There were so many reasons not to be out there this day. On the ground the first big dump of snow of the winter had come, but the inevitable thaw had started already and on the way up Glen Derry I had been wading up a fast flowing path for half a mile at a time – not to mention a tenuous crossing of the Glas Allt Mhor. In the sky the forecast was equivocal: probably some showers, cloud at that height that could be just above or just below the tops. A few of my mates were elsewhere for a work party too, with good times guaranteed.
And there I was laboriously post-holing through thawing snow to reach the Hutchison Hut in Coire Etchachan, with the tops still in cloud, not at all sure I’d be going any further at all, let along the original target of Ben McDui.
I’d a notion to get up something though and, after refuelling at the Hutchie I set off to at least go up as far as Loch Etchachan, and possibly do Derry Cairngorm as a consolation.
On the way up the snow did improve underfoot, but near the top of the slope a look across to the south-facing slopes of Beinn Mheadhoinn showed evidence of what must be one of the first avalanches of the season: a 20 metre wide full-depth slab avalanche with the debris spread out about 100 metres downhill.
Past Loch Etchachan I was still thinking of opting for Derry Cairngorm instead of McDui until I stopped to watch an eagle rising out of Coire Sputain Dearg and cruising across to Beinn Mheadhoinn and beyond. After watching that I paused to survey the scene, realising the sense of utter remoteness, looking round from the black waters of Loch Etchachan, over the black and white of the cliffs rising to the south of the loch and over them towards the north top of McDui almost free of cloud. I recall opining that this place, at that time was the best place in the world. And so it seemed. And it was decided that Ben Mcdui was to be my journey: where Derry Cairngorm was all about the summit, McDui is a whole world of its own, all about the journey rather than the destination.
With that decision came the real start of the day: a day of beauty and of marvels, of immersion in the landscape, of feeling completely at home, utterly happy in an uncompromising environment which, that day, was so filled with a beauty that was almost painful.
Two sets of recent footprints were the only sign that anyone was in this world of snow and – increasingly – of cloud. The lowest level of cloud had dropped once more onto the summit as I neared the Sappers’ Bothy and only lifted to just above my head as I reached a deserted summit cairn. There I saw my second eagle of the day, rising out of the Lairig and gliding northward, blithely ignoring anything the wind might be doing.
There wasn’t much in the way of view to keep me at the top but as I headed back towards the top of Sron Riach for the descent there was an ever-changing light show as the wind tore holes in the lowest, amorphous later of cloud to reveal myriad layers and forms of cloud above, backed with a startlingly blue sky. The sun would occasionally break free, dazzling the eye with an intense white glare from the snow, fringing high cloud with shimmering rainbow. Other times, veiled behind thin cloud it cast a golden glow over the snow. I looked across to the col between Beinn Bhrotain and Monadh Mor and saw a tunnel under the cloud cap, through which there was an intense golden glow, with a shaft of sunshine thrusting down into Glen Guiseachan.
Light and colour was in constant flux and I would stop to take out the camera to catch a view. By the time camera was out and thick glove off the scene had changed; I’d take a shot anyway, put the camera away and then take it out again almost immediately as an even more wonderful sight emerged. For all the bitter wind I would find myself standing still for minutes at a time, feeling a stillness, lost in a sense of wonder that delivered in equal parts peace and exhilaration.
By the time I was plunging down the perfectly textured, softly golden snow on the upper slopes of Sron Riach it was almost a relief when the switch was flicked and the light went out. Not immediately, but almost. The sun had finally lowered behind thick, grey cloud to the west and all the splendour and subtlety of the colours in sky and snow disappeared over the course of a couple of minutes, leaving the familiar winter colour scheme of black, white and grey, albeit with a sky that was still blue and distant clouds in the east showing a peachy, rosy glow.
The snow meant the normally knee-jarring descent was almost pleasant, and I was down into the glen before you could really call it dark… when I got my final treat: an almost full moon breaking free from the cloud, lighting the track back to Scottie’s and home. I only needed the head torch for crossing the bogs on the Derry Flats. A day – and a night – with a real sense of wonder. It’s why we do it.