Tuesday 9 January 2018

The year begins, the first hill

The first hill walk of the year always seems special. The turning of the year marked by the as yet imperceptible lengthening of the hours of daylight, the thoughts of the seasons to come, the plans for walks and camps, the feeling that there is a whole year ahead to begin again, to be optimistic and hopeful. And it all starts with that first hill.

Deep snow in the Cairngorms and a companion inexperienced in such conditions meant that this year I wouldn’t venture far. Relatively safe terrain, plenty of escape routes, and a short distance seemed wise. As it was the conditions meant that I probably wouldn’t have done much more if by myself.

A forecast for a fine day and it being Sunday popular areas would be busy. Whilst Coire Cas and Cairn Gorm were likely crowded the north ridge of the hill is usually quiet so we headed that way. A dearth of cars in the Coire na Ciste car park suggested few people and indeed we met no-one other than a couple right at the start. There were distant groups on the slopes far to the south but on our climb up the east spur of Coire Laogh Mor we didn’t see any tracks other than those of mountain hares, grouse, snow bunting and fox. 

The unconsolidated snow meant we donned snowshoes almost immediately. Even with these on our feet progress was slow and arduous at first as the snow lying deep on the heather collapsed at every step. As the heather thinned, the snow became firmer and the ascent easier.

A bright sun at the start soon faded behind gauzy clouds. The temperature was well below freezing but there was no wind and the ascent kept us warm. Crossing little half-frozen streams we admired bulbous icicles dripping from yellow grasses.

On the climb the best views were behind us – always a good excuse for a quick rest – with Meall a’Bhuachaille shining white above Glenmore Forest and the dark woods stretching out to the pale line of the Monadh Liath. Ahead there was just snow and rock and sky and a curving horizon that never seemed to grow closer.

Eventually the slope eased and views to the south and east opened up. The great wedge of Bynack More appeared above the great gash of Strath Nethy. The sun was very low in the sky now (not that it’s ever very high in midwinter) and sunset colours were starting to appear. On the north side of Bynack More a band of deep pink stretched out, on the south side the sky was paler and yellow. With the mountain blocking the gradual merging of these two colours it seemed as though there was a different sky either side of it.

This view demanded to be watched so we took a break on the wide open ridge and sat and stood and stared for a while. Then we continued the short distance to Cnap Coire na Spreidhe, this subsidiary top of Cairn Gorm the first summit of the year and the only one of the day. Here a cold wind swept over the snow so we didn’t linger but soon started back down, heading for the west spur of Coire Laogh Mor. 

The sun set below the western skyline, the last rays colouring the clouds. The first stars appeared. The snow though was bright enough that we didn’t need headlamps until the last few hundred metres down a steep icy path.

The first hill of the day wasn’t a major summit, just an almost unnoticeable top few people bother to climb, and we hadn’t ventured far. The walk was only five miles long, though in the deep snow and with almost 600 metres of ascent this took us five and half hours. However the deep winter cold and the snowy landscape had a feeling of remoteness and mountain magnificence that belied the distance. And the first hill was still special and the day a fine one. After the walk I felt 2018 had really begun.

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