Ice and isolation

Leaving snowboarders and skiers behind, Patrick Barkham tackles the Highlands on his own two feet.

Hello ... lo-lo-lo. The shout bounces off the ice like a pebble and rolls across the frozen loch until it meets the pine trees on a small island. Then it drifts on the chilled air until we can hear a second and a third echo, as if a small child was standing on the far side of the ice, calling back at us.

My friends and I are the only living things making a noise in the snow and ice of the Highlands. The ospreys that are the symbol of the Cairngorms would be sunning themselves in western Africa. The skiers and snowboarders are sheathed in the low cloud that hangs from the north face of the mountains. No walkers except us are out on this cold day, when the profound silence of a hard winter hangs heavily over the landscape. We feel like the first - or the very last - people alive on Earth.

This gift of solitude is easy to find in Scotland's eastern Highlands in winter, although you wouldn't know it if you tumbled out of the sleeper train at Aviemore. The outdoor shops, restaurants and the Cairngorm Hotel are perpetually thronged. This village is a well-equipped base camp for winter tribes: snowboarders, skiing families and climbing couples laden with ropes. Every morning they board buses that grind up to the ski centre beneath Cairn Gorm, which has seen spectacularly good snow this year.

Setting out armed only with walking boots, crampons and one ice axe each (serious climbers use two), we feel out of place. This fierce terrain seems open only for adrenalin sports. Walkers tend to stick to less-harsh conditions.

Leaving the skiers and snowboarders behind, we walk into a white wilderness dotted with the occasional black grouse. "Makes you want a whisky," says Steve, who would later befriend a Scotsman happy to introduce him to Glenlivet and other local malts.

Then we meet a covey of ptarmigan, supposedly elusive birds whose feathers turn white in winter. They potter at our feet like plump pigeons.

Halfway up Coire an t-Sneachda, Gaelic for "Corrie of the snows", we lose our way. We're in thick, hard snow and cloud and the slope becomes precipitous. We realise the only other people at this altitude are climbers with ropes and beginners on snow-survival courses learning how to use ice axes and assess the risk of avalanches. The Cairngorms are not to be taken lightly: almost every year climbers and walkers die on these slopes.

We're momentarily lost, a bit spooked, and I'm alarmed when we have to retrace our steps: going up is always easier than coming down. But we're not as foolish as we seem. One of our group is an experienced climber, I have done a basic snow and ice skills course, we're properly kitted out and we know how to use our map and compass. We have checked beforehand that this route is possible with just crampons and an ice axe - ropes are not essential.

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Hearts pounding, we carefully make our way down and start the ascent from scratch. This time, we find the correct path and, using the compass in the thick cloud, navigate to the top of Cairn Gorm. The weather station at the summit is an unrecognisable sculpture of ice and snow. Horizontal stalactites created by the unrelenting wind extend for metres from vertical posts. I've never felt wind-chill like it, not even inside the Arctic Circle. It's like being whipped. My stubble turns into the sort of ice beard a proper explorer would have been proud of.

Through the gloom, small groups of climbers materialise like wraiths but we don't see another walker that day. Descending, we're catapulted out of our isolation when the clouds part by Ptarmigan Station and scores of snowboarders and skiers come into view. I feel a twinge of envy as they swoop past us but we savour the rewards of a solitary wilderness and a smug sense of finding it without chairlifts.

On a high mountain, walking is sometimes constant faffing: removing layers when you get too sweaty, then putting them back on, checking the map and consulting it again. But walking usually gives you the gift of seeing as much as you possibly can.

On the third morning, rather than spend another day in the clouds, we decide to devote two days to valley walks. We dither, trying to climb trees or cross streams, our nostrils full of the scent of pine branches ripped from trees by recent snowfalls have ripped from trees. We foolishly step on to frozen Loch Mallachie and stamp on the ice, sending a gunshot of an echo into the woods as perilous cracks dance through the ice beneath our feet. We tell spooky stories in the gloom.

On our final day we walk up Gleann Einich to Loch Einich. As the twisted Scots pines give way to heathery moors, the cloud lifts to reveal spectacular buttresses of dark rock and snow-lined gullies pointing up to broad white peaks. There is no sign of human life, so I'm disappointed that we've seen only a few grouse and ravens. Then a vast, dark V-shape appears high above us, circles and dips its head to inspect us. It is, unmistakably, a golden eagle.

At dusk, we retrace our steps down the valley. We've seen no sign of deer for four days but suddenly from every hill silhouettes of stags and their families appear, keeping a watchful distance.

So walking has its moments of adrenalin, too. And it is hard to beat the sustained high from a long day in the mountains. My face glows, my body and mind feel supremely rested. I am not sure what serious foodies would make of the meals I ate at La Taverna, the Italian restaurant in Aviemore, or the traditional meaty feasts of the Cairngorm Hotel; but each tastes like the greatest meal to ever pass my lips.

"OMG it's cold" comes a text from London. That's nothing, I think, memories of the chill lingering as the sleeper train gently rocks its way home.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

KLM has a fare to Glasgow and Edinburgh for about $2650, to Kuala Lumpur on Malaysia Airlines (8hr), then Amsterdam (13hr), then to either Scottish city (about 90min). Fare is low-season return from Melbourne and Sydney including tax. There are regular trains from Glasgow and Edinburgh to Aviemore (about 2hr 30min); see nationalrail.co.uk.

Walking there

A two-day introductory winter mountaineering course at Glenmore Lodge costs £275 ($435); see glenmorelodge.org.uk. A ScotRail Caledonian Sleeper from London's Euston to Aviemore costs from £19 one way; see scotrail.co.uk. Cairngorm Hotel, Aviemore has rooms from £44 a person a night; see www.cairngorm.com.

- Guardian News & Media

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