The Cairngorms in Winter

View on the last leg

I was at Eden Court earlier this week to see the film The Cairngorms in Winter, featuring outdoors writer Chris Townsend and directed by Terry Abraham. The film is an intriguing mix of geographical documentary, “how to” guide to winter walking and camping, introduction to the Cairngorms (Townsend’s home area), beautiful advert for the Scottish Highlands and environmental manifesto.

From handy tips on winter survival skills to descriptions of the different areas of the Cairngorms to beautiful panoramas at sunrise and sunset, the film both inspires and informs. But in fact, it’s a mix of so many things that if it had been handled differently it could have been a total discombobulation of a film that didn’t know precisely what it was trying to do. It avoided such a mess, however, and ended up being a consistently beautiful testament to the power of the outdoors, thanks to the common threads of Townsend’s narration, a gorgeous soundtrack throughout, and of course some stunning scenes of the Cairngorms covered in winter snow and lit by dramatic winter sun.

What was striking about the film was the way the region was portrayed as a true wilderness and a place of dramatic, hostile mountains, thick forests and powerful rivers. The size and scale of the mountains came over strongly, and it was such an exotic portrayal it was hard to remember at times that this is a neck of the woods not even forty-five minutes’ drive from where I live in Inverness.

In the film, Townsend says that he’s walked in many different places – from the Pacific Northwest to Everest base camp – yet he never fails to be impressed by the Cairngorms. This was an enormously reassuring thing to hear as someone who lives in the Highlands, and as someone who is increasingly interested in the idea of adventure and exploration being perfectly possible – and quite often much better – in your own back yard as opposed to on the other side of the world.

It was wonderful, therefore, in the film’s following question and answer session with Chris Townsend himself, when he elaborated on this point and said he much preferred the Cairngorms to Everest base camp. His walk to Everest base camp, he said, was incredibly crowded due to the sheer numbers climbing in that area – a congestion that has made a few headlines of late. That he declared the Cairngorms to have a greater sense of wilderness and remoteness was a marvellous headline to take from the evening, and a terrific testament to Scotland’s opportunities for exploring the great outdoors.

I’ve been walking in the Cairngorms myself plenty times over the years – though not often in snow, very rarely in winter and never camping. The film encouraged me to give all that a go sometime, and and made me feel thoroughly unapologetic for having no comprehension of the dreams some people have of climbing Everest. Especially not when I have the mountains of the Highlands on my back door.

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