With a thaw forecast a last venture out in the first big snowfall of the winter seemed very attractive, especially as there looked like being twenty-four hours or so of good weather. The idea of a snow camp, the first for eight months, was also appealing. As I hadn't been up it yet this year I decided to head for Bynack More, an outlier of the main Cairngorms massif.
The walk began in pine woods still dotted with yellow-leaved birch trees. Down here a thaw had already stripped away much of the snow, leaving a complex dappled pattern of light and dark, snow and tree and heather. Lochan Uaine was green with tree reflections. No ice yet. Beyond the trees the snow cover slowly spread and deepened. Once the climbing really began it was crunchy and unstable, sometimes supporting my foot, sometimes collapsing as I put weight on it. High clouds kept the light flat and dull and there was only a hint of pink in the western sky.
Above the long cleft of Strath Nethy I crossed the high moor below Bynack More. Somewhere here I would camp. It's not a place I'd choose in summer - the ground is either boggy or gravel and there's no water nearby. Snow can be levelled for a flat bed and melted for water, opening up many places for comfortable camps. This one I'd never used before and I was curious to know what the dawn would bring as I pitched the tent as darkness fell.
The evening was calm with the temperature just below freezing. I fell asleep watching stars coming and going between the high drifting clouds. Wet cold air brushing my face woke me hours later. A wind had sprung up and was blowing spindrift into the tent. Although the middle of the night it was lighter than when I'd gone to sleep. I looked out at a bright half-moon and a starry sky. The clouds had gone with the wind.
|A Comfortable Camp|
Hours more passed before I opened my eyes again. The light had changed. The sky was turning from black to blue and a yellow-orange line on the horizon spoke of the still-hidden sun. Bands of cloud again streaked the sky. The temperature was -4°C. I lit the stove and lay in my sleeping bag watching the sun rise over distant hills. The dawn was glorious. Reason enough to be here in this wild and beautiful world.
|Ben Avon from the ascent of Bynack More|
Leaving camp I headed up the long rocky north ridge of Bynack More. No more than a walk in summer, with some optional easy scrambling, it was rather more difficult covered with hard snow and rime ice. I stayed just below the crest, out of the cutting wind. As the slope steepened I stopped to put on crampons and swap a trekking pole for an ice axe. The going was easier on the firm surface than on the breakable crusty snow below however and I was soon on the windswept rocky summit looking out on the vast array of the Cairngorms. The weather was already changing with the clouds thickening from the west.
|View from Bynack More|
Crampons biting securely into the shiny snow I crossed the lower top of Bynack Beg and descended steeply into Strath Nethy. Flocks of white ptarmigan flew low over the hillsides. As I neared the flat valley bottom I was catching the crampons in heather as often as I was stamping them into snow. Off with them. They were becoming hazardous. The River Nethy was low and easily boulder-hopped. An arduous climb through more patchy snow and clinging heather then it was a final skid down a steep little-used path through the woods. The whole trip had only lasted twenty-four hours but I had been transported into another more elemental world and the experience had been intense.