Look before you leap

Sat, Dec 12, 2009, 00:00

Diving off platforms, climbing on ropes, hiking up one of Scotland’s highest peaks: AMY LAUGHINGHOUSEconfronts her fears by pushing herself to the limit at Landmark Forest Adventure Park – and is left feeling on top of the world

I’M CRINGING on the edge of a tiny wooden platform less than a metre square, contemplating a leap from the equivalent of a three-storey building. I must be insane. In theory, the cable that a fresh-faced young lad strapped to my harness will allow me to make a controlled but nonetheless stomach-churning descent into the abyss.

The Skydive, one of the most popular attractions at Landmark Forest Adventure Park, in the Scottish Highlands, didn’t look so tall from the ground. But as I stand frozen to my perch, where I’m treated to a bird’s-eye view of energy- sapping pursuits guaranteed to exhaust even the most hyperactive children and their parents – a rock-climbing pillar, water slides, mini racetrack and the like – I’m beginning to regret the black pudding I had for breakfast.

Normally, I don’t like to be any farther off the ground than the length of my stubby little legs. But, in a miraculous victory over common sense, I finally jump. I leave my guts somewhere in the stratosphere as the rest of me hurtles through space, screaming like a disposable extra in a slasher film, to gracelessly greet the ground with my bum.

My knees are shaking but my adrenalin is pumping, and I’m ridiculously invigorated. So when a park employee asks if I want to try the ropes course I dazedly agree. Although I’m still strapped into a crotch- hugging harness and tethered to a cable overhead, my inner coward takes control as I confront a series of swinging logs and tightropes that lead me in a circle through the leafy canopy, softly muttering four-letter epithets that I sincerely hope don’t make it to the little ears below.

Not that the children are paying me any attention. They scamper to the top of the Skydive pole, as agile as monkeys, leaping without a thought – except for one wide-eyed lassie planted on the platform.

“Come on, Ashling! You can do it,” her mother shouts encouragingly from below. “I’ll give you a tenner!” Hearing this, Ashling’s brother pauses on the opposite perch, knees already bent as he prepares to jump. “Will you give me a tenner, too?” he shouts. Not waiting for a response, the boy launches himself into thin air. Give the kid points for bravery, but he could use a few pointers in the fine art of negotiation.

I might have been shown up by the fearless, pint-sized commandos at Landmark, which sits at the edge of the village of Carrbridge, but I resolve to prove my mettle on a hike up Cairn Gorm, the UK’s sixth-highest peak.

My companions and I converge at Glenmore Lodge, Scotland’s national outdoor training centre, in Cairngorms National Park. We’re met by the head of training, Nigel Williams, a wiry man with ice-blue eyes offset by a sunburnt face and cropped white hair. “Anyone for a brew?” he asks, snowy brows raised in anticipation.

I reflect that 10am may be a bit early for a beer, but surveying a printout of the weather conditions – constant rain and winds gusting to 150km/h at the summit – I think I could do with a pint of liquid courage. So it is with some disappointment that I realise Williams is offering us a cup of coffee.

It’s probably just as well, however, as warmth is what we’ll really need. I thought I had come prepared, in two-ply nylon trousers, but Williams shakes his head and leads me to the equipment room, where I’m kitted out with waterproof trousers, gloves as thick as oven mitts and a black ninja-style balaclava that covers everything except my eyes and mouth. “Just how cold is it at the top?” one fellow asks a girl at the counter. “Cold,” she replies, with the faintest of shudders.

As plumply insulated as a team of Michelin men, we pile into a van for a short drive to Cairn Gorm’s base camp, where Williams pow-wows with ranger Nic Bullivant to determine whether conditions are too inhospitable to attempt the summit – a compact three- or four-kilometre hike from the car park, depending on our route.

Williams is undeterred by the rain slicing sideways through the gale, but he allows that “the wind is the one thing that will stop you”. An 80km/h wind will have you stumbling along as though you’ve had five drinks, he says, and every extra 15km/h equates to one more down the hatch. (Good thing I didn’t have a beer, after all.)

But we’re an enthusiastic bunch, and Williams assures us that we can turn around at any time. So we set off towards the cloud-shrouded peak, which rises 600m above base camp.

Eschewing exposed ridges, we crunch along a gravel track, which is partially protected by rounded hills carpeted with moss, lichen and stubby shrubs parted by a tumbling stream. In winter the slopes are thick with skiers; today, before the start of the season, we have the mountain almost to ourselves, except for a few grazing reindeer.

Despite the grey skies, the views of the valley below are inspiring, especially when a furtive beam of sunlight breaks through to play like a searchlight upon the gleaming village of Aviemore and steely Loch Morlich. A moment later a brilliant rainbow arcs across the landscape, but my reverie is interrupted when we round a bend and confront the gale head on. Pelted with stinging rain or perhaps bits of gravel – I’m too numb to tell the difference – I remind myself that, with the right PR, a spa could charge a lot of money for this Highlands facial.

