The first blog on this new site, the first trip of the new year, and meeting up with Fraser again. We'd been talking about trying for Ben Avon since the last time. That meant an early start. Alpine early.
Despite our best intentions, the weather was far from Alpine. Scotland's dirty winter was still in force as we sped over the Spittal and shimmied through Braemar in the gloaming, with arses pampered in the heated seats of Fraser's fancy fluorescing green-goblin-mobile.
It was too warm in the car park too. We took a wrong turn in the forest because we (I?) was too busy chatting, which led us through a lovely ascending woodland trail but popped us out on the wrong side of the approach hills. A cut through and down to the main path into the strath. By then we'd lost a good deal of time and I knew we probably wouldn't get round.
A brief stop for lunch before sweating our way up to the foot of the Sneck, only a kilometer or two but breakable crust all the way. We regained the path and avoided the slush but the going was fairly tortuous. Cairngorms in 'winter' 1, backpackers walking off holiday flab 0. Fraser spotted something moving. We had more company than the black grouse, briefly.
We weren't going anywhere fast. It was time to pitch and make the best of it. A broad flat under the Clergyman's Stone was an obvious choice. I don't know what it's like here in summer, but in winter this place is epic, standing guard at the entrance to the corridor route between two great glens and two greater hills. Imagine the sense of relief at seeing this stone, as travellers came south from north, knowing that it meant a little respite, knowing that they were over the threshold.
We wandered up there, and down, and made camp, not in that order. Water vapour hovered somewhere vaguely bored between icy rain and snowy drizzle. Early dinner and a brief dram, but Fraser sloped off to bed early, tired from the drive and the hard going underfoot. I hung around trying to take night shots before heading the same way - out of what was now sort-of-rain. I'd manage to pick out the most uneven pitch in all the Cairngorms, and spent a good hour or so playing slide-about in my bivibag before perching myself on the best sliver of heather available that would take a human body. Terrible effort. If this ever gets out I'll be disgraced - better keep hush about it.
A long night. I woke cold, at 3am. The wind direction had turned and was coming over the Sneck, superchilled. I went out into a perfect winter's night, sky inky black and clear. If I had been on my own, and had my wits about me, I would have started the climb up onto Avon then. However brief, this was the start of the weather window we we're hoping for.
I was up and half packed before first light, and the stove was hot by the time the pinks and blues were showing up. Better than hoped for. That kind of light is really Fraser's speciality, so rather than keep it all to myself I thought I'd better give him a shout.
It only lasted about 20 minutes. 20 minutes of pure joy, watching the day crown one peak then another, colour changing from grey blue to pink to yellow and orange, then eye bright scalding white, before the cold slowly crawled back in to the head of the glen. I always find myself laughing out loud at these sorts of times. It's completely involuntary, a spasm of gratitude for moments of wonder, or being (that's what Doug Scott calls them). I think it's why I go, to share intimate moments with the allegedly inanimate. I'm laughing along with the world.
So it was, anyway - quite remarkable. It made all the breakable crust on the way in, and all the same plus the rain on the way out, worthwhile.
I pushed probably a little too hard for a quick dash up onto Beinn a Bhuird, but Fraser wasn't keen. I checked the forecast again, which wasn't keen either. 85mph gusts on the way by lunchtime? Fair enough. As we packed up slowly, the winds and clouds crept back in. We would have had to have left at first light to make it round in time. Instead, we wandered up the Sneck for a while with the start of the storm at our backs, marveling at the whiteout playing tricks on our eyes.
Time to go. Turning into the wind, our footsteps erased. Even we are pleased to see the Clergyman's stone again, through goggles and spindrift. A long walk out, black grouse and a mountain hare for company, good company one and all, and all by the same route too.
The same trip, versioned here