I feel the first warmth of the morning on the back of my neck. Not the kind of warmth that relaxes taught muscles, tightened by the cold pre-dawn air high on the side of the mountain but just a gentle brush to say the sun has risen over the circle of surrounding peaks to the south east. I turn and look at the dark holes where my winter mountaineeing boots have sunk softly, deeply, in the pristine sparkling snow, the line of prints leading my eye to the edge of the slope and beyond to the silver-shine surface of Loch Cluanie eight hundred metres below. My eye travels along the still water to the steep shaded flanks of Beinn Loinne and up to the rose-red tops and yelling sun anouncing the new day.
But what am I?
I carry a notebook, am I a writer?
I carry a DSLR and two lenses, am I a photographer?
I carry an ice axe and crampons, am I a mountaineer?
Why am I here?
I want to write about my experiences in the high places
I want to photograph mountains, clouds, light, life
I want to climb sparkling ice fields and graceful snow ridges
I’m here to do what I do.
I am me.
The temperature is still well below freezing, kept there by a strong and biting north easterly and the old adage holds true. You can’t think with frozen hands. So they stay in my gloves, only coming out to quickly change from wide angle to telephoto when I want to photograph the deep quilt of snow that shrouds Ciste Dhubh. To the north the landscape is a deep and silent white. There is little to break the whiteness other than a trapped buttress, black-seeping and peeping out of its snowhole, squinting in the low morning sun after long night in the freezer. The wind is roaring in my ears but I sense the silence lurking close to the snow summits arranged around the northern horizon, waiting to rise when the wind falls.
At a dip in the ridge I stop in quiet shelter, knee deep in snowdrift and listen to the silence, piled here by the storm winds. Rainbow tinkles of ice blown from the hillside melt on my face. I feel the drops dribble down my stubble. Some slip onto my lips and I lick and taste the mountain. It’s too cold to write so I must be a mountaineer or photographer. Which though?
A raven whishes in on the wind, black shard of life, looking for life, to eat. She swoops down over me, eye tilted, too big, rises straight up, flips over and is gone in the blink of her black hungry eye, heading for the white pyramid of Aonach Meadhoin across the deep drifted coire. The mountaineer whoops and the photographer zooms, compensating for the black against the vast bright blue of the winter sky but she’s too quick. I watch as she drops distance across the landscape, her diminishing size taking my gaze into the far reaches of the mountains. The further she goes, the more I sense how far away those summits are. She is the only black in a land of immeasurable white. She gives it depth. By the time she drops, unseen, onto the next summit my sight is fixed on the high tops of the white horizon and the stinging in my hands reminds me to put my gloves on.
I raise the long lens and half-press to start the vibration reduction that gives me extra stops of light. I feel like the raven as my eye travels through the viewfinder from foreground to far off mountains, screwing into the view, thudding to a stop at 450mm. The silence rumble-hums as the mechanism kicks in with a sound like a microwave oven, baking the image. A full-press and the familiar collection of clicks ‘n shuts says something complicated has just happened. I wait for the ping when the circuits are done. I don’t like to say capture. I prefer to think of asking photons to tell my sensor what they’ve seen on the way from the sun. I don’t want to trap them, turning their vision into fizzing current, I want them to escape with only their spin wiping the data onto the sensor. I want them to see other places, other worlds, other sensors. I shift my feet to straighten the lens, feel a sharp edge under my boot which slides a few inches down a hidden boulder. As I regain balance I notice the mountain hare prints leading down the slope and wonder if there’s a shrew tunnel under my boots. Can it hear the rumble of the lens? Is it looking up through its white roof at a huge shape? Did it sense the raven? As I release the shutter button and the vibration engine shuts off, the silence rolls back louder than before, like the silence you hear after the stove has boiled. I look at my hands, fingers red raw and feel the sensation of cold air on bare skin. Is it cold or hot? Are they freezing or burning? I dive down past the senses to that layer of self that just notices. The mindful self of no judgement, only seeing.
I’m neither mountaineering nor photographing. I’m just being.
That is the key to being out here on a wild winter’s day of blinding sunshine, spindrift scouring winds and life, visible and unseen yet hinted at. Noticing, feeling, experiencing but not judging. Just being.
Before I continue along the ridge I turn three sixty on the spot, looking up at the sky, peripheral vision taking in the mountain landscape as I rotate a lighthouse of perception. Absorbing the land for what it is, glad to be in the mountains, who are who they are and the wildlife who do what they do and my camera that does its best to ask those photons what they’ve seen.