Cairn Gorm: The Mountain That (Almost) Ate My Memories
Climbing Cairn Gorm wasn’t part of the plan.
To be frank, little of my time in Scotland had turned out the way I’d anticipated but after chickening out of a driving tour of the Scottish Highlands, I’d missed my chance at climbing Ben Nevis, Scotland’s tallest peak. In Inverness on my last day in Scotland, I decided that the nearby Cairn Gorm would have to do.
Topping out at 4,295 feet, Cairn Gorm is part of Scotland’s Cairngorm National Park and a highlight of the plateau of glacial mountains called the Cairngorms. Loosely translated, the name means “green hill,” and although I wouldn’t quite call Cairn Gorm’s nearly mile-high peak a hill, the rest of the name seems just about right. Untamed and desolate, covered by low scrub grasses with tufts of colorful wildflowers growing here and there and bisected by the occasional stream, Cairn Gorm seemed like the ideal spot for me to spend my last day in the country.
I suppose I could have taken the funicular railway to the top of the mountain but where was the challenge in that? I preferred to hike to the top instead, fulfilling my dream of summiting at least one mountain in Scotland. That plan might have worked too if it hadn’t been for two things: the rapidly worsening weather and the fact that I was utterly out of shape.
Starting from the visitor center at the foot of the mountain, I trudged upward slowly under bright but cloudy skies, my camera strap draped across my chest as I stopped to take several pictures along the way. Tucking the sleeve I’d purchased to protect the camera into my pocket, I was enthralled by the solitary landscape. The top of the mountain was draped in a thick, soupy fog and, according to the park rangers, wind gusts at the summit were estimated in excess of forty miles an hour. Undeterred, I forged ahead, determined to make it to the peak and back within a couple of hours.
Several groups of hikers passed me on their upward slog while I huffed and heaved, gasping deeply as I waited for my accelerated heart beat to slow. There was no doubt about it: Cairn Gorm was kicking my butt. Over an hour and a half after beginning my ascent, I was still climbing when I should have already been at the peak. The clouds overhead that had merely whispered of rain turned dark gray and the fog that had stationed itself at the mountain’s summit began to move downward, creeping eerily over the landscape and slightly obscuring my view of the surrounding mountains and lakes below.
The wind howled as it grew stronger, my rain jacket billowing and flapping wildly with each gust. Save for a small group of students who’d passed me moments earlier, I was alone on the mountain. With each step forward, I wrestled with myself –was it foolhardy to continue? Should I go on? Wheezing and panting as I waited for the weather to wreak havoc, I made up my mind. It broke my heart to do it, but in that moment I decided to turn around.
On my way down, I decided to secure my camera under my jacket in the event of a cloudburst. Patting my pocket in search of the neoprene camera sleeve, I realized I must have dropped it somewhere along the trail.
Normally I wouldn’t care. Neoprene camera sleeves are pretty easy to replace but tucked inside mine were two memory cards. I wracked my brain trying to remember what they contained: I was certain one was blank but the other was filled with memories from several days of my time in Scotland: my first impressions of Inverness and the wonderful guest house where I stayed in Daviot. A cruise along the Loch Ness and a visit to Urquhart Castle. And, worst of all, images from the wedding I’d traveled to Scotland for in the first place. All gone.
I felt sick.
Ignoring the turn for the worse in the weather, I frantically started up the mountain again, my eyes darting all around me in hopes of spotting the flimsy black material that would have been out of place in the landscape. Again and again, I alternated between searching my pockets, my backpack, and the mountain but the sleeve never materialized. I approached a couple who were descending the mountain to ask if they’d seen anything along the trail to no avail. It was growing late and I had to get back to Inverness to catch my train to London. After nearly thirty minutes of despair, I gave up, making my way down to the visitor center to ask if anyone had turned in the lost item. No one had. I made the ranger at the desk promise faithfully to contact me if the sleeve was ever found. I’ve never heard back.
It’s been little over a year to the day when Cairn Gorm ate my memory cards. A full ski season on the mountain has come and gone. I find that time has completely erased the disappointment I felt as I took the bus from Cairn Gorm back to Aviemore because although the pictures I’d recorded are gone, my memories of Scotland are still with me. The couple I’d traveled to Scotland to see married remains blissfully so (happy anniversary G & G!). I still remember the rich fragrance of peaty earth while floating down Loch Ness in a drizzle. And I’ll never forget the hospitality of Margaret and Rachel at Daviot Lodge.
I don’t need pictures to remember what I felt. Those emotions will remain etched in my heart forever.
However, if you do find a mangled black neoprene sleeve for a DSLR with two probably disintegrated memory cards inside while you’re out and about in the Cairngorms, do let me know, will ya? I’m on Twitter.
How much do you rely on photographs to preserve your travel memories? What would you have done in my place?