Glorious! Absolutely glorious.
Just when you reach that stage when the bite’s gone from winter but it won’t quite let go and allow spring to move up the hill, along comes a weekend like this: two absolutely classic winter mountaineering days!
Up for a disappointing Friday evening meeting with Mar Lodge Estate (They still want to remove the Garbh Choire Refuge), the weekend wasn’t starting well. It was good to see Cal and Andy from Dalkeith arriving at Bob Scott’s later in the evening though. Enjoyed a catch-up and a chat and we arranged to go up Ben MacDui on Saturday. Fairly new to hill-walking, they’d tried twice before, each time being dissuaded by poor visibility and lack of navigation skills.
Morning saw us heading up Glen Derry, Cal and Andy fully laden with all their kit, as they intended staying at the Hutchison Hut and climbing other hills from there on the Sunday. The blue skies of morning had disappeared as we walked and by the time we reached the Hutchie it was clear that, whatever happened, we weren’t going to get any views high up; but you’d go a long way to beat these two guys for enthusiasm and, after dumping most of their gear and us all getting a bite to eat, we set off up the track to Loch Etchachan, climbing into old, hard snow, soft, freshly-drifted snow, and snow still falling in an increasingly beefy wind.
Loch Etchachan was fully frozen over and, though very little above that was visible, it was obvious that snow cover was complete all the way up. No path to follow and not much in the way of footsteps to follow, so I told Cal and Andy it was time to get the map and compass out, initiating them into the wonders of walking on bearings and counting steps. We took bearings on rocks, on patches of differently coloured snow and on a companion (me) sent ahead as a marker. We got the first leg spot on and weren’t too far out on the second, which gave us a chance to go over recover techniques such as aspect of slope and reversible probes on a bearing. It was all good fun and the guys were enjoying having their eyes opened… although open eyes were seeing less and less, as visibility steadily decreased.
With no boundary between snow and sky and nothing disturbing the whiteness save ourselves and a few rocks, I decided – and the lads agreed – that enough was enough. I knew from experience that a white-out on MacDui wasn’t to be taken lightly. So we worked out a safe retreat route (in this case simply follow the burn down) to get us back to Loch Etchachan and plunged down into the whiteness until the world began to appear again.
By way of consolation for the boys not getting up MacDui – again – I trailed them over to the col above Loch Avon. It was tortuous work, trudging through sometimes soft snow into the hail-sharpened teeth of a gale, but it was worth it when we got to the lip above the loch, looking down to the Shelter Stone, which we could just make out, and taking in the array of black crags surrounding the head of the glen: Carn Etchachan, An Sticil, Garbh Uisge Crags, Hell’s Lum, Stag Rocks and down to Stac an Fharaidh, across an unfrozen loch looking almost as black as the rocks contrasting against the snow and appearing and fading as the cloud rose and fell and the snow and hail allowed us to peer into the wilderness through stinging, glove-shielded eyes.
We turned and retreated to the descent into Coire Etchachan and the shelter of the Hutchie hut. I don’t know about Cal and Andy, but there was little sense of disappointment in failing to climb MacDui, just that joy and elation of having faced and endured the savagery of a Cairngorm blizzard.
Down at the hut we parted and I set off down into the more benign climes of the lower corrie and round into Glen Derry for a walk back to Scottie’s that still wasn’t finished with incident. Still a good way up the glen, I came across four young lads sitting by the side of the track, well laden with rucksacks.
“Going far?” asked I.
“The bothy,” said one.
“Corrour,” said another.
“No you’re not,” said I.
Quizzical looks gradually turned to dismayed ones as I explained they were in the wrong glen and showed them on the map where their route should have gone. They hadn’t been in any danger but, with an assessor due to check on them that evening, it could have resulted in a call-out for the rescue teams who are already busily occupied in the search for Jim Robertson, so they upped and set off down the glen with me and I pointed them across the Derry Flats to the right path. They’d added a couple of hours onto their day’s journey, but at least they would reach their campsite by the bothy before dark.
There was a fine night in the bothy, with the company including Jim Robertson’s son Paul, up with some of his friends to visit again the bothy where his father had last stayed before going missing. Lovely folk, and I hope his father is found soon to give peace to his family.
Sunday was a braw morning: cold, and a skim of fresh snow, but a blue sky tempting me out onto the hill again. A quick breakfast and I was off, leaving a note in the book to say I was bound for Derry Cairngorm.
It’s a bit of a beast, legs-wise, that start up the initial slopes of Carn Crom, but I love it all the same. You’re gaining height quickly, with views opening out behind you and soon allowing you to see over to Beinn a Bhuird. The end of the initial pull sees you on that rocky step of Creag Bad an t’Seabhaig, opening up the view west along Glen Luibeg to Carn a Mhaim and beyond to Beinn Bhrotain, then it’s an easier but steady pull to the top of Carn Crom which has one of the best sudden views ever: just come over the final few steps to the top and there they all are: the full panorama of Cairngorm giants, with Cairn Toul, Braeriach and Ben MacDui all presenting their spectacular rock-girt corries for inspection in an almost unbroken frieze of geological drama. It’s a view designed to lift the heart in an instant under any weather but, today, with the blue sky and heavy snow cover adding to the intensity it literally made me gasp.
That set of mountains remained my viewing companions throughout the pull up to the distant summit of Derry Cairngorm, the angles gradually changing and revealing and obscuring different peaks and corries as I progressed along the ridge, not too troubled by the fresh snow which was seldom more than ankle deep – a small price to pay for the purity it brought to my views.
I’d half thought I’d meet Andy and Cal on Derry – they’d talked about it as a possible return route – so I’ll put the blame on them for me spending so much time looking north from the summit cairn. Because if I hadn’t spent so much time looking in that direction, and, of course, round the head of Coire Sputan Dearg and over to the flattened dome of MacDui, then perhaps I would have been able to congratulate myself on a good day on the hill and go home.
But I did look and I couldn’t help myself. Like a bairn who doesn’t know when to stop eating the sweeties, I left the cairn heading north, bound for MacDui.
To be fair, it wasn’t hard going. The north-facing slopes were all wind-scoured back to hard neve, taking a firmly placed boot but not giving way underfoot, and I enjoyed the steady pull up onto the plateau, distracted for a moment by the sight of one man and his dog a couple of hundred metres off. He looked for all the world like he was carrying one of those ball-throwing sticks and I was intrigued at the thought of the dog following the ball on a comic trajectory over the Sputan cliffs. I must control my thoughts better.
There was no further incident on the walk across the snowy plateau, nor back across to the top of Sron Riach for that always knee-jarring descent to truly spring-like conditions below, but the lack of yesterday’s drama didn’t mean any less pleasure. This was one of those magical, perfect hill days that live long in the memory: why we do it.