It’s March. I can safely say all of my Christmas cards have been written, posted and received. I was way ahead of the game this year. One time, I sent my Christmas letters out in June. Do tidings of great joy ever get old? I think not.
So, now I can share an adventure I’ve wanted to write about since December (I didn’t want any Christmas Card spoilers):
I hiked up the Cairngorm Mountains during an ice storm with gale force winds to bring you joyful tidings this year and I almost died.
I then went on to explain that I didn’t actually almost die, but I did almost fall into a bog….which is true…however, it wasn’t all true…I actually did almost die in the Caringorm Mountains. The story would have just been a bit over the top for holiday greetings, so I kept it light and just made it sound like I only almost fell into a bog.
Far be it from me to be over the top….
Ladies and Gentlemen, my Caringorm Near Death Experience:
As I’m sure you can imagine, it wasn’t hard to find a willing pack of veterinary students to go pet and hand-feed Britain’s only reindeer herd. All I had to do was pull up the website and show them this picture of a baby reindeer:
After we read, “The reindeers’ soft velvet noses mean they are a delight to hand-feed,” we were sold. Six of us ventured from Edinburgh to Aviemore, eager to squeeze and nuzzle some velvet reindeer muzzles.
Upon arrival, we went to the pub across from the train station. Highland whisky and live music made the welcome to Aviemore warm as we prepared for the next day’s reindeer adventure. We were giddy with excitement, warm with laughter, and happy and dry in a bright pub. We had no idea what we were in for.
In the morning, we arrived at the reindeer center and checked in for our tour right on time. It was misty and cold out, but nothing we didn’t feel prepared to handle in our warm jackets and scarves. Since I knew I wanted pictures for a Christmas card, I decided to wear a skirt and green tights with my red jacket and white hat. It wasn’t the warmest outfit, but all I really cared about was cute pictures, so I dolled up and put on mascara. Plus, it was drizzly and cold, but not that cold.
We drove to the base of the hill where we were introduced to our reindeer guide: the last living decedent of Thor the Norse God. I was so happy I’d put on mascara and lipgloss.
His name was Zak. He was taller than any human I’d ever seen with long blonde hair and rosy cheeks. He was beautiful. He was strong. He was a reindeer herder. And I would have followed him anywhere; it was just a perk he was leading me to pet baby reindeer.
In Zak’s 5 minute briefing giving a general overview of the hike, the weather went from cold and misty to frigid and rainy. The winds began to roar and Zak said something about the weather enriching our experience. I couldn’t really hear him over the deafening gusts, but he smiled and I smiled and then it was time to start walking to see the herd.
The trail wasn’t difficult, but I was happy that I opted for sensible footwear. It’s always easy to crop your feet out of pictures, anyway. As we climbed up the mountain, the wind speed seemed to increase exponentially, pushing us sideways as we fought to stay on the trail.
Zak stopped the group before we crossed a bridge, it was narrow and slick did not deter the 6 of us 20-something year olds (we’re still in our prime!) or the man carrying a baby in a backpack or the grandpa holding his grandson’s hand. Ok, so maybe the bridge wasn’t too scary.
We climbed up another hill as the rain started falling in what could only be described as freezing clumps of watery snow-like soup. There were no snow flakes. It was not snow. It was something else entirely. People in the group started to turn back, but not us, we were intrepid, we were motivated, and let’s face it, with the ratio of women to men at our school, we were all trying to impress Viking Zak!
At the top of the hill, only one obstacle stood between us and the reindeer paddock: a bog. Now, I’d heard of bogs before, specifically the Rattlin’ Bog Down In The Valley-O! But I can’t say I’d ever seen a real bog. A path of wooden 2×4’s and chicken wire lay ahead. In 100 feet, we’d be with the reindeer.
I confidently stepped onto the wooden path. Mistake. I slid, squealed and caught myself just in time to save my dignity and my cute outfit from plunging into the soggy bog. My next step was less confident, more careful.
Entering into the reindeer paddock, we exchanged excited glances and giggles. We’d made it!
I flashed a huge smile at Zak as he pulled out the reindeer food. He smiled back, but was probably too distracted by the mascara pooling under my eyes to notice the winning smile for which my parents invested so much money and time in the orthodontist’s office. Eh, the why makes no difference, the important thing is, the last decedent of Thor smiled back!
Zak doled out reindeer food and we immediately began chasing the reindeer with our hands cupped together, spilling oats all over the place. It was a bit pathetic. We were practically screaming, “Reindeer, come to me, pick me, choose me, LOVE ME!!!”
Initially, I had taken my gloves off so I could feel the softness of a reindeer snuzzling food out of my hands. Within seconds, my hands were completely numb, so I put the gloves back on.
My wool coat weighed twice as much as it had when we were warm and dry at the reindeer center. My hair was shellacked to the sides of my face. Every bit of mascara had run down my cheeks and my skirt was plastered to my stockings which were heavy and sopping wet. My waterproof shoes had puddles of water inside them that couldn’t get out.
But, I was having a great time feeding the reindeer.
People in the group began to drop like flies. It was so cold that nothing was making any sense. By the time we remembered to take a group photo, we’d already lost one of our own to the temptations of warmth and shelter.
As you can see from the look on the reindeer’s face in Julie‘s hands, they absolutely loved us!
Our group continued to thin, but I wasn’t about to leave. Being the girl foolishly dressed in a skirt (which, at this point, I argued was practically a kilt and ergo designed to weather the storm) I wasn’t about to go back “early.” Still, I couldn’t help but wonder how much more face time with the reindeer our 9 quid had bought us. So, I asked Zak how much longer we’d be staying on the hillside and he laughed and said that he would stay as long as we wanted and he just needed a cue from us as to when we were ready to go back. In a harmonious chorus we replied, “We’re ready!”
The walk back felt twice as long. At one point, hiking uphill off trail over dense wet grasses, I realized the wind and rain were creating a treadmill effect. I was walking but not actually making any ground. As a gust of wind nearly knocked me off my feet, I turned to Foxy and screamed at the top of my lungs, “WE COULD DIE!!!!” She replied, “I KNOW!” And we both began laughing hysterically. I have no idea how we made it back up the trail to the parking lot. We fought 96+ mph gusts of wind, ice shards of death and most likely hypothermia the whole way. I laughed the whole time, like an insane sopping wet clown girl. I laughed all the way back to the reindeer center. It wasn’t until I stopped laughing that I realized my teeth were chattering uncontrollably.
At that point, I didn’t want to laugh anymore. I wanted to sit by a fire and drink something hot.
We huddled in a miserable group waiting for the bus. Our chatter died out slowly as we got colder and more miserable and closer to dying from exposure.
Hot coco piled high with whipped cream revived us enough to survive the bus ride back into town where we changed into dry clothes and had lunch before taking the train back to Edinburgh.
Having all survived the trip, I’d say it was definitely worth the cold. We did get to see a baby reindeer, after all. How cool is that!?