An Alpine Easter

Four days off in a row for my girlfriend meant a trip, off to the Cairngorms for cross country skiing.  Phil Turner was free and kept us company, so we were driven up in style in a luxurious Mazda bongo.  By Monday the forest glowed in warm spring sunshine, and even on Friday there was no snow for amateurs to hire kit to practice on groomed trails.  Elsewhere, winter reigned, so we changed our plans.

The campsite at Coylumbridge is superb, but still well below freezing overnight.  Got us off to a gentle start before the day hike to Bynack More the following day.

The last time we tried for this, we were turned around with our tail firmly between our legs, but today 'conditions were favourable' and it's a worthwhile, interesting ridge, especially under snow.  An easy round over Bynack Beag and dropping back to the Nethy via a steeper section that meant we donned crampons once more.  As an outlier, views from the top were superb.

The next day, and we met with Paul and Helen from Walk Highlands at Choire Cas, and headed for the the second highest peak in the UK, Ben Macdui. 

This was only our second time on the plateau, and our first time to this summit, so there was alot of new ground.  A vast, frozen expanse.  No man's land, under matte.  The wind is deadly cold up here.

I learnt alot on this trip, and it's cumulative with other trips this season.  Pack weight - more annoyingly, bulk - has crept up again with proper winter mats and especially camera gear - it needs a proper audit.  Keeping my optics clean (or rather workably filthy) is more of a discipline in severe cold - with a snotty nose rubbing against the screen, condensation, fine snow and ice to contend with, I am glad the new machine is weather sealed. 

Needed this time were snowstakes, softshell not hardshell, and to pack less food, that was easier to prepare.  Gas is touch and go at these temperatures unless the canister is full.  We carried wood for a fire we didn't use, and a floorless shelter that meant ice and spindrift covered us in our sleep.  Sun cream should have been taken, and we all needed to drink more - alot more.  I still have the residual mentality of a 3 season backpacker, which is not always practical in Scotland even in those same seasons - but I'm learning, and learning is good.  Meanwhile the plateau was majestic, its fat powdery ice crystals slooshing under our crampon points. 

Naturally there was talk about the deaths on the hill this winter, and naturally there is extra caution around potential avalanche areas.  Not one soul I know in the hill-going community takes this lightly, it is being considered - and in truth, we never stopped.  As others have said, it's important to keep this in perspective - the personal tragedies are horrible, regrettable, but small in number, compared with the size of the places we go out into.  If there's one lesson to take from all the media noise in the last few months, it's that nothing should be assumed: not our experience, nor our fellow mountain traveler's ignorance.  And most of all, not the mountain.  We know, and that's why we go.

Paul and Helen left us at the summit and turned for home, we continued on for camp.  Although this was only an overnighter, it felt like a real expedition.  The ease of access from the Choire Cas car park puts an interesting slant on the safety question, given how serious the weather can be here.   A minor navigational wobble for both Phil and I near the surveyor's ruin off the summit.  We both got it wrong - food for thought, but no harm done.

Both Loch Etchachan and Loch A'an (Avon) were frozen solid.  Easterlies mean deep snow on the descent to our camp, still over 700ms, but the snow was consolidated and not dangerous.

We cast around for a windless camp, but where the wind subsides, the snow is looser and prone to drifting.  We set up, and I cooked whilst T nursed a new cough from her sleeping bag, and Phil ate his own weight in mashed potato.  Night falls, and the wind rises.

I hope they never reach this place with webcams and safety nets and mobile reception.  Some places should be left well alone, convenient or not. 

I spent first part of the evening with one eye open, staring at the pole bowing under alot of silnylon catching a little of what the Cairngorms can offer up, a sort of Shackleton first person video game.  'There's always the Shelter Stone', I said to T after returning from guyline adjustment for the second time.  Eventually I gave up, got tired and got some sleep. 

The morning brought calm, and warm sun.  We crossed over the loch, and ascended toward Cairn Gorm itself, frigid air scorching our lungs.  In the sun, thinner snow turned to mush on the easterly slopes, and we opted for straighter lines over the zigzags of earlier.  A truly alpine experience, blessed again - damn!  It felt like another country.