At last – the fabled ice tunnels of the Feith Buidhe slabs.
It was a long journey. About a month ago I’d been over in that area with a friend and climbed from Loch Avon to the plateau and Carn Etchachan via the steep slopes to the east of the Garbh Uisge. Then, just after, I was reminded of the Feith Buidhe snow and ice tunnels when that chronicler of Scotland’s summer snows, Iain Cameron, posted some pictures of tunnels formed by meltwater streams running under the the large snow patch on the Feith Buidhe slabs.
So two weeks later I was back again, this time descending onto the slabs from the plateau. I saw one collapsed tunnel but nothing I could get inside without a very tight and claustrophobic crawl between wet rock and tons of ice, a prospect as unattractive as it was unsafe. It was a fascinating visit all the same, and I wrote about this summer snow on Macdui in my last blogpost… and within days heard back from Iain Cameron with a link to some photos someone had just taken of the snow tunnels I’d missed. There had been two parts to the snow patch on the slabs; I’d explored the larger, upper section, but hadn’t descended the slabs far enough to look along the smaller section on the right, which appeared to be just a wee tail to the main event. (Although a photo I took as I walked away shows quite clear indications, in retrospect, that there were probably tunnels there.)
So here I was, the following weekend, after a wet walk up Glen Derry and over by Loch Etchachan, heading down towards the Shelter Stone in the Loch Avon basin and coming into sight of a distant patch of snow high up on the headwall to the left of the Hell’s Lum Crag. Even from that distance I could see tunnel mouths fringing the bottom edge of the right hand section. It was a long walk though, to get down to the glen floor and then climb back up, first following the Coire Domhain path then breaking away for the steep, rough, boggy climb up below Hell’s Lum and alongside the Feith Buidhe, crossing the stream just level with the foot of the cliffs onto a level tier of the slabs on the south bank. Bizarrely, though the Hell’s Lum cliffs were several hundred feet higher, the stepped slabs ahead of me now were the ones which made me feel small. Perhaps it’s the very fact that they are stepped and that the steps are four or five feet high, with 20 foot high walls, that gives the feeling of being a midget in a world made too large.
It’s easy to make progress on these slabs though: set at an angle that allows hands-free walking, the steps are angled into each other so that you can traverse from side to side and zigzag upwards – which I did to reach the higher tier where the snow lay, with a row of half a dozen or more tunnels, the largest of which was up to six feet high, though steady melting meant they were only about 20 or 30 feet in length, with a bergschrund that was maybe 15 to 20 feet (which vagueness tells you I didn’t have any measuring device with me).
It’s an interesting experience entering one of these tunnels. You can put your hood up to fend off the constant dripping from the roof but you do become very aware of the mass of rock-hard ice arched over your head. I was even more aware of this natural engineering feat as I entered the largest tunnel and, halfway through, looked to my right and realised that there was a great gap through to the next-door tunnel, making a worryingly large area of unsupported roof. I couldn’t help it though – I had to crouch and crab-crawl through ‘next door’, where I was rewarded with the sight of a translucent blue skylight where the roof had grown almost thin enough to open into a hole.
Lots to see and wonder about – not least how those polygonal hollows outlined by plant debris form in the tunnel roofs – but eventually it was time to go. The fun was prolonged with a scramble up the slabby ramps and broken boulders beside the Feith Buidhe, then it was out onto the plateau, into cloud and the windblown rain I’d been sheltered from on the slabs, wandering near blind to the summit where there were the usual crowds despite the weather.
I’d half wondered if I’d see my pal Jim Wright up there. He was doing a charity walk taking in Braeriach, Sgor an Lochain Uaine, Cairn Toul, Devil’s Point, Carn a Mhaim, Ben Macdui and Cairngorm, all in a day. I wasn’t totally surprised not to see him (it turned out he didn’t reach Macdui until after 7pm) but did see his name in the Corrour Bothy visitors’ book the following day, when I was out there to change the toilet bags. That job was made considerably easier by the assistance of Dave from Stroud, an occasional visitor to Bob Scott’s who turned up on Saturday night and foolishly volunteered to come out with me on Sunday and give me a hand, then helped carry out some rubbish. Good effort, Dave.