An early 6:30 start wasn’t appreciated by everyone to say the least. But if the weather report was to be believed and all went well and summiting Ben Macdui, the early start would soon all be forgotten. Myself and three others were up first, cooking breakfast for the rest of the gang while they slowly awoke from their slumber.
Gearing up for the day ahead it was my turn to drive from Granton-on-spey to the Ski Resort where we would be leaving the vehicles. It was a colder day and the weather was on the turn making our time window to get up to Ben Macdui fairly small. According to the forecast by 15:00, winds would be increasing to gusts of 70mph! Something that nobody wants to be out and about in.
This was the reason for the early start, to get out into the mountains as sun broke, we were a little off the mark with that one as we left a little late. Nonetheless, arrived in good time.
From the Resort we spoke the rangers at the post to hand in our intended route for the day and asking about the ground conditions up the Ben Macdui. It was at this point that we knew it was going to be a tough day, with our chances of reaching Ben Macdui being quite slim. The ranger firstly asked us if we had snowshoes, as there was a lot of deep snow on the way up the Loch Lochain Ridge. It was tough going but, doable, in his words.
The first section out of the ski resort, involved following a fairly well trodden path, out towards the Loch Lochain Ridge, This was all fairly easy going, despite a few slips and falls here and there along the path, which was incredibly icy. Coming towards the end of the path, we reached our final check feature, the river. We crossed and then begun the long trudge up the Loch Lochain Ridge in, as the ranger said some pretty deep snow. But also, some pretty strong winds roughly 30mph with gusts to 40mph. Pretty serious stuff really.
The trudge continued for a long time as we watched and admired the views of Scotland to the North and West of us. It was incredible, we see towards Inverness and then further on to the Highlands looking over the North Sea. The winds hadn’t backed down at all, in fact they had started to increase and the temperature to drop. I personally really don’t like having cold hands, which I think everyone can relate to; cold hands and cold toes is not a fun experience, let’s not even go there. This is where having all the right gear pays off massively.
As we reached the top of the ridge, we found the start of the Cairngorm Plateau, which would take us all the way down to Ben Macdui. Unfortunately, by this point several people were certainly feeling the effects of the cold and it was getting closer to the mark, time wise. A discussion followed and the options were given to everyone. That was when we decided to change our route and started heading back considering the incoming weather and with us losing light in a couple of hours.
Heading west, we reach the top of Lairig Ghru were we had a fantastic break in the valley to see the snow covered valley stretching out before us, in both directions seeming like it never stopped. It was a magical moment that couldn’t be enjoyed to its fullest, as we were all still fairly cold to say the least. We found a section that we slightly steeper, although incredibly short only a couple of metres long.
Those who were cold got into the emergency shelters to have lunch. Whilst a few of us stayed outside and had a practice at some Ice Axe Arrests. With us being stopped for lunch, we all layered up. Getting some extra warm clothing on, before tucking into some delicious delights of, in my case, ham, cheese and spinach wraps… followed by some fruit.
It wasn’t long until we were back on the snowy, icy wind driven road of descent, heading back towards the ski resort. Not without some mandatory fun of course! Today’s games Tobogganing! Nearly everyone had a go, some more than others to be fair. An iced over river made the going even quicker in some sections although a lot rougher under butt and foot. That was until crash and a scream!
What transpired was that someone towards the front, was walking across the frozen river when the ice had given way, giving them quite a shock of freezing water and dropping a foot. Much to the amusement of the rest of us, who had realised what had happened and we had to laugh. This continued and happened to pretty much everyone throughout the course of the descent of the Western side of the Loch Lochain Ridge.
I had a reasonably spectacular fall myself, crossing a small frozen section. I slipped ice axe in one hand walking pole in the other, as we were contouring the Loch Lochain Ridge. To meet back up with the path that had brought us from the ski resort.
As I slipped sideways, I ditched my pole, one handed buried the pick into the ice. Not that it was needed nor was I going to slide off the mountain, but, it’s good to know, one’s quick reaction and that the skills have stuck.
As we had been descending, the wind speed and been increasing, even more touching the 50mph and gusting higher. This made for some pretty difficult conditions walking, despite the wind coming from behind it was still hard. Fortunately, by this point we had reached the iced over path and began the slippery walk back to the ski resort.
Driving back to the house, everyone was worn out and many people fell asleep, especially in the van. The road to the house had been gritted and it had started to make a difference when we got back. There was still snow and ice covering most of the ground and some parking “manoeuvres” might have caused everyone to wake up very quickly….!!!
After everyone had sorted themselves and their gear out, we all sat down for an evening of playing games and intertwined with a drop of whisky, port and wine. Before a hitting the sack and getting a good night’s sleep ready for the next day!