Earlier in the week someone asked me if I was enjoying my time in the mountains “in spite of the weather” - as if somehow the wind, rain, snow and (occasional) sunshine were somehow separate entities from the Alps themselves.
The sun hasn’t shone everyday, and the reality of bringing two small children on a snowboarding trip has meant that there hasn’t been a huge amount of actual boarding.
In the pockets of time in between (ski school, getting children back to sleep, sneaking off to grab a late lift) - it’s easy to see that it’s a great time to be in the Alps.
The season is turning, little streams opening back up, small birds flitting between the trees on the lower slopes. A feeling that another winter has been marked off and observed. And as a family the trips at this time of year are becoming our own way of marking the end of winter. The point where we start to move our horizon beyond the next few weeks and to start to think about the spring and summer that lie ahead.
Looking west from Haunn, Mull I can see the island of Coll across the water. The weather always looks slightly better over on Coll, the sunset brighter, the beaches a golden streak across the dark island.
And beyond Coll, the Uists, connected, almost to the conjoined isles of Harris and Lewis. There is always another island.
Which creates a slightly uneasy feeling, an unrest. A glance at the ferry times, thinking about the logistics. In the same way some people feel compelled to cycle up alpine passes, bag Munros or tick off indian provinces, the very existence of un-visited Hebridean islands creates some kind of implied experience vacuum.
Until perhaps you reach St. Kilda, the edge of the world, just Greenland to keep it a distant company.
But this is really a flat earth approach to island hopping, where the horizon represents the edge of the known world. A spherical planet surely means that there is always another island, near, far or unreachable.
Just over a decade ago I went on my first snowboarding trip with a group of friends - a lads week away. I didn’t really know what to expect - I’d never been to the alps (or any other major mountain range outside of the UK). In the back of my mind it was the start of some cool, extreme sports based adventure of jumping off enormous kickers, getting lost in powder fields followed by some serious partying.
Fast forward to the present and I’m sat in a chalet next to a baby monitor whilst the rest of family are off to catch a late lift to ski school.
Over the years I’ve realised that the thing I love about going boarding isn’t booting it over enormous jumps or dancing on the bar (though those things are pretty good), but just being out in the mountains. Nothing beats a day when the snow is good and the sun is out, cruising along with a view of some far off peak and no agenda except making sure you enjoy yourself.
Which is why we are here, dashing late to ski school, dragging a pushchair up to nearly 2000m and sledging in the afternoons. Not because skiing is an essential skill for the girls to learn, but because a love of the mountains and having fun is something that’s worth passing on.
Two years on and we went back to one of my favourite wild places. Achiltibuie, Coigach. The effect of the weather on the landscape, and the landscape and weather on the history of the people of these small string like villages is clear.
But when the sun shines and you have time to sit, relax and observe it is a landscape with power and beauty that slowly reveals itself; the abundance of bird life and wild flowers, the way the light changes and plays on the hills of the nearby Torridon mountains, the persistent call of the cuckoo and the sudden appearance of a young deer.
Like a glacier sliding into Oslofjord, the opera house is a stunning piece of modernist architecture that stands in a corner of Oslo that is steadily being regenerated.
But it’s not just the location that is refreshing. The Operahuset is designed to be a platform, not just for opera but for people. You can walk up the mountainous slopes that make up the outer walls or stand on the different rooftops at the top of the building and gaze out across the bay. The building embodies the openness and belief in democratic access to the arts by the Norwegian national opera and ballet.
Peace. Quiet. Solitude. We arrive up the track in the borrowed 4x4, surrounded by sheep. Nestled into the hillside, hunkered down against the elements is Rhyd Fudr. It has no TV, almost no phone signal, and due to mist and clouds rolling in almost no view. It is our home for the next few days. From here we explore the rain soaked Welsh hills and villages, dance a jig in the spacious lounge and plan our excursions to coast, slate mine and coffee stops. Perfect.
An autumn day on the west coast of Mull. It’s been wet all week and the desire to sit by the wood burner with a book and wine has been anchoring us all to the sofa.
But today it’s bright and clear, though the wind that’s bringing the change of weather is wiping down from the artic with an icy core.
Treshnish point is a rare corner of our nation of islands. Probably continuously inhabited for the last 6000 years, it wears the impact of human endeavour lightly. The landscape shaped by a mix of people, farming and the elements that sometimes pummel the exposed beaches and clifftops. There’s evidence of old sheep pens and landings as I walk beyond the last cottages at Haun.
In late autumn the wild flowers that I’ve seen here are in retreat but the grasslands that foot the rocky steps are punctuated by a variety of fungus and mushrooms that stand out with their red and yellow marks against the bright greens and moody greys of the landscape.
With the wind behind I’m blown down the winding track past the rocky coves and rock stacks that look out to towards the twin islands of Coll and Tiree, and the carved presence of the Treshnish Islands. The ground is a little boggy underfoot in places, the result of a wet end to autumn.
On along with the coast watching the huge waves crash into rocky stacks and across small pebbly beaches punctuated with small caves and dark black rock pools. As I round the corner, the vista opens up. The islands of Gometra and Ulva nestled into Loch Tuath. At first glance the two islands look like one, but on closer inspection the small gully between them is just visible in fading light. In the distance hidden amongst the clouds Mull’s own Monro, Ben More forms a brooding backdrop. Tomorrow the first snows of the winter will dust the tops, but today the mountain looks grey and austere.
A few minutes trying to soak it all in and then I turn, stoop into the wind and battle back along the headland to the comfort of the fire.
Nearly 7 years on and we are back at Rhyd Fudr. This time there’s four of us, and in the time that’s passed it seems that it is only us who have changed. The hills, houses, lake, rain and mud seem timeless.
But that’s not quite true. This time the sense of Wales being a separate country seems more acute. Perhaps, it’s the strident debate that’s escalated after the EU referendum, which in the media is played out with England and the UK as interchangeable concepts. Slightly out of season In North Wales, away from the crowds we are routinely mistaken for people who speak Welsh. There’s a lack of big chains in the small towns and villages. Even the Gin is made differently.
More than last time we were here, this corner of Wales seems like an escape.