Sunday, July 16, 2006

Day four -- The Climb

Scotland is having a strange effect on me. I'm beginning to speak with a severely awful Scottish brogue and have been torturing my wife and children with phrases like, "A hearty haggis makes a happy Harris!" and "Aye! Who stole me haggis? Tis the ghost of the golf course!" Dramatic eye rolling ensues. Indeed, as I sit here, writing this, listening to Steve McDonald's woeful song of the Scottish Soldier, I find it irresistable to mention that "Twas a fine day t'day. Alas, even the fog cunn't stoop me hairt from soarin' t' th' tip o' the bonnie cairn."

Yes, today, we ascended the Cairngorm, or "bagged a Munro", as the locals say.* We caught the bus from the resort in Aviemore and took it to Glenmore, where the trail heads begin for the Cairngorm mountains. There are several trails, but we took a 2.7 mile long, 1000 ft vertical climb from the roadside visitor centre, called the Allt Mhor trail. It climbs to 2071 ft above sea level where we caught the funicular rail for the last stretch to the 4081 ft peak.

Well, it's not actually the peak. But it's close--within spitting distance. The government doesn't want everybody tracking up the mountain, so if you take the train up, you're not allowed to leave the visitor centre and restaurant buildings at the top. This seems fair enough, since the rail brings tens of thousands of visitors each year, and they would all trample the landscape. But the very few actual hikers who climb the peak are free to roam the top. We could have made the peak, since the boys were very good hikers, but the train ride was a planned part of the fun for them.

The boys were champs. The Allt Mhor is a very challenging climb, and they only stopped for a few rests. Their walking sticks were a great help, and they were rewarded at the top with a Cairngorm walking stick shield. Here are the GPS results of our trek, both from a map view and the profile shot to show our elevation change through the hike.

As we started the trail, the climate was temperate woodland pine forest. Caledonian pine, wild foxglove, grass, buttercups, dandelions and moss dotted the landscape. Rocky streams wove in and out of our path. Ferny glens and sphagnum mossy trees provided cool shade in the mild sun.

But once we crossed a very defined line in the trail, the trees stopped, and the mountains became almost entirely heather. The heather isn't blooming just yet, but in a month, the mountains will be almost completely covered in magenta blooms. It must be quite a sight. A few patches of heather were blooming, so I captured them here in photo.

There were also intermittent fields of cotton grass in the higher part of the mountain, but little else. At the top of the mountain, because of the lattitude (above the 57th parallel) and the altitude, the climate is arctic. Though we didn't see any, arctic foxes, ptarmigans, and reindeer are nearly the only inhabitants in this desolate area.

The view from the top was only somewhat hindered by the fog. We're told that on a clear day, you can see nearly to the North Sea. However, we could only see Loch Minloch, from which we had just set out two hours before. It seemed so incredibly far away, we had gone so far!

At the top, we had lunch at the Ptarmigan Restaurant (the highest restaurant in the United Kingdom). Lunch was served cafeteria style and consisted of fish and chips (for Ed), mutton stew (for me), macaroni and cheese (for guess who?), bangers and mash (Eddie), a tuna salad sandwich (for guess who?), and a roast beef sandwhich (for Becky). We had wonderful hot chocolate, coffee and tea. After a well deserved rest, we headed back down the rail car, and took the bus home.

Once we got back, I took the boys over to the pool whilest I swam in my pint of Tennent's. Ed stayed back to read his book, and Becky and Kathleen stayed in Aviemore to shop and look at some ancient Pictish stone circles near town.

The pint was lovely, especially since Bill from Highland Discovery Tours came by. He was selling some of his farm's meat, and as he was wrapping up, he sat down and we shared some lovely conversation about the merits and evils of alcohol, and the possiblity of the Malt Whisky Tour being cancelled. He needs four people for the tour, and right now, he's only got the two of us (Becky and me). I'll cross me fingers on that one. I'd hate to come this far and not see the whisky distilleries.

After a while, Becky and Kathleen found me out, and then we called the boys out of the pool, and Ed joined us. So we ate dinner in the pub and came back to the flat for dessert and an impromptu birthday party (planned by Eddie) for himself and me (our two summertime birthdays). Eddie got a book on the Birds of Britian, and I got two pair of hiking socks, a bag full of shortbread cookies (for my free day, as they're one third butter!), and a very nice book of Sudoku puzzles for the plane ride home.

Tomorrow, we embark on a bonnie voyage to plumb the depths of Loch Ness in search of the great beastie!

*I swear, Wikipedia really does have everything!

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