Winter is gone… Long live winter!

Angel's Peak (Sgor an Lochan Uaine) and the Garbh Choire, Cairngorms

Looking past Cairn Toul and Angel’s Peak to the innermost recesses of the Garbh Choire

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.

Climbers on the path up to Loch Etchachan in a blizzard. Cairngorms

Cal and Andy nearing the top of Coire Etchachan in worsening weather.

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.

Climber in a white-out on Ben McDui, Cairngorms

Cal in a disappearing world, with only a few rocks interrupting the overwhelming white.

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.

Snow-covered summit cone of Derry Cairngorm

The pristine summit cone of Derry Cairngorm under a blue sky: climbing perfection

Carn a Mhaim, Devil's Point, Beinn Bhrotain and Monadh Mor, in the Cairngorms

The black face of the Devil’s Point peeks over the spine of Carn a Mhaim, with the dramatic coire and col between Beinn Bhrotain and Monadh Mor dominating the background

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.

Coire Sputan Dearg of Ben McDui in the Cairngorms

Looking like a slender spire from this angle, Terminal Buttress dominates this image of Coire Sputan Dearg

Delicately shaded snowdrift on Derry Cairngorm

I loved the delicate shading of this undulating, freshly drifted snow on the Derry Cairngorm/Ben MacDui col

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.

Braeriach from Ben MacDui, Cairngorms

Braeriach and Coire Bhrochain from the summit. (It’s one of MacDui’s tragedies that this mightiest of the Cairngorms has such a flat top that what should be spectacular views of its neighbours are largely obscured)

Snowdrift patterns in the Cairngorms

Different patterns created in the wind-drifted snow

Sculpted snow in the Cairngorms

Like a choppy sea frozen in time

Cliffs above Lochan Uaine, Ben MacDui

The cornice-fringed cliffs plunging down to Lochan Uaine


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14 Responses to Winter is gone… Long live winter!

  1. An enjoyable weekend by the looks Neil.
    Wish I’d made the effort, conditions looked a bit better than forecast on Sunday.
    Good that you were on hand to offer guidance on route finding again.

    • Yeah, Sunday was way better than forecast. It was already a good weekend, just from the day out on Saturday and all the people and the craic, but Sunday’s weather really put the cap on it and made up for a thousand mochy days.

  2. Well I went up in Feb & March and got no snow at all in your area – I feel very let down! 😦

    Shame your friends didn’t make Ben MacDui but hope they had a good few days and at least, going with you, they learnt a lot! Those poor DofE-ers too LOL

    The only hill I hate in the Cairngorms is Derry Cairngorm – I just can’t stand the long distance over all those boulders. I’d do any of the other summits again but that one.

    • Hi Carol, Cal and Andy actually did manage MacDui – they were up there on Sunday too and had a great day, although we didn’t bump into each other. Derry is a great hill – you just need to take the right route, which can avoid a lot of the boulders if you play clever. And the views…!

  3. Piper says:

    What a difference a Day makes .A work colleague of mine, was in the Carn Crom area the Day before , and a lot less snow . By the way Neil , how is the Hutchie looking ?

  4. Doug Palmer says:

    Your comment on navigation reminds me of a decent from Macdui towards Hutchies aware of the chance of cornice on Sputan Jerarg we kept moth of it suddenly we came upon a totally flat area which was not on the map had us beat . Heard voice of to SE so called to them to wait and help us fix our location. Found out we where on the Little Loch Etchecan. Just never occurred to us that the frozen snow and ice would be flat. Splendid photos Neil

  5. Great pics and post. Slightly off topic but did you watch LATE ( 28 minutes in there are some good shots of the garbage corrie bothy (as it used to be colloquially known…). Just shows younger folks do use these places in the hills. With such history would be a shame for the bothy to go?

  6. Dave says:

    Neil, anyone would think that you were an addict. Several good deeds in one weekend😀

  7. Walt says:

    You lucky auld man. Looks like you had a couple of awesome days

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