Thursday, 15 March 2018

Dense mist, black night in the Cairngorms

A brief sunset

Darkness all around. No light, nothing. Visibility about ten feet. The headlamp beam bounced back off the dense mist. Where was I? I thought I knew. I checked ViewRanger. Coire Cas. At the car park. Really? Where were the buildings? The lights? Even at night there is usually much brightness here. I followed some footprints through the snow. Suddenly they turned and climbed a steep bank. I went up too. The footprints vanished. I walked on slowly. 

The ground underneath crunched. This wasn’t snow. I looked down. Gravel. I must be on a path. I shone the headlamp around. A very wide path. I couldn’t see where it ended in any direction. I walked further. This was too wide. Maybe it was the car park? A sign appeared. It was. I could still see nothing else. My car only appeared when I was close by. I drove down the hill very slowly, barely able to see any further with the car headlights than I had with the headlamp.

I’d never been out in such blackness before. All the way across the familiar terrain from Lurcher’s Gully to Coire Cas it had been like this. There was nothing to guide me, no landmarks, no bright lights in Glenmore and Aviemore, no glow from the ski resort, nothing. The tracks of boots, skis and snowshoes shot off in all directions as I grew closer to the car park. I followed those I thought were heading the right way, checking ViewRanger frequently. I was always on the right line but I could have been anywhere. This was a new experience. 

A glimpse of blue above Cairn Gorm

Several hours earlier I’d set out intending to be on the tops for the sunset, which the forecast suggested might be impressive. I'd be descending in the dark but I'd done that many times before and this was well-known country. There was no mist in Coire Cas then but it wasn’t far above and I was soon enveloped by its greyness. It wasn’t as dense as it would be later though and every so often I caught glimpses of distant figures, hazy crags and, rarely, flashes of blue sky. People descending said it was clear higher up, encouraging me on. 

The Lairig Ghru

On the edge of the Lairig Ghru I came into clear air and could look down this mist-filled pass and along to half-hidden hills. I was between two layers of cloud and visibility soon faded again as I continued up Cairn Lochan. On the summit the mist came and went. I looked down on great curling wreaths of snow, cornices hanging above the cliffs. Away across the Cairngorm Plateau Ben Macdui was an insubstantial white dome. Nothing felt quite real, quite solid.

Cairn Lochan cornices

I skied cautiously back down to the head of Lurchers Gully. The snow was rippled and hard enough to make my skis chatter while the flat light made seeing bumps and dips difficult. Alone in the cloud I didn’t want to take risks. Across the Lairig Ghru the sun finally cut under the upper clouds, a thin strip of red and gold. The tops of the clouds below me were tinged with pink. A few minutes and it was gone and the world was black, white and grey again.

Ben Macdui

Then came the long dark trek back to Coire Cas.

Cairn Lochan

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