Summer snow and rough waters on Macdui

Summer snow on the Feith Buidhe slabs, Ben Macdui, Cairngorms

A tenuous arch of snow is all that remains of a tunnel through the Feith Buidhe snow patch

Macdui was busy on Saturday. When I reached the summit cairn there must have been at least twenty folk there and lots more approaching and leaving. One group on their way off was a party led by Simon from Cairngorm Treks, who greeted me by asking where I was off to today. Hmm. Britain’s second-highest mountain might have been enough, but he obviously knows me: on Saturday the summit cairn was just on the way to where I was heading.

Within just a few minutes of leaving the summit I was on the North Top of Macdui, bypassed by the highway from Cairngorm so seldom trod, despite being only a few feet of reascent, then I was dropping down its northern slopes to one of the least visited yet easily accessible parts of the mountain, that area where the Feith Buidhe and Garbh Uisge streams gather strength before tipping down into the great chasm of Loch Avon.

I was heading for the Feith Buidhe slabs, in the hope of getting some photos of the snow tunnels and crevasses in the long-lying snow patches there. I was there a few years ago and got a few pictures like this – more a snow bridge than a tunnel.

Loch Avon through a snow bridge, 2013. Cairngorms

Loch Avon through a snow bridge, 2013

But I’d seen photos Ian Cameron took there last weekend and reckoned I might get something more impressive this time around. So after walking as far as the Feith Buidhe stream on the plateau, I zigged under some outcrops back to just above the Garbh Uisge Beag and then zagged back to find the snowfield on the Feith Buidhe slabs, which had been totally invisible from above, but was quite extensive.

The slabs between the Feith Buidhe and the Garbh Uisge are an impressive feature even on their own: great sheets of granite, easy enough angled to walk on and stepped layer upon layer, sometimes rearing up in vertical walls, but often with slanting ledges or stepped corners providing surprising ways through. These steps bank out completely under winter snow, and provide enough of an anchor to stop it sliding off in spring, as it does on Coire an Lochain’s Great Slab in the nearby northern corries of Cairngorm.

Late summer snow on the Feith Buidhe slabs, Cairngorm

Snow starting to break up into ice boulders on a heavily stepped area of the slabs

When I got up close it was a bit of a bust in terms of what I’d been looking for. A once impressive tunnel had collapsed, leaving just a slender sliver of snowbridge amidst a broken jumble of ice slabs and boulders. But the novelty of being up close to snow 10 feet deep or more (at the edges) in the middle of summer meant I wasn’t too downhearted and enjoyed an hour or so just wandering about on the slabs and ledges exploring what I could of the area. There was an interesting looking crevasse away in the middle, but with no-one else about I didn’t think it was wise to take too many chances; those ice boulders you see in the photo were very heavy – and very hard – and I didn’t fancy being under anything like that.

Broken ice on Feith Buidhe slabs, Cairngorms

Nothing soft about this snow: these ice boulders were solid.

View from bergschrund on Feith Buidhe slabs on Ben Macdui, Cairngorms

Looking out over Loch Avon from the bergschrund between ice and rock

Feith Buidhe snow patch, Ben Macdui, Cairngorms

This distant view shows the full extent of the snow patch. The broken snow boulders show the area I was exploring

After I’d amused myself for long enough around the edges of this summer snow I started heading back to base – that was a long way away at Bob Scott’s Bothy, but I had plans on the way. A few weeks earlier I’d been in the area with a friend and had climbed from the Shelter Stone up onto the plateau by a route parallel to the Garbh Uisge. We’d left the course of the burn to head over to Carn Etchachan on that occasion, but this time I wanted to follow the course of the burn further.

This is a tremendous area of Macdui. As I mentioned above, being away from the trade routes, it’s little frequented, and indeed, much of it is hidden from most places people are likely to be.

