In the Cairngorms even the failed weekends can turn out to be memorable – and for all the right reasons too.
I’d set out from work on Friday, heading up to Bob Scott’s Bothy with the intention of going out to Corrour on Saturday to change the toilet bag. My mood wasn’t improved by the Glenshee road being closed with the snow and me having to go all the way up to Aberdeen and then up Deeside. From Braemar to Linn o’ Dee the road was white and slithery and I made it only by the skin of my teeth round the rising bend after the Linn o’ Dee bridge. Tired from the start, the increasing depth of the drifts on the Derry track were taking their toll and I was glad to see Bob Scott’s, even if it was in darkness.
Great. Three folk in – in their beds and it only 10pm! Well I was pretty hungry by this time so I unpacked my sack, laid out my mat and sleeping bag then sat down to make my dinner, and to hell if they couldn’t sleep. 10pm? In Scottie’s?!!!
Come morning the outlook was brighter. The guys seemed right enough blokes despite their sleeping habits and we chatted a bit over our various breakfasts, then I threw some stuff into my rucksack and set off for Corrour.
The going was heavy from the start, varying from fresh powder to soft drift. The ground underneath wasn’t very well frozen, so I had to be careful crossing the bogs in the Derry Flats. The tree across the track in the Luibeg Woods was a nuisance rather than a hazard, but once I was out of the woods the depth of the snow increased, with an average of just above the knee in depth and that infuriating consistency where you sink slowly into it only when you put your weight onto it. At times I was down to five to six seconds per double step. Going through the young trees in the Robbers’ Copse was worse, forcing through crotch-deep snow at times.
The ford, at first sight, didn’t look too bad. The river was fairly well iced, with the flowing water restricted to a few channels. I put on crampons for the iced-up stepping stones and started to cross – only to discover the ice wasn’t properly formed: some was slush and some of the sheets broke as soon as I put weight on them. It took about 20 minutes to get across, although on the plus side the only time I went in over my knee I was out again so quickly the water didn’t have time to penetrate the gaiters and waterproof trousers.
It was time to look at the clock though. As I sat down up the bank for something to eat I calculated I’d already taken a little over two hours to get to where I was, with maybe another two hours or so before I reached the bothy. Give me a ten-minute sit down to recover, then probably another hour or more to change over the toilet bag and burn the ppe suit and gloves. It would be dark before I even got back to the ford, let alone reached Scottie’s.
So enough. All this travelling and effort for nothing. I should have gone to the ceilidh with my mates that I knew would be on at Glas Allt Sheil that night. It was a low moment: so low that I couldn’t even face going back across the ford, and headed up the glen to use the bridge.
But on the way up there, having resigned myself to failure, I started to enjoy just being there again and, by the time I crossed the bridge I was looking at the beckoning slopes of Carn Crom. It’s a steep hill from this side, but I’ve found myself tempted up there on a few occasions over the years, and today it had the added temptation of being on the windward side of the hill, so with very little drifting. It would, said I, making excuses for yet another daft ploy, possibly even be easier than wading back down through the glen.
And that moment was when the failed duty trip turned into a cracking day on the hill. Yes, it was a pech taking the steep slopes head on, but where you climb steeply you gain height quickly, and I was enjoying the rapidly expanding views. Cloud was plentiful, and down over the higher tops, but Carn a Mhaim was mostly clear and humble Sgor Mor was offering some ephemeral but stupendous views as the cloud was broken and reformed by the wind. Shafts of gold would strike out of the grey lift and spotlight their way across the snow, bigger rents would render a whole hillside golden for a tantalising second or two before the lights would once more go out as the cloud closed, whole ridge lines would suddenly be fringed with an intense gold halo as the sun caught on the spindrift blowing high in the wind.
On my own hill, too, the wind was picking up as I gained height, snow smoking across the ground and whirling up into the sky. By the time I was nearing the summit it was probably blowing at about 50mph: enough to give me the odd buffet but not to knock me off my feet, and I was thoroughly enjoying just being there and being at ease in those conditions. When I stood at the summit cairn taking in the view and the sensations I reflected how I’d last been there just fortnight previously with a friend, the wind almost as strong but then driving a penetrating rain so heavy we were soaked to the skin and didn’t even pause as we touched the cairn at fled back down to the bothy. Today, even after I left the cairn, I was finding excuses to stop on the way back down towards Derry, pausing once to admire and ponder on the exquisitely sculpted patterns in the snow. We think of the wind as a battering, tearing force, and we think of snow as so soft and formless, yet all over we can see how the wind, using its own force and the abrasion of blown snow has etched the snowpack, one unsuspected layer at a time, into contoured patterns which speak of delicacy rather than the brute force of extreme weather.
I once wondered, on reading Nan Shepherd’s account of a stream in the act of freezing, how anyone could have the patience to sit in such cold and watch this process, but this day, so comfortable and at home, despite the cold and blast, I could have sat and watched such a thing myself. A day that had at one point seemed such a failure and disappointment had turned into one of magic. For I had remembered why I was there at all.
(And as an added bonus? In a bothy full of strangers that night, we were all best of friends and had a great night of talk and banter in front of a toasty stove. What a bothy’s all about.)