Connecting with the Mountains – A Personal Journey

“Traditionally approached from either Speyside in the north or Deeside in the south, I would not have to think too long to come up with half a dozen routes, all culminating on the Arctic dome of Ben Macdui. Its height and position mean the weather can be extreme. There are days when there is not a breath of wind and no sound whatsoever, except the crunch of snow beneath your boots. Equally, there are days when visibility is reduced to that common Scottish phenomenon of “the white room”, when complete snow and cloud cover combine to give nothing whatsoever for the eyes to focus on. Combined with heavy falling snow and a high wind, the Cairngorm Plateau respects no one.”

Extract from A Quest For Fulfilment, by James Orpwood.

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You could say it was an unconventional career path – a highly trained and well qualified fisheries scientist giving up a promising career to share his passion for Scotland’s mountains and wild places with others.

Above: The author snorkelling above a coral reef in Tobago during an undergraduate field course. © Gemma Richards, 2001.

The irony of how it all came to pass is not lost on me. To anyone who knew me during the early part of my life, it would come as no surprise that the small lad who loved tiddler fishing in New Forest streams went on to develop a healthy passion (obsession!) for angling. This led, quite naturally, to studying and then working with fish for many years. For someone who disliked school (to put it politely), I went on to do rather well academically, gaining a First Class Honours degree and a PhD, going on to post-doctoral research work and then scientific work in the public sector, all involving fish, naturally.

Yet, somewhat ironically, it was the pursuit of this “fishy” career that took me to Scotland, where I discovered a new passion – mountains. Struggling to find fulfilment in life, despite my promising scientific career, I dreamt increasingly of working in the outdoors. Retraining to make this a reality took many years of structured and determined hard work and effort, and a huge amount of support from my wife, whom I met on a climbing trip in the Himalayas.

Above: Ama Dablam, Nepal. I viewed this mountain as the sun went
down one evening whilst sat at Lobuche East Base Camp. This was
a true turning point in my life, and provides a fitting Prologue
to my debut book, A Quest For Fulfilment. Photo by the author.

These days, my professional activities take me to some amazing places throughout the Scottish Highlands and Islands – leading folk on hill walking trips in summer and winter, teaching navigation and winter skills, and guiding groups on adventure travel holidays. Running my own small business, James Orpwood Mountaineering, as well as working for other outdoor activity providers, I consider it a great privilege to be able to share with people an environment with gives me such great joy. It is also wonderful to enable folk to do something which, for whatever reason, they might not feel able to accomplish under their own steam. Equally satisfying is teaching them something new, giving them greater independence to go and have their own adventures.

Above: Autumn reflections on a cold, crisp day in
the Northwest Highlands. Photo by the author.

But what is it that makes Scotland’s mountain environment so special? For me, this is a surprisingly difficult question to answer. Not for lack of possible reasons, but instead, because the many reasons intertwine, overlap, change over time, and are unique to each person.

That the mountains display an aesthetic beauty is hard to dispute. On a clear day, the very overt yet sometimes harsh beauty of the vast, rugged, wild landscape is obvious to many. Perhaps less obvious but equally mesmerising, and even overlooked until the cloud clamps down to reduce visibility to just a few metres, are the details. From the lichen on the boulders and the delicate crystals of rime ice adorning every exposed surface on a freezing cold day, to the frost-shattered gravel and tiny plants, severely restricted in their growth by the harsh environmental conditions. Furthermore, there is a magical interplay of light and landscape in high places. Indeed, as human beings, we seem inexorably drawn into such landscapes – perhaps to marvel at their beauty, or perhaps to increase self-awareness of our own fragile mortality. On several occasions I have been humbled by a snow bunting, a small bird about the size of a house sparrow, quietly going about its business in the worst winter weather imaginable, on the Cairngorm Plateau. In contrast, I choose to challenge myself in this environment for just a few hours at a time, before returning to a warm, dry house with the promise of a hot shower, a change of clothes and a wholesome dinner.

Above: A male snow bunting in summer plumage, pictured on the Cairngorm Plateau. Photo by the author.

Then there is the sheer joy that can come from being in the Scottish hills – joy from the feelings of being out in the fresh air, the wind on your face, the sunshine on the back of your head, or from the views. That same joy can turn quickly into all-consuming yet immensely satisfying concentration, when your only option in “the white room” is to trust your compass, counting paces silently to yourself, hoping to recognise that contour feature when you reach it.

Above: Navigating in “the white room” certainly sharpens
your concentration! Photo by the author.

Yet above all, being in the mountains can connect you with people in a very special way. A particular place that you visited with a friend or loved one will remain special for as long as your memory of that friend or loved one lives on.

Above: A chilly day on the summit of Cairn Gorm. Photo by the author.

Amid the backdrop of the Covid-19 pandemic, with fishy tales aplenty, stories from mountaineering trips to Morocco, Nepal, Bolivia and Iceland, and of course, numerous references to our wonderful mountains closer to home, A Quest For Fulfilment is a light-hearted yet truthful and inspiring insight into one man’s journey – from mad keen angler and fisheries scientist – to finding professional and personal fulfilment in the mountains. 

Above: The front cover of my debut
book, A Quest For Fulfilment.

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James Orpwood’s debut book, A Quest For Fulfilment, is available in paperback format (RRP £11.99) or as an eBook (RRP £5.99) from several online retailers including Amazon.

James is also offering the paperback for sale directly from him, signed or unsigned, through his website www.jamesorpwoodmountaineering.co.uk. The cost of £11.99 includes free P&P to UK mainland addresses.

The paperback can also be purchased from The Bookmark, Grantown-on-Spey, and from Cairngorm Mountain Sports, Aviemore.

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