Monday 14 December 2015

A Cold Day on Ben Macdui

The River Dee from Ben Macdui

Storm after storm after storm. Finally, a calm weekend. The storms brought snow, then rain and a thaw, then snow, then rain and a thaw, then …. On some days I could see snow below the edges of the clouds capping the hills in the morning and then see the hills themselves almost bare of snow in the afternoon. The snow from the last storm looked as though it might last a few days however with freezing overnight temperatures and no forecast of warmer weather for awhile. Time to see what it was like up on the Cairngorms Plateau.

The temperature was -4.5°C as I scrapped the ice off the car windscreen before trundling slowly down the icy track to the equally icy road. In Coire Cas the light breeze was bitterly cold, soon numbing my hands as I sorted out gear and donned my boots. A brisk uphill walk soon warmed me up. Brought on strong winds the snow had formed deep drifts in sheltered places and on south and east slopes but had been blasted off exposed areas leaving frozen granite and icy patches. 

Cairn Gorm from Stob Coire an t-Sneachda
Stob Coire an t-Sneachda was busy with climbers coiling ropes, sorting gear and finishing routes. A party of walkers greeted me as they crossed the summit. Once I turned and headed for Ben Macdui I saw no-one else though tracks showed others had been this way since the snow fell. This late in the day I had the mountains to myself.

Almost sunshine over Stob Coire an t-Sneachda
The sky was overcast with thick purple-grey clouds. Occasionally a weak sun almost shone through. The day felt dark and sombre, the landscape chilled and colourless. Although the clouds were high above the summits and distant peaks were clearly visibility there was no alpine brightness or clarity. This was a northern landscape in northern midwinter light.

Iced beard on Ben Macdui
On Ben Macdui the temperature was -5.9°c. A chill breeze and humid air made it feel colder. Moisture in my beard and on my clothes froze. To the south the dark line of the River Dee ran through the snowy landscape. Cairn Toul rose snow-streaked and majestic across the Lairig Ghru. 

Cairn Toul
As darkness fell I crossed back over the Cairngorm Plateau to descend below the Northern Corries. By 5pm there was little light, the clouds even thicker now. No stars, no moon. Across Glenmore glowed the orange lights of Aviemore. Two lights were moving slowly down from the cliffs of Coire an Lochain. The final path to Coire Cas was slick with ice and boot-packed snow, the most slippery terrain of the whole day. 

Arriving in the almost deserted car park I was surprised to see a few skiers setting off into the darkness. ‘Hi Chris’, said one. It was Rob from the Mountain Spirit outdoor store in Aviemore. Just skinning up for a ski down, he said.