisky, a great taco, a hot shower, petrichor, a warm bed, and writing about how I made it through. These were my first cheerleaders. One if not all of them kept pulling my boot out of every verge. I was shouting, "Step-by-step!" out loud. I had 15km left to do, and I definitely wasn't going anywhere except step-by-step.  

Six hours later, I got out of the Pass with a mucus-glacier running down my nostril, stalactites hanging from my beard, an inflamed left pelvic joint, and around ten mutilated and over-worked toes working together to mutiny. Around the last 2km or so, I was picked up by a conservationist manager of a natural mountainous reserve. He called me crazy. "An understatement," I whispered to myself, especially after he told me that what I went through was the tail-end of storm Arwen, one of the most devastating storms that hit Eastern U.K. in the past couple of decades. 

Snow dusted landscape

A couple of days later, with rest, warmth, and soup, I was walking in the small town of Grantown-on-Spey. I felt stronger, wittier, and more confident in my ability to survive, succeed, outperform, and overcome. It was still sub-zero temperatures, but ironically (or sarcastically), I felt like having ice cream. 

Suddenly, on the tiny sidewalk, I found myself walking between a "take-away coffee shop" and a puppy with his leash wrapped around a municipality pole. His hindlegs quivered, and he crumbled down whining and glancing at me while I froze, staring in outrageous fury at the cruelty. I looked left at the part of the sign that said "take-away" and then looked at him again, hoping he wouldn't be left alone much longer. Indeed, his family came out 10 seconds later and picked him up in cheers and hugs. I veered from hubris to overwhelming joy. I suddenly realized how these lonesome trips in the bosom of the wilderness, overcoming dire challenges and dealing with deeply personal reflections, are also making me more humane.  


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