Sunday, 6 March 2011

A last Stab At Winter - Ben Macdui

A rainy and windswept Torridon fades in my rear view mirror, the image a forewarning of the forecast for the weekend ahead which looks pretty grim all round. Trawling the Internet for a shaft of sunlight in amongst the pages of gloomy reports I catch word of a brief window of opportunity in the Cairngorms, a few short hours on Saturday when the winds should drop and the cloud should lift.

Clutching at this quixotic straw of optimism the decision is made quickly and the miles fall beneath the tread of my tyres one after the other, on the long drive to Aviemore. I take the scenic route down to Locarron, then up through Kintail and along the shores of Loch Ness. Kintail in particular looks amazing, the famous five sisters standing like giant sentinels above the valley, another place to return to ASAP.

Saturday; I start early, up at 5.30 to find a frost on the ground and a stillness in the air. Looking up from the campsite the air is clear and the the corries of Schnechda and Lochan are free of cloud. The plan for the day is to walk into Schnechda and climb on to the plateau via one of the easy gully's then continue on to the top of Ben Macdui the second highest mountain in Britain.

Aladdin's Mirror follows the right hand
edge of the prominent buttress

The walk in to Schnechda has changed since January, there is much less snow on the ground and I can follow a proper path almost to the foot of the head wall. Ice on the small lochans on the corrie floor is beginning to melt leaving pools of azure blue water. The gullies on the face above are still looked chocked with snow and ice which crunches satisfyingly beneath my crampons.

Aladdin's Mirror is a grade I, the route follows a bow shaped ribbon of snow astutely avoiding all the difficulties on this side of the Corrie. As I set off there are teams already on Patleys Route and the Direct looks fat and ready for climbing. For a second I'm tempted by a very cheeky solo, it only looks about 10m or grade IV, then common sense reasserts it's self and I save it for another day.

The icefall of Aladdin's Mirror Direct. I follow the postholes out right.
On the plateau the clear conditions of the morning have changed and I'm enveloped in mist bringing visibility down to about thirty meters the sky diffusing into the snow leaving no distinct horizon. I suffer a few minutes of doubt; it's four 4km to the summit from here all of which looks like it's going to have to be done by timings on bearings. Terrain matching begins to fall down in these contritions the gently undulating plateau will be next to impossible to read in the diffuse light. Is my navigation up to this and is it sensible to go in there alone?

I decide to go, you never learn if you don't push yourself; you can practice your navigation in good weather but the only way to prove you can do it for real is to do it when you really can see the best part of bugger all.  If I really do get lost and admit defeat I have a fully charged GPS in my bag to get me off the plateau and into the right valley.

It's hard work, timing, pacing, constantly checking the bearing and the shape of the terrain about me as I make slow progress through the clag.  After about half an hour I should be approaching the slight coll between Cairn Lochain and Ben Macdui where I need to turn approximately due south for the run into the summit. I'm unsure but I think I  can feel the sun getting stronger through the cloud then suddenly there is a chink of blue in the sky. The terrain about me begins to reveal itself, great waves of cloud rolling up and over the landscape in front of me as the snow on the plateau begins to shine in the sun. West over the great trench of the Larig Gru the peaks of the Breariach massive break free of the clouds and suddenly I'm surrounded by a glorious winter day on all sides, and pleasingly I'm pretty much where I thought I was!

Breariach, the third highest peak in the UK

From here it's an easy if cold walk up to the summit of Ben Macdui; the views in all directions are spectacular. After ten minutes on the summit drinking in the view and copious ammounts of tea I turn and head back down. My initial plan was to descend into Corie Lochain and have a look at the routes in there but this comes unstuck at the top of the decent Couloir where the cornice has collapsed to leave a series of unstable looking steps riven by huge cracks. Not wishing to have tones of ice collapse on me I decide to descend into Schnechda as it's a short detour to drop into the top of the goat track. Whilst I'm descending the (very steep) goat track two guys shoot past on ski, very impressed I want to be that good.

Skier on the Goat Track

Its still only eleven o'clock and I cant resist getting another route in, so despite howls of protest from the calves I head up Central Gully Left Hand as a final route of the day and perhaps also the season. Having spent most of the week dodging pretty poor weather and filing to find anything really in condition it's been great to get out and have a proper winter day

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