White-out on Ben McDui

Complacency, eh?
Get off with something 99 times and on the hundredth it turns around and bites you on the bum.
When I checked the forecast at lunchtime on the first Friday in May it wasn’t promising very much for the weekend – and even less when I checked again in the late afternoon.
So when I woke in Bob Scott’s on Saturday morning I decided to take a bimble out to Corrour, clear up any rubbish that needed clearing, and see what the weather looked like from there.
Well the weather was great all the way out there and, even if there was heaps more snow on the hills than you’d expect for May, at least it was likely to be soft on the surface. So why not nip up McDui by the side of the Tailors’ Burn and go over to the Hutchie Hut and back down Glen Derry?
It was one of those good ideas at the time that, for some reason, survived the arrival of cloud on the tops while I burned the burnable rubbish and happed up the rest to go in my sack.
So about 11-ish I crossed the bridge and set off northwards, overtaking a bus-party of folk heading through the Lairig and slanting off up the Taylor Burn path, soon hitting wet snow and pushing on upward to where the snow was deeper and firmer, though still soft enough to take a boot-depth. (My forecast about the snow was good, at least: even at its hardest, I never came across anything I couldn’t kick a step in.)
An unusually large and long cornice was blocking the ascent from the stream up onto the ridge connecting Carn a Mhaim with McDui, so I moved over to the northern bounding ridge of Coire Clach nan Tailler, which has the advantage of being less steep and debouching onto the plateau almost at the summit. It also shows the Devil’s Point to good advantage.

View of the Devil's Point from the side of Carn a Mhaim and Ben McDui

The Devil’s Point across Glen Dee from the Tailors’ Burn

As I approached the summit I entered broken cloud and was struggling more with a fierce and bitingly cold wind, so I acted sensible and took the map and compass out. I wasn’t worried about reaching the top, but set the compass to a bearing towards the top at the cliffs above Lochan Uaine. I’d probably just have to follow the highway of footprints, but it doesn’t do any harm to turn the housing on the compass now and then – saves it from seizing up.
And then I was on the summit plateau. And snow. Considerably more snow than I’d ever imagined at this time of year. And thicker cloud too. All I had to do to reach the summit was keep walking forward but, after a bit, I was beginning to have my doubts, and when it finally ghosted out of the white it was a pale shadow just five metres away. The view indicator, which I came on first, was like a plaque set into the surface of the snow (normally it stands at over a metre high) and the massive summit cairn itself was almost completely buried, with only the trig point showing.

Buried view indicator at the summit of Ben McDui

The view indicator at the summit of McDui – almost buried under the snow.

Summit of Ben McDui barely visible in a white-out

The summit cairn was almost completely buried and the trig point was a pale shadow, even from a few metres away.

Between the wind and the lack of views, I didn’t even pause but took the preset compass from my pocket and lined up a bearing… …on nothing.
Normally you can take a sighting on a rock, even close by, or, if there are no rocks showing through the snow, on a patch of older or different textured snow. But this snow was all freshly fallen and the same blank white as the sky. I could see my feet, I could see the disturbed snow around them; beyond that I could see nothing at all. Just blankness.
I suppose that’s really where I made the sort of rookie mistake you still make when you’re only in your fifth decade of hill climbing. Instead of reversing my steps then, before they were blown over, and descending by the route I’d come up, I strode forth on my bearing, confident that before long I’d come below the cloud or within sight of something to take a bearing on.
And I walked. And I walked. No rocks (though some, visible at maybe 10 metres or so off to one side), no clearing of the cloud, just more blankness. Or the same blankness. Absent of any visual clues I just had to keep going on the compass. I caught myself veering in towards the wind several times and corrected every time it happened, but I knew I was drifting to the right. I’d missed the old Sappers’ Bothy, though whether by a few feet or much more I had no way of knowing.
It was a curiously detached feeling, walking through this blankness – until suddenly I became very much attached. One foot broke through the crust of snow and went into a hole. And when I tried to lift myself out the foot wouldn’t budge.
I sat in the snow for several long moments, pulling at my foot one way and then another, before finally easing it out from the invisible jaws of rock deep in the snowpack. What an embarrassing way to go that would have been!
My walk through limbo continued: battered by wind, a casing of snow and ice building up on my gloves and grabbing onto any slight crease in my outer layer, just like it was still the middle of winter. I was waiting for the slight rise before the top of the cliffs, but peering intently into the white all the time, anxious to get some sight of anything which might give me a clue to where I was. In fact anything at all.
That’s how I saw the two ptarmigan, one behind the other, walking downwind across the front of me. I stopped to watch them, seeing the snow blowing past them as they walked. They’d walked a good bit before I twigged that I wasn’t having to turn my head to keep them in sight. Nor were they getting any further away from me. So I looked with a new head and saw I’d been staring at a patch of old, hard snow showing through the fresh: nothing like ptarmigan or any other bird, and just a few feet from me.
Nice that I was so fooled as to stop though. As I managed to focus on the no longer ptarmigan-shaped snow patch I also became aware of the faintest of shade changes slightly to the right: a pale diagonal streak in the white. It had to be the cornice.
I stared longer, trying to orientate myself to the line it formed, and checked the compass again. Best bet was that I’d drifted further to the right than I’d thought and was on the slope above Sron Riach, just where the cliffs start descending. That would explain the lack of any upward turn, although I’d reached the cliffs sooner than I’d have expected.
I checked what the bearing should be from the map and it married with the direction of the cliff I got with the compass on the ground, so started downhill, paralleling the cornice, keeping as far away as I could without losing sight of it, for visibility was desperately low and cornices there can be big.