The Garbh Uisge is well named – rough water – and the ground it travels through is pretty rough too, all rock and scree with sparse vegetation, many of the hollows showing by the black moss on the stones how long they spend under snow. It’s fascinating looking at the different  states of the rock – all granite, yet showing so much variation, from bedrock slabs waterworn and smooth, to bulging outcrops with horizontal fault lines expanding into cracks and different types of blockfields, some where thinnish sheets of granite resemble a ruptured flagstone floor, others with more irregular boulders. Some rocks lie in close pieces, fractured, clearly fitting together, yet with edges so worn you know they have lain in pieces for millennia rather than mere years. It’s a place where you realise the erosion of mountains is an ongoing process rather than just an end result. Sit in the bowl of Loch Avon and look up at the cliffs all around – An Sticil, Carn Etchachan, Hell’s Lum, Stag Rocks and all the others – and there’s somehow a sense of permanence. But here, in the corrie of the Garbh Uisge Mor, you know both that you are seeing an unfinished landscape and that this mountain shaping is happening in a deep geological time that is beyond imagining. It is a wild place. In almost 50 years of coming to this mountain I have never seen anything resembling the mythical Grey Man but, if there was such a creature, this is where he would be found.

And yet it’s not a horrible place. On Saturday I walked with pleasure up the course of the Garbh Uisge Mor, delighting in the sheets of slabs, the rushing gullies, the sandy coves, the cataracts and the still pools, exclaiming at the surprise of a small lochan appearing at eye level, marveling at the bright delicacy of ferns growing in a crevice between rocks. Distant views ranged from the Cairngorm massif to the north to Beinn Mheadhoin’s tors further east, but they remained essentially a backdrop to the more intimate views of this secret corner of Ben Macdui.

When finally I left the course of the burn to contour round the buttress separating it from the main path up from Loch Etchachan and cross that to return over the top of Derry Cairngorm, there was still plenty of good walking to do, but nothing beat the highlight of those couple of hours of summer snow on granite slabs and the rough water of Macdui.

Garbh Uisge stream on Ben Macdui, Cairngorms

The lower reaches of the Garbh Uisge as you climb from the Loch Avon basin. (This photo was taken a few weeks earlier on a previous visit to the area)

Garbh Uisge cataract, Loch Avon basin, Cairngorms

Cataract in the lower reaches of the Garbh Uisge

Garbh Uisge Mor on granite slabs on Ben Macdui, Cairngorms

The Garbh Uisge Mor, sliding over sheets of granite before joining with the Garbh Uisge Beag to tumble over the edge of the plateau

Garbh Uisge Mor, on the Cairngorm plateau

Flowing over steps in the bedrock of the mountain

Lochan beside Garbh Uisge Mor, Ben Macdui

Flanked by lochans

Sandy beach in the Garbh Uisge Mor, Cairngorms

The shock of a sandy beach so high on the mountain – that’s the north top of Macdui on the right, at 1295 metres

Ferns high on Ben Macdui beside the Garbh Uisge Mor

And finally, the joy and delicacy of ferns erupting from crevices in the hard granite.

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9 Responses to Summer snow and rough waters on Macdui

  1. piper says:

    Aye there are some great places up by Macdui . i often have a wonder aroond . Great pics Neil .

  2. That’s a superb area I’ve been wanting to visit for ages now – maybe next year. I assume it’s easier to navigate your way up the ledges going up rather than down? Fantastic photos but woe betide anyone below any of those bits if they decide to set off down the hill!
    Carol.

    • Aye, the easiest way is to come up from the Shelter Stone area, between the Feith Buidhe and the Garbh Uisge. This was the first time I’d come down from above and it was impossible to pick a route down from above, hence the big zigzag back almost to the Garbh Uisge and then following easier ground down to the slabs. Well worth a visit though, but you do need to take care.

  3. Graham Marr says:

    An excellent post. I was up Macdhui last Thursday with a friend. We did the north top, always worth the very small effort in the climb. A great lonely spot above the busy path.

  4. The fire in my belly is lit, I need to visit the Cairngorms more often. Some fine photos there neil. Good article as always.

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