When Art Director Sheri Gee approached Rose Strang to illustrate The Living Mountain, the artist was thrilled. However, in order to carry out the commission, she would need to visit the mountains and there was the small issue of a national lockdown to overcome.
Rose Strang. (Photo Adam Brewster 2021)
‘Thanks to lockdown, I didn’t know if it would be possible to visit the Cairngorms. There seemed to be nowhere open to stay and there was also the restriction on travelling further than five miles from home. Usually I’d have gone there immediately and stayed a few days to at least imbibe the atmosphere before painting, so it felt utterly wrong not to be there. I began to scrutinise government guidelines for possibilities; how dangerous could it be to drive with my partner Adam to the midst of a windswept remote mountain range? Luckily, the guidelines revealed (five or so pages and several links in) that it was possible to travel for work-related purposes if the work couldn’t be carried out at home.
The next hurdle
‘In terms of climbing the Cairngorms in winter, the risk was real. I hadn’t climbed a mountain for a few years and neither my nor Adam’s map and compass-reading skills were impressive – I’d always relied on someone else. Neither were our fitness levels. I felt lockdown-softened and I knew I was no ‘Nan’ in terms of mountain adventure; I accepted that my role was artist not mountaineer! So, I decided to get in touch with Liam Irving of Cairngorm Adventure Guides, who recommended one of their guides – Emma Atkinson – to steer us up to the plateau. It wasn’t until 11 March 2021 that we finally arrived at the Cairngorms. Perhaps it was the marked contrast to being confined to the city throughout most of lockdown, or maybe it was the sheer scale of the Cairngorms, but the valley felt more alive to me than usual – the sense of larger-than-life mountains, trees and weather.
Walking through trees. (Photo Adam Brewster 2021)
Crash helmets and ice picks
‘Emma fitted us with crash helmets and ice picks: ‘Just in case we encounter slippy ice further up the paths,’ she explained cheerfully. As we walked up the lower slopes through a forest of pines sparkling with fresh snow, I asked her how she became a mountain guide. She explained that she’d grown up in the Cairngorms and that she’d always climbed and training really took that to a different level.
Emma demonstrating snow features. (Photos Rose Strang 2021)
‘Colours became increasingly few, then almost monochrome, as we ascended. The differences in the snow were revealed by texture and the constantly changing skies; beautifully inspiring as a subject to paint (though difficult to paint in actuality). We’d ascended to about 700m and my knees were already feeling the pain. It becomes an effort to drag your feet out of the snow and I was well aware that if we did get to the top I’d suffer the next day.
Looking back towards the Monadliath Mountains. (Photo Adam Brewster 2021)
The final push
‘At this point we were nearly approaching the encouragingly named ‘neuk’, which suggested a cosy cave-like shelter. When I looked behind to watch Adam catch up after taking several photos, his face sported an expression somewhere between determination, utter discomfort and resigned acceptance of what was becoming a physical struggle for both of us! At this point Emma led us into a Siberian wind tunnel (the neuk) and demonstrated some ice-pick techniques on the ice-wall opposite where we sat. I couldn’t resist giving the wall a whack with my borrowed ice-pick, which made me appreciate how much effort would be required to repeatedly embed the ice-pick so it was firm enough to hall yourself up such an edifice. As I walked back to our sitting spot, I noticed how wobbly my legs had become and felt we’d experienced enough of the mountain to give us a sense of Cairngorm conditions.
Climbing Carn Ban Mor (Adam Brewster 2021)
Back down to earth
‘As we descended, Adam and I had an opportunity to test our snow goggles when a small blizzard swept across the mountain range. The goggles were a revelation – I didn’t feel a thing and more importantly I could see! Our walk had taken about five hours and we’d managed to reach about 750m of Carn Ban Mor, which is around 1,052m. Not bad, I felt, given our lack of mountain walking in recent years and the fairly deep snow. That evening, when we returned to our cabin, we fell asleep almost immediately, rising to cook a simple dinner at around 8pm before sleeping again.
Waterfall at Glenfeshie (Adam Brewster 2021)
‘Visiting the Cairngorms calmed and rewarded me in the sense that I’d known it was important to experience it afresh. However, with regards to the commission, it wasn’t my experience that was important. The way I would interpret The Living Mountain, and which of Nan’s visions I’d attempt to depict, was now my main preoccupation.’
Cainrgorm Ridge from Loch Morlich. (Photo Rose Strang 2021)