As we near the shelter of Ptarmigan – at nearly 1,100m, the highest restaurant in the UK – the wind is once again at our backs, propelling us so forcefully up the slope that I feel like a human kite. Alas, Ptarmigan is closed because of the weather, as is the funicular that we had hoped would ferry us back to the warmth and hospitality of the Cas Bar, at base camp.

From here, though, the summit is tantalisingly close, so we shoulder on up a stone-paved path, clinging to ropes to help us keep our footing. With the wind hard at my side I’m still blown on to my much-abused backside, but I refuse to surrender – at least until we reach the end of the path, where we recline (okay, collapse) and take stock of the situation.

The summit is less than 600m away, through a field of grey rubble, but Williams’s face is as stony as the landscape. “I really wouldn’t recommend going any farther,” he says grimly. “You could get your foot caught between the rocks, and if the wind blows you over you’ll break your ankle.”

I could feign disappointment, but in fact I’m filled with a huge sense of accomplishment at having made it this far. Twice in two days I’ve pushed myself to my limits, battling internal fears and inhospitable elements. Pausing to take in the view before heading back down the slopes – a decidedly more sedate descent than my leap from Landmark’s Skydive – I am, in every sense, on top of the world.

Where to stay

Hilton Coylumbridge. Aviemore, 00-44-1479-810661, hilton.co.uk/coylumbridge. With a comfortably furnished lobby illuminated by a fireplace, multiple restaurants and a bar, two indoor pools and a sauna, this property provides a delightfully welcome respite after a day out in the elements. Rooms from £86 (€95), including dinner and breakfast. Self-catering lodges from £375 (€413; three-day minimum).

Glenmore Lodge BB. Aviemore, 00-44-1479-861256, glenmorelodge.org.uk/ accommodation.asp. Located within Cairngorms National Park, the lodge features guest rooms (some en-suite, others with shared bathrooms) starting at £25 (€27.50) per person, including breakfast, as well as self-catering cottages (with a two-night minimum): four-berth £70 (€77), six-berth £96 (106), 12-berth £192 (€211). Facilities include a pool, sauna, gym, bar and mountain-biking trails.

Where to eat

Ptarmigan Restaurant. Cairn Gorm mountain, Aviemore, 00-44-1479-861261, cairngormmountain.co.uk. Feast on panoramic views atop Cairn Gorm, as well as homemade soups, baked goods, hot drinks and Speyside malts.

The Woodshed. Aviemore, 00-44-1479-810661, hilton.co.uk/ coylumbridge. Located in a log cabin in the park-like grounds of the Hilton Coylumbridge, this casual pub features a wood-burning fireplace, local Scotch and beers, and a menu ranging from haggis to nachos.

Ord Bàn. Rothiemurchus Centre. Inverdruie, Aviemore, 00-44-1479-810005, ordban.com. Tuck into fresh fish, venison, beef and seasonal produce in this former schoolhouse, which serves breakfast, brunch and supper.

Where to go

Landmark Forest Adventure Park. Main Street, Carrbridge, 00-44-800-7313446, landmark-centre.co.uk. Adults £3.45 (3.80), children £2.50 (€2.75).

Glenmore Lodge. Aviemore, 00-44-1479-861256, glenmore lodge.org.uk. For courses in rock climbing, mountaineering, skiing, mountain biking, paddle sports, first aid and more.

Cairn Gorm. Aviemore, 00-44-1479-861261, cairngormmountain.co.uk.

This hot spot for hiking and skiing also operates the UK’s highest mountain railway, which takes visitors from base camp to Ptarmigan Restaurant and a viewing platform. One-day rail ticket: adults £15 (€16.50), children 16 and under £10 (€11). One-day ski ticket: adults £30 (€33), children £18 (€19.82).

Speyside Wildlife. Inverdruie House, Inverdruie, Aviemore, 00-44-1479-812498, speysidewildlife.co.uk. Evening wildlife watch: adults £20 (€22), children eight-14 £10 (€11); unsuitable for under-eights. While Scotland can’t boast grazing buffalo, majestic giraffes or stampeding elephants, those patient enough to hole up for an evening in this little cottage can hope for an up-close gander at badgers, red deer and pine martens.

Where to shop

Mountain Spirit.

62 Grampian Road, Aviemore, 00-44-1479-811788, mountainspirit.co.uk. Kit yourself out with skiing and mountaineering gear.

Rothiemurchus Farm Shop and Deli. Rothiemurchus Centre, Inverdruie. 00-44-1479-812345, rothiemurchus.net. Stocks locally made truffles and chocolates, cheeses, boiled sweets, Highlands honey, venison, beef and rainbow trout.

Go there

Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com) flies to Edinburgh and Glasgow from Dublin. Ryanair (ryanair.com) flies to Edinburgh from Dublin and Shannon, and to Glasgow Prestwick from Dublin, Shannon, Belfast and Derry. Aer Arann (aerarann.com) flies to Edinburgh from Cork and Galway, and to Glasgow Prestwick from Donegal. EasyJet (easyjet.com) flies to both cities from Belfast. Travel on by train to Aviemore (nationalrail.co.uk).


Amy Laughinghouse was a guest of VisitScotland; see scotland.com/whiteinvite