The Red Mountains
The Gaelic name for the Cairngorm mountains is Am Monadh Ruadh which roughly translates as The Red Mountains. Shortly after the last glaciers retreated after the last ice age the freshly shattered granite rocks of this mountain range, bare of soil or vegetation, would have been more obviously the rosy-red colour of pink granite. Today, most of those sharp, freshly shattered rocks have been rounded and battered by frost and snow and are grey coloured with a covering of lichens and mosses adapted to extreme high-altitude life.
Survival of the fittest
Within this seemingly barren and inhospitable landscape a huge variety of vascular plants mosses and lichens can survive. The vegetation on the plateau is similar to that found at sea level in the most northerly parts of Scandinavia and has been described by many as arctic simply for that reason. A random sample of common plants on the plateau might include Mat Grass (Nardus stricta), sedges like Carnation Sedge (Carex panacea) and carpets of mosses like the very distinctive Woolly Fringe-moss ( Racomitrium). Some of the more beautiful flowers that burst into life for the brief summer when the snow melts are Alpine Lady’s Mantle (Alchemilla alpina), Starry Saxifrage (saxifraga stellaris) and dwarf cornel (Cornus suecica).
The Cairngorm mountains are one of the best places to find very rare montane shrubs like the Downy Willow (Salix Lapponum) which are desperately clinging on to crags inaccessible to browsing deer.
To stand amongst the weather beaten granite rocks in the mountains is to feel geological time.
It is not just the plants that survive the plateau through the winter. In spring you can see where the voles have burrowed beneath the snow leaving trails of chewed up grasses. The ptarmigan changes its feathers to pure white in winter in order to hide from the preying eyes of golden eagles. Insects too are adapted to life beneath the snow; the crane fly lies dormant and frozen until spring when it emerges from its ‘leather jacket’.
The spring emergence of the crane fly is an important moment in the year and a critical time for migrating dotterel, an upland wading-bird which appears on the plateau searching for this rich food to sustain them into the breeding season. It is the male dotterel that sits on the eggs and sometimes even in the summer he has to endure spending some of that time half buried under snow!
The same snow that challenges the dotterel, helps to sustain our local communities by attracting huge numbers of skiers and winter ice climbers. There are three downhill ski centres in the National Park: Cairngorm Mountain, Glen Shee and the Lecht. The gently undulating plateau is also a perfect venue for ski mountaineers to explore.