Last week (2nd April) I enjoyed my first proper winter hill day in quite while. It was a fine bluebird day, and I enjoyed a snowy hike up to the summit of Creag an Leth Choin, aka Lurcher’s Crag. One my favourite places in the Cairngorms, the summit provides superb views of the Lairig Ghru, Braeriach and Glen Eanaich. In all the many times I’ve been there I’ve never once met another soul, even on days when the mountain is busy.
I came home sunburned and satisfied, but hungry for more. Blue sky days are wonderful in the mountains. But to find really good photography you need to take a chance on a day with more cloud.
A week later I found myself back at the carpark, ready to set out once more. The forecast was a much more ‘Scottish’ day, with powerful winds, low cloud and snow falling. But the weather was, supposedly, going to improve as the day wore on. 50% chance of clear tops, it said; with the promise of breaks and lessening winds.
I planned on climbing the ridge up to Point 1141. Once there I would be able to assess the situation. I could go further on, or easily back – I was playing it cautious. It was a long while since I dared put myself out there in ‘real’ Scottish winter conditions. So although photography was the name of the game, it was also a test for me. The first dip of the toe after a long while out of the water.
It was cold, breezy and cloudy as I set off. I could dimly see the tiny shapes of people just vanishing into the cloud beneath Point 1141, hundreds of metres above.
Snow was deep on the ground from the 500m contour. It made for slow going, especially among boulders where it made hidden traps for an unwary leg. So I took it very slow. Reminding myself that it was April and daylight was plentiful, I resisted my constant urge to rush.
Almost exactly a year ago I set out on a similar stormy day to climb this ridge. Last year I turned back at the halfway point as the weather closed in, satisfied enough with just a taste. But all last year has been a journey; rebuilding fitness; rediscovering confidence; and making gradual progress in steadily committing more to ‘the search.’
At the cairn which marks the halfway point of the ridge, it seemed that I had stepped directly from one year to the next. Nothing about the place had changed. As I looked behind me I saw a heavy curtain of snow beneath a black cloud, sweeping down out of the north. Exactly as it had a year ago.
How I adored that dramatic sky above the whiteness of the snow. I took a few photos, but then I had decisions to make. Last year I turned around at this point. This year I was determined to press on.
I made myself ready for the approaching weather. Shell layers on. Map and Compass out and ready. Snow goggles took the place of my sunglasses. My camera was stowed safely in a pocket where I could reach it quickly.
The cloud engulfed the mountain. In a few seconds I lost all sight of the views as it started to snow. Visibility was reduced to around thirty metres. Thirty metres of bland, even whiteness in every direction. No distinction whatsoever between sky and ground. A world without reference points, without landmarks or path. I checked my bearing, and pressed on.
I was reassured by the knowledge that I’d have to be a serious muppet to get lost at this point. But still, that was no reason to be sloppy. I paced out my steps, kept watch of the timing, and checked my compass periodically. Good to get in the habits now, beginning from a known point.
I worked my way slowly up the ridge. Thirty paces at a time. Working from boulder to boulder as the wind increased and the snow got heavier.
Some other people appeared out of the whiteness. Ski tourers, skinning upwards on the snow beside me. It was reassuring to know there were other people nearby. Good for me, too, to see that my current pace was the same as theirs. It eased my constant feeling that I don’t go fast enough.
We arrived at the top of the ridge seemingly very suddenly, though I was expecting it. The huge cairn of Point 1141 loomed suddenly out of the cloud, no more than a few metres away.
I ducked behind the shelter of the cairn with the skiers. There are no strangers when sheltering from the elements. We struck up an enjoyable conversation, covering the usual topics. Hello, how are you. Lovely weather isn’t it? Where are you heading?
While I wrapped myself in extra layers and adjusted my kit several other groups of people converged there. Other ski tourers heading to or from the summit of Cairngorm. A couple of climbers who had just come round the coire from Fiacaill Ridge. And, worryingly, a group of young gung ho skiers who seemed awfully nice, and very enthusiastic, but less navigationally conscious than you would hope in such conditions. They reminded me of myself, back in 2007.
They made their goodbyes, loudly optimistic that they were off to Ben Macdui. We watched them vanish into the snow a few metres away. Someone darkly joked: ‘Yup. They’re all going to die.’
I made ready to head further round the coire. I took a bearing due South and started walking. But I hadn’t gone more than twenty metres when the wind surged and blasted my back with snow. I looked back at the cairn, and saw it distressingly faintly, while thick snow lashed at my face. I lost my boldness and scuttled back to the cairn. Better to stay in a known spot, for now, with a modicum of shelter.
I tucked into my flask of tea while I considered my options. I could hang around for a fair while – I was warm enough. But the weather was showing no signs at all of clearing. I drank tea and waited, wondering if my camera would see anything decent today.
Eventually I decided to bug out. It looked like today was not the day. I’d been in the whiteout for a few hours by now, without a glimmer of light. Still, I was happy with what I’d done. I’d got out, I’d put my toe in again, so to speak. I’d proven I could still do this. A little adventure today, a longer one next time. But there needs to be a next time, so focus on getting back safely for now.
I tightened up my clothing as I stepped out from behind the cairn again. At once I was blasted with graupel snow that struck with the force of grapeshot. Exposed skin was instantly painful and then numb. My hands, trying to find their way back into gloves, struggled to function.
Heading down, reversing my steps from earlier, I kept check with map and compass. I had descended about 150m from the top when I looked up and saw light for the first time in several hours. Dim, faint, distant. But definitely there. The cloud was lifting. A break was coming.
Urgently I stowed my map, raised my goggles (both of these becoming quickly redundant). I ran through the snow to the side of the ridge. From there I could look down into the coire. The cloud thinned and light came flooding back to the world. For a moment I regretted my decision to head down, but then I realised that above me 1141 was still in the cloud. I was in the perfect place, at the right time, after all.
I drank in the sight of distance. Definition. The mountain was a pure expression of shape and light. Elegant form beneath silver edged clouds. A moment of pure beauty, born from the wildness of the weather.
A memory came surging back. Standing in almost that exact place ten years ago, on the way down after climbing Aladdin’s Couloir and Jacob’s Ladder. The cloud lifting then just as it did now. And me wearing the same hat, the same goggles, the same jacket, the same gaiters, the same gloves. Strange how life loops back around sometimes.
Life had sent me on a few unexpected side quests since that moment. But here I was again, and the intervening ten years did nothing but show me how precious such moments are.
I saw more weather approaching, hot on the heels of the clouds that had just receded. I continued on down the ridge, and was shortly engulfed once more.
The visibility was again reduced to less than thirty metres. The snow whipped at my face with skin-peeling painfulness. I walked by map and compass once more, assured that descent had indeed been the right choice. It was hard to walk evenly among the blank and featureless snow.
Near to the bottom of the ridge the weather began to lift for a second time. I knew exactly where I wanted to be; among the small montane pines that grow stunted and shrub-like on the mountain’s lower slopes. A choice once again informed by previous experience.
Just as the cloud lifted the sun broke through again, illuminating a torn and silver edge with gorgeous light. The snow of the distant slopes of Lurchers Gully looked like radiant silk. This was the moment I’d been searching for.
I took a while there to enjoy the clear air before the snow came in yet again. As it returned for a third time I rejoined