Seen from afar, the ridge of the Black Mountains was a bright white saddle-back; we expected snow, but not the 'merciless whiteness' we encountered as we parked short of the car park, our way cut off by a drifting blockade. Up we trudged to the Cat's Back ridge with a view down to the forsaken Olchon valley, the boundaries of its ancient fieldscape and intake from the moorland waste shown in sharp relief by the monotone white.
As the sun broke through we passed a group of mountain ponies, hardened to the harshness of the wind and unselfconsciously at home in this extreme citadel. Once on the level, bestriding the slopes of the narrow ridge we were in our own personal Cordillera Blanca, the drifting snow several feet deep and sculptured with impossible vibrancy by the wind; a sight captured by Ralph Waldo Emerson in his poem, The Snowstorm: "Come see the north wind's masonry...the frolic architecture of the snow".
We pressed on to the trig point at the high point of Black Hill. Until now we had been but two of numerous pairs of footprints in the snow. Northwards from the trig point, however, we had few antecedents. The path itself was buried beneath the depths and, as Robert Macfarlane observes, "snow is the disguise artist of the mountains". However, visibility was good and the head of the valley to which we were aiming was in clear sight. So we followed the line of a pair of footprints, deep holes punched into "the great silence of snow" (Snow, Edward Thomas).
The going was heavy but blasts of sunlight kept our spirits up, a reminder of the magical other worldliness of our surroundings. Nan Shepherd's epistle on the upland topography of the Cairngorms gets it right: "Loose snow blown in the sun looks like the ripples running through corn".
Our forebears had forsaken the ridge line and headed straight down the steepling slope, their footprints converging far below with the ghost of the footpath in the valley bottom. And so we followed in their tracks, a route that would be cruel to ankles and knees in normal conditions but given unexpected legitimacy by several inches of snow. Now back at low level, in the secret vastness of the upper Olchon valley, there was no let-up in the depth of the snow; we were though edging towards normality, our stinging shins and etched memories accompanying us homewards, renewed:
"And through the snow our fallen world's reborn
And I a child again, born of this night"
(Een Geur van Hoger Honig, Martinus Nijhloff).
Cotter, Gerry (Ed.), 1988 Natural History Verse: An anthology London: Christopher Helm.
Davidson, Peter, 2005 The Idea of North London: Reaktion.
Macfarlane, Robert, 2003 Mountains of the Mind: A History of Fascination London: Granta.
Shepherd, Nan, 2011 The Living Mountain Edinburgh: Canongate.