Ben McDui from Carn Crom

Looking back in the crystal visibility of the following day. I walked a kilometre from the domed summit in the background, to just left of the sharper summit above the choire, unable to see anything beyond my feet until the very end.

And that was it. After a bit I started to see rocks through the snow and by the time I reached the slight re-ascent to the rocky outcrop, I spotted it from at least 20 or 30 yards. I did lose the crest of the ridge just below that outcrop but it was soon realised and easily remedied, and soon afterwards I came below the cloud level, much relieved.
Walking blind in a blizzard, with a cliff edge for a target – and knowing I’d gone off route – had to be my most adventurous day this whole winter. In May.
And I got off with it. Again.


Since posting this, it’s occurred to me that a little disclaimer is in order. This post is not saying that it’s okay to make all sorts of poor decisions and then expect to walk away from it.

The reason I got home safely was a combination of factors. I know that hill well, having climbed on and around McDui dozens of times over the last forty-something years. Even blinded by the snow I had a picture of the area in my mind and an awareness of the slope gradient and my likely (very rough) position. I also had the foresight to take a bearing in advance, the discipline to follow it, and an awareness of my direction of drift. And I had experience of spotting a cornice in similar conditions: I knew exactly what I was looking for. And in many unnoticed ways I was using almost 50 years of experience in the hills. But still, I was within a hairsbreadth of going over a cornice for a fall that would certainly have killed me.

This isn’t a tale of survival against the odds, just a wee warning (to myself as much as anyone) of how easy it is to shave your safety margin a bit thinner than you’d like. I wouldn’t recommend a similar escapade to anyone who is less than 100 per cent confident in their navigation and hillcraft, but even with the experience I have of location and navigational skills, I was careless and, had I not been lucky enough to be distracted by the two ptarmigan who weren’t there, may well have ended up going over that cornice.

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7 Responses to White-out on Ben McDui

  1. andy says:

    Scary stuff, Neil! Brings back the tale of Norman MacLeod in May 1934, as told in the Black Cloud, doesn’t it? Glad you made it to safety in the end…

    • Cheers Andy. Can’t remember offhand the Norman MacLeod story, but as I was walking along I was very definitely thinking about all those people who have walked through cornices and not been found for months. So easy to do in those conditions.

  2. andy says:

    I know the feeling! It’s bad enough in winter, but you’re somehow prepared for that in February. You don’t expect that in May, do you…
    The MacLeod story was that two men in their early twenties went for a wander in early May 1934. They ascended Macdui from loch Etchachan in fine weather. They left their rucksacks before starting the climb. Got to the summit, a blizzard came out of nowhere! Whiteout conditions. Unlike you, they had left the compass in their sacks. Thought they were heading back to the loch but found themselves descending towards the Lairig Ghru and Macleod slipped. The other man reached Aviemore to raise the alarm, but the blizzard went on raging, with deep drifts down at glen level. It took a few days before they found the body and the snow was still lying on the ground!

  3. peta says:

    im just glad you kept your wits about you!

  4. Pingback: drj0nswanderings

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