Thursday 4 March 2010

A Ski Tour to Ben Macdui

This winter has seen many marvellous days with the mountains shining in the sun and the views sharp and clear. The lack of wind and the masses of snow has made ski touring a delight both in the woods and high in the hills. Two days ago I made my annual tour across the Cairngorm Plateau to Ben Macdui on a day that felt more alpine than Scottish. Last weeks heavy snowfall has left the hills plastered with deep snow with barely a rock showing. The cliffs of the Northern Corries are whiter than I’ve ever seen them before. Climbing the Fiacaill ridge above the Cairngorm ski resort I could see the half-buried funicular railway far below. High on the west wall of Coire Cas a long corniced ridge hung above the upper ski runs. Suddenly there was a dull thud and a puff of smoke, the first of three such explosions during the day as an attempt was made to reduce the avalanche danger. The result was just a faint brown stain on the snow so the slope must have been stable at the time.

I was happy to head away from the resort across the plateau. As I did so I left behind most of the people I’d seen along the rim of the Northern Corries. Few, it seemed, were heading into the heart of the mountains. As I crossed the shallow bowl of the Feith Buidhe I was alone in the vast whiteness and suddenly felt small and exposed. But also elated and excited. What a privilege to be here in this splendid mountain fastness. I surveyed the snowy slopes, very different from those before the big storm of last week. Then the snow had been a white blanket, spread smoothly over the hills with barely a break to disturb its surface, softening contours and flattening out bumps and dips. That snow had fallen on windless days, spreading evenly over the hills. The recent storm had come with strong winds, leaving the surface of the snow looking like a frozen choppy sea, broken waves and ripples spreading out everywhere. The sparkling fresh powder I’d walked on had vanished, replaced by dull, chalky white, wind packed snow and shiny, icy, old hard snow scoured by the wind. There was much sastrugi, carved by the blizzard. This made skiing awkward in places and I zigzagged around, picking a route around the hard-edged ridges.

Approaching Ben Macdui two distant skiers appeared, small and lonely on the snow with massive Braeraich rising beyond them. Then two snowshoers passed me descending. Arriving quite late in the day I had the summit to myself. For the first time ever I could ski onto the very top, the summit trig point, which sits on a huge cairn, completely buried. I have never seen so much snow on Ben Macdui. I also noted that there were no boot prints leading to the top, only ski and snowshoe tracks. The snow was just too deep for comfortable walking. I circled the summit admiring the views of snow hills disappearing into the horizon then skied back across the plateau to Lurchers Gully, which gave an enjoyable descent on hard windslab. The final traverse across the mouths of the Northern Corries again showed how much snow there was, with the streams running out of the corries completely buried. As dusk fell I finished the tour and wondered how long this snowy winter, this real winter, will continue.

Photo info: A Skier on the Cairngorm Plateau, March 2. Canon EOS 450D, 18-55@55mm, 1/160@ f8, ISO 100, raw file converted to JPEG in Lightroom 2.6


  1. We heard one of those explosions as we were descending from Cairn Lochan. We'd spent the previous night snowholing in Coire Domhain. It was as you say another marvelous day.

    Oh aye, and I reckon I'll be looking at getting some snow shoes if this winter is a sign of those to come!


  2. Beautiful Chris. This unnaturally cold winter has been a blessing here in Bergen as well. We've had well over two months of snow now when normally we're lucky to get a couple of weeks. I've been able to ski almost every day without having to jump on the bus or train out to the mountains. Is this the start of deeper winters due to climate change or just a freak year who's memory we'll treasure forever?

    "Ah, but do you remember the winter of 2010...."

  3. Hi Chris,

    What a wonderful tour you had.

    Your comment “I was alone in the vast whiteness and suddenly felt small and exposed. But also elated and excited. What a privilege to be here in this splendid mountain fastness.” has a resonance with me as I do love that wonderful plateaux. When one is lucky enough to have Ben Macdui and the whole plateaux to ones self one does indeed feel both simultaneously very small and insignificant and yet so very privileged.

    May this wonderful snow last long on the mountain tops but after 75 consecutive days of continuous snow cover I could really do with a thaw at home!

    Rob fae Craigellachie

  4. Robert beat me to it as I too was going to quote the exact same sentence! Great read.

  5. Great stuff Chris.
    I've been following this winter second-hand.
    Why oh why did i have to have a hip operation in December and miss the best winter for years! ;)

    At least with this much snow, there should be some left for me to play in when i've fully recovered.:)
    Mike fae Dundee

  6. hi there,
    i can vouch for how tough it was walking on ben macdui.
    myself and a m8 tried on mon, and had to turn back halfway up.
    the knee deep snow, and a whiteout in the afternoon sucked away all our time and energy.
    a fantastic day up there on tuesday thou, made an old fen boy very happy!

  7. Arriving quite late in the day I had the summit to myself.

    Or maybe not...

    I'm always there. Watching and waiting.

  8. Wind is definitely a critical factor that would affect every individual's ski trip. It can mean something so enriching and fruitful or it can simply be plain hazardous or a waste of time (if you decide to sit by the sides and wait for the winds to pass). Whatever it may be, the important thing to always bear in mind is to stay safe and do not rush into things. Snowsports are indeed a very fun activity to do but safety needs to always come first.