On a clear day you can see forever. Allegedly. Easter Sunday on Ben MacDui didn’t quite provide anything by way of eternity, or even infinity, but a liberal blanketing of dazzling, fresh snow under a blue sky certainly gave breathtaking visibility for more than enough miles of mountains to satisfy.
It was such a day to be on top of a mountain that a complete stranger told me he should take my picture for me because I looked so content.
A far cry from just 24 hours earlier.
Saturday, to be fair, never looked like being a vintage day, weather-wise, but I had hoped it would improve as the day wore on. Hope took me all the way up Glen Derry and into the Hutchie hut in Coire Etchachan. And though an hour spent in the bothy showed no real improvement, nor was it worsening, so I headed upward when I left, followed by a father and son intent on Beinn Mheadhoin.
We went our separate ways when we reached the site of Loch Etchachan, its presence completely hidden under a thick covering of snow. They seemed confident their goal was achievable, but I was having doubts myself. Although I could see the cliffs which flank the loch to the west and south they were fading into the grey above and if the cloud was moving in any direction it was downward.
Still, after too long off the hills for various reasons, I had in mind to climb something and headed upward in the hope of the cloud deciding, after all, to do the same. Failing that I might cross over to climb Derry Cairngorm instead. I was climbing through deeper, softer snow, but making steady progress and coming closer to decision time. The cloud wasn’t lifting and, with complete snow cover above, there was nothing at all showing ahead, just a vague outline of the ridge above Coire Sputan Dearg, and even that was fading.
When it finally disappeared into a uniform whiteness I was still thinking about Derry Cairngorm and I stood where I was for a surprisingly pleasant half hour waiting for any improvement. Yup, it was blowing a hoolie, but I was dressed for it and comfortable, finding the blankness almost meditative. I wasn’t forgetting where I was though and eventually decided that even Derry Cairngorm was being a bit ambitious and thought I’d at least head up to the col at the lower end of the Sputan cliffs and descend towards Luibeg rather than go all the way back down Glen Derry. I knew fairly well where I was and where the col was, and reached it by following a bearing on dead reckoning. But there doubts and reason started to take effect. I knew I was at the col, and I thought I was towards the eastern side of it, which would be fine. A due south bearing would take me down shallowish ground into the corrie. But if I was more towards the west side of the col, south would take me over some outcrops, small but with plenty potential for accident. I swithered for a while. I was fairly sure I was right, but maybe not quite sure enough to chance all on a choice of route that at the end of the day made little difference.
So I turned and went back down towards the loch and the path down to the Hutchie and the long trail down Glen Derry. Even after I emerged below the cloud the poor visibility wasn’t done with me. I failed to spot a line in the snow and fell down a three-foot vertical bank, luckily sprawling face-first over more snow rather than anything harder and damaging pride rather than body.
There was some faint vindication of my retreat when, about to start down to the Hutchison Hut, I spied the father and son descending from Beinn Mheadhoin. Speaking to them later they said they’d been to the top, but moving at the pace they were I think they were at the 1163m top rather than the 1182m summit on the tor at the far end of the plateau.
I wasn’t entirely disappointed that evening at Bob Scott’s Bothy though. It had been a good leg stretch and cleared some of the cobwebs which had been gathering in my mind. And I’d have been happy enough to have a lazy start and just head home on the Sunday – if it hadn’t been for the weather.
Through the night I woke several times and looked out to see the trees casting distinct shadows and the grass brightly lit by the moon, and morning brought clear blue skies and sunshine which could be felt even through the hard frost which had frozen the ground solid. There was no question about it, no choice allowed: a hill had to be done today and it had to be MacDui.
Bearing in mind I also had to get home that evening, I decided to go for the short(ish) option of Sron Riach, and though my legs were still feeling the pain of yesterday’s antics, I made good progress across the Derry Flats and up Glen Luibeg. Snow patches as I approached the foot of the Sron were rock solid and once I was on the ridge it was as near perfect as you could ask for. Soft enough to take a boot and hard enough to hold it with just a sole’s depth. Even with a slight steepening there was no need to don crampons and I was able to keep on making good progress… right up until the col before the final steepening up to the plateau. Here the snow softened and deepened, and I was really feeling it in the legs. I stopped at the col, gazing out towards Carn a Mhaim, and ate some shortbread, followed up by a handful of jelly sweets for a quick sugar rush. No idea if it worked or not: when I started again I was still having to stop frequently but – who knows – maybe I’d have been stopping a lot more often without the sugar.
But as so often the state of the legs was a secondary consideration. Here I was, on the flanks of Ben MacDui in the middle of the Cairngorms, breaking a trail in fresh, pristine snow under a warm sun that for much of the ascent had me down to a thin base layer, views stretching as far as the horizon. It was that world of sky blue and pure white that makes a perfect winter day, and made even more perfect by the absence of even a breath of wind and – despite it being the Easter weekend – of people. I was all alone in a world of wonder – a phrase as true as it is cliched.
What is there to say about the rest of the day? I’d been there so many times before, even a number of times on days like this. The slow, steady upward trudge, the changing perspectives with height gain and distance covered, the novelty of seeing the first people of the day – four skiers with a hyperactive hound – and the quiet pleasure of reaching the summit. It’s a funny sort of summit. There isn’t the sense of climax you get from reaching a sharper peak, and the best views are found around the edges. MacDui’s summit cairn, the ground it sits not appreciably higher than the many shelter cairns surrounding it, is almost a notional point, as if it was put there just to provide an end point agreed by convention.
But it was good to get there and sit down in the warm sunshine to enjoy a bite and a drink. I sat there relaxing and throwing crumbs to try and tempt a questing snow bunting into camera range. After a solitary ascent I was now in the midst of a dozen or more summiteers, all having arrived from the north and all but a couple having arrived on ski. A few words of salutation were exchanged but in the main I just enjoyed sitting there – so obviously so that one guy offered to take my photo just because I looked so contented. So he did. And here I am, with my happy face on. Two days on Ben MacDui, two days of such different but indelible memories. It’s why I love the mountains.