Wednesday 20 February 2013

A Magnificent Day On The Cairngorm Plateau

Cairn Toul, Sgor an Lochain Uaine & Braeriach from the Cairngorm Plateau

Shining in the bright sunlight the Cairngorms looked magnificent. After weeks of storms the weather had finally calmed down. This was an opportunity Terry Abraham and I had been waiting for – conditions that meant we could film a crossing of the Cairngorm Plateau to Ben Macdui and show the landscape in all its glory for the Cairngorms in Winter film.

Terry crossing the Cairngorm Plateau

After days of thawing the snow had refrozen and the surface was hard and rutted. Terry soon donned crampons. He would keep them on all day. I was on skis but on the steepest part of the ascent I’d have preferred crampons as my climbing skins kept slipping and I had to traverse back and forth using the steel edges of the skis for grip.

View south from Ben Macdui

Once on the Cairngorm Plateau the view was sharp and bright, the air having an Alpine clarity unusual here, especially in February.  Sunburn rather than hypothermia or wind chill was the biggest risk. There was no wind and the sun’s rays bounced upwards off the glazed snow, blindingly bright. Dark glasses were essential to cope with the glare.

Terry heading back across the Cairngorm Plateau at dusk

Along the rim of the Northern Corries many people were about – hill walkers, climbers coiling their ropes, skiers skittering and skidding over the icy snow. Once we turned away towards Ben Macdui the numbers dwindled rapidly. We met a few returning across the Plateau but there was no-one on the summit. We had the tremendous view to ourselves. Wandering down a short way south from the top we gazed down the great valley of the upper River Dee slicing between the Cairngorm sentinels of Cairn a’Mhaim and The Devil’s Point and beyond to rolling snowy hills reaching out to Beinn a’Ghlo. 

Cairn Toul & Sgor an Lochain Uaine after sunset

As we left the summit in the late afternoon the first pinkish glow was already appearing over the western hills as the sun dropped towards the horizon. By the time we were starting our descent the sky was on fire over the ragged line of distant summits. 

Fire in the West

Terry descended the western shoulder of Coire Lochain, a good route for walkers but too rocky for skiing. I went down wide Lurcher’s Gully as darkness fell, clattering over the now rock-hard, bone-shaking snow. For the second time I thought that crampons and walking might be preferable. The jarring descent was challenging at night but soon enough I was linking snow patches across the moor that led to the car park and then, when there was more bare ground than snow, finally removing my skis, switching on my headlamp and walking. Soon I came upon Terry and we finished the day tired but content.

Next, a high level camp.