Stob Coire an t-Sneachda - 1176m
Ben Macdui - 1309m
Saturday 14th January 2012
Weather/Conditions: Like nothing I've experienced. Unbelievable - simply unbelievable... from the moment we stepped out the car I knew this was right. When we got to Cairn Gorm snow was on the hills, the sun was out and thick cloud covered everything but the Gorms and NE Scotland. And then there was the sunset from Ben Macdui; standing on top of the world, seeing the sun sink as it dipped to the horizon. The twilight of purples and blues. The most perfect of days.
Distance/Ascent/Time: 18.7km / 1070m / 7h 05m
It was one of those most-incredible-days-of-your-life things.
It didn't start that way. I got to know Andrew through playing ceilidh bands and we decided we'd get a hill done after talking about it. His brief to me was to find a mountain that wouldn't be too heavy (after the New Year binge!) so I settled on two ideas: Beinn an Lochain at Arrochar and Meall Chuaich at Drumochter. The weather looked better east so we headed for Drumochter.
Edinburgh was bloody dreich in the morning. I'd dragged myself from bed after a couple hours nap. It was grey and cold, and I stood at Haymarket station waiting for Andrew, chilled in the freezing air. This wasn't the good forecast I'd hoped for. But we met up and as we drove north toward Perth, we could see the end of the blanket cloud ahead. In the north there was sun. As we approached Drumochter, it seemed to roll in and conceal the hills and we stood by the A9 looking at the snowless, grey Meall Chuaich with it's head sulking among the mists. We'd come expecting the summits to be above the clouds, but now it wasn't looking so.
A quick decision was called for: do Meall Chuaich or change plans? We would probably walk up a grey hillside if we did Meall Chuaich and have no rewarded at the top. Or, the idea came to me suddenly: we could go to the Cairngorms, park the car at 2000 feet and get straight up onto the plateau. The cloud looked thin; we should surely get clear summits there? The idea got better the more we thought about it. We pointed the car toward Aviemore and set off.
Banks of cloud covered Aviemore, and we went through them as we reached the ski centre car park. Despite the lack of snow, the place was rammed and we took one of the few available spaces. We headed up to the ski centre, then found a path that cut onto one of the ridges. Within minutes we were in clear air again, blue skies and passing banks of cloud. We'd definitely made the right decision.
Just short of the summit of Cairn Gorm, I bumped into Ian Alcock from the mountaineering club. He'd been up doing Cairn Gorm but was heading down. Moments later we were on top ourselves, and our jaws dropped. I'd never seen the Cairngorms look so good: snow covered plateaux, sun shining and in the south, that great sheet of cloud which would serve to elevate this mountain range way into the sky...
We decided to continue to Ben Macdui, though the choice wasn't at first obvious - it was getting late in the day! In conditions like this, how couldn't we?
We bounded over rime-coated rock to Stob Coire an t-Sneachda - the corrie here holds much winter climbing (it is one of the most popular venues in the Highlands) but I was pleased to see the topography was less savage than I'd imagined. (You can read Cairngorm John once too often!) Climbers were milling around here and on Cairn Lochan. There were some mountain rescue out for a day. Other walkers milled around; it was a social atmosphere. But as we began to contour Cairn Lochan, they all disappeared so fast, and soon we were alone.
Our trudge across the plateau brought us into more isolated terrain until we felt quite out-there. The walk to Ben Macdui felt longer than planned. I was slightly stressed about following the clock (we imposed a turn-around time) and that my camera battery was on the cusp of running out.
The experience we would have in that muted, magnificent arena I can only call indescribable. We felt so above-the-world. We could see the lowlands no more, only mountain and sky. Cairn Toul, Sgor an Lochain Uaine and Braeriach were all lined up, set against a sparkling bed of cloud, which stretched to the horizon unbroken so that even Ben Nevis did not puncture the layer.
As the sun descended, it would turn the world orange, then red and pink. All the while we stood at the summit of Ben Macdui in silent contemplation of the going-on's around us. A lucky few people had their tent pitched on the summit and other walkers came from different directions. Everybody knew how special these precious hours were; what caught me was how these great hills had silenced, and for just a few hours we were allowed into this magic. One day soon, the storms would return and lash the mountains. But for these few hours... just silence, peace and transcendent beauty.
I felt deep contentment, both in friendship and to the world. I should mention it was Andrews his first ever winter walk! We decided a raging blizzard next time should make up for it... This spectacular scenery wasn't giving me an quick rush or brief high. It was like the mountains had brought me in step by step, and sucked all the worries, cares, anxieties out. For the hours on the plateau nothing could worry me, I'd forgotten my normal life and found a place of deep, deep peace among the hills.
Returning in twilight
We left the summit of Macdui shortly before sunset. It would be wonderful to hang around, but we thought it best to get some mileage under our belts before it got dark. The ball of the sun ever so slowly dipped behind Cairn Toul, glowing on the horizon until it silently, softly descended behind horizon. It cast the hills in colour. We had only the sound of our voices, the gentle breeze, the rhythmic crunch of steps as we headed back to the Northern Corries. Braeriach darkened. I looked over snow-smothered Feith Buidhe and shuddered to think about the 1971 Cairngorm tragedy. It was difficult to conceive of such destruction in the shallow valley bowl of Feith Buidhe. For now, the mountains were dormant.
The sky turned purple, the snows of the plateau turned to blue. I smiled all the way back, just happy to be here. I knew that this kind of thing only happened maybe once a year, if that. Completely isolated from the 'normal world' we'd found greater dimensions and experienced it's peace. Slogging over Stob Coire an t-Sneachda, we saw the lights of Aviemore shimmering in the last glow of day and thought about curry. We both expected the drive home to murder the end of the day. Travelling from car park to my home front door would be not short of five hours. But when I phoned home at Point 1141, our family friend Fiona said we could stay at her's, not much more than an hour away from Aviemore, in Keith, Moray. Descending by headtorch from Point 1141, we picked up ski tows and followed them down. We used crampons for some particularly hard snow, and picked up a 4WD track back to the car park. We sat down for curry in Aviemore (wonderful) and I noticed how my settled mind persisted. I worried about nothing. After curry, we drove across to Keith.
I found that the settled mind gained on the Cairngorms persisted for days. As we travelled home all the next day, I found myself so deeply at peace even on the bus back to Glasgow. But I returned to normal - eventually.
I sometimes think the hills aren't really about the walking and (in part) even about the hills themselves. They are the trigger, but the act of mountain travel can be the door to a deep experience. We can find peace of mind there; unfiltered joy.
I don't ever think I'll forget this wonderful, unexpected trip with the best company I could ask for. With the summit of Ben Macdui, I'd climbed the 10 highest mountains in the UK. For all I knew we could have been on the Moon, we were so high.
What a wonderful thing, these mountains.
Cairn Gorm 360°
Cairn Gorm - 170° Detail
Ben Macdui 360°
(0.00) 11.45am Car park
(1.25) 1.10pm Cairn Gorm
(2.05) 1.50pm Stob Coire an t-Sneachda
(3.30) 3.15pm Ben Macdui
(3.55) 3.40pm Ben Macdui (left)
(5.25) 5.10pm Stob Coire an t-Sneachda
(6.05) 5.50pm Point 1141m
(7.05) 6.55pm Car park