A day of two halves on Ben Macdui

Distance: 11 miles

 

Who with: JP

 

We left the warmth of the cottage in Aviemore at around 645am, and headed out towards the ski centre at Cairn Gorm, where we were parking for the day. The temperature was sitting at around -4 degrees Celsius, when we got in the car, but by the time we had climbed up to the car park it had dropped to -8. We were one of the first cars to park up, and as we were getting our packs sorted, the difference in temperature was noticeable.

 

There was only one thing for it, get walking to warm up! We headed West on the footpath heading away from the ski/funicular centre, which was starting to get busy with workers. For the first couple of miles or so, the path was a nice warm up, and meandered along the hillside climbing gradually. We soon got the blood pumping and forgot all about the cold. It was starting to come light at this point and the conditions were unusually still for the Cairngorms.

The full moon provided a bright light over the glistening snow, and the peaks above, so we stopped for a minute to take it all in. There wasn’t a sound to be heard – complete silence. A perfect morning for what looked like it was going to be a good day ahead in the hills. The forecast had given a good morning, with fog moving in at around 12noon, until 3pm, but remaining dry all day, albeit with the wind speed increasing throughout the day. 

We continued on the same path, which started to climb a bit more at this point, as we headed up Miadan Creag an Leth-choin. It was fantastic to watch the light breaking over the mountains above, which looked rather dramatic as they towered above us. Across the range, we could see the Ptarmigan restaurant, which is unusually quiet at the moment, sadly. We hadn’t met anyone else at this point, when all of a sudden we could hear the faint voices of a couple of climbers, which were carrying across the landscape below, which just emphasised how still the morning was.

We continued up to the top of Miadan Creag an Leth-choin, where we were instantly hit with a blustery wind, which came as a bit of a surprise to us both, given the conditions up until this point. We had obviously been sheltered by the great Cairngorm range, which gives quite the wind block – unsurprisingly. 

We decided to find a bit of shelter and grab a quick coffee, before we continued up the path, which skirted round the edges of Cain Lochan. The views down the valleys were beginning to open up, which always brings a good feeling after a good slog up a hill! We continued climbing, and at around 1180m the snow underfoot began to get deeper, turning the walk into a bit more of a trudge. The wind had picked up quite significantly at this point, and the temperature had continued to drop as we climbed that bit higher.

We had walked past the edges of the two lochans, which sit at around 1126m, both of which unsurprisingly were frozen solid. It was as we passed these tarns that the mist had dropped significantly and was, as forecast, looking to settle on the tops. We had watched down the valley the thick grey clouds rolling North from the direction of Braemar, and over the Lairig Ghru. 

We were stood on the small summit, at around 1180m and made the call that we didn’t see the point of walking another mile or so, going another couple of hundred metres higher into the cloud, providing zero visibility of the vistas around.So, we decided to retreat and save the second Ben for another day – it’s not going anywhere after all, and it gives us the excuse to do this walk again, or even tackle from another route.

We walked back past the small lochans, and decided to find a sheltered spot on the shoulder of the aptly named of Cairn Lochan, where we could enjoy a bit of lunch and hot coffee. As I am writing this, it sounds quite sociable, but it was bloody freezing and fair old wind was hammering some spin-drift into us, so it wasn’t that sheltered!

As we were tucking into our lunches, we saw a silhouette of a solo walker, who turned out to be a mountain leader having a bus-man’s holiday. He had, coincidentally, made the same call as ourselves and decided to drop back down, as he re-affirmed our beliefs that the weather was set in for a few hours.

 

So, we finished our lunch just before the frost bite set in, and walked over Cairn Lochan, which has a summit standing at 1215m at its tallest point, before dropping back down to the path we had ascended on. We don’t usually like doing this, but the venture over the ridge towards Cairn Gorm stayed at a similar altitude, so the prospect of dropping a couple of hundred metres relatively quickly to escape the conditions seemed quite appealing.

We enjoyed a nice walk back, and as we reached MiadanCreag an Leth-choin, the conditions started to ease significantly, and we walked back into blue sky which was astonishing. Blue sky and very insignificant wind, as once again, the mountains were providing the perfect wind-break for us. We were soon back nattering away and having full-blown conversations, as we could actually hear each other again. Don’t tell JP, but I quite enjoyed a couple of hours of peace mind!

 

Arriving back at the ski centre, the car park was quite full by this point, with lots of people milling around and enjoying the purpose built facilities – something I have always had mixed views on, but we will save that for another time…

On the drive back to the cottage, JP and I continued our conversation about the weather, and how it is unsurprising that people get into difficulties by under-estimating the conditions on the tops. It really was a day of two halves, or three thirds really weather-wise, and it is hard to believe the conditions on the tops when you are looking up at blue skies with very little wind by the car. It just shows the importance of checking the conditions for the tops, along with the avalanche reports, but also being prepared with the right clothing and equipment.

So, we didn’t reach the top of Ben Macdui, but we had both had a good stretch and enjoyed a day in the mountains, so what was there to complain about?!?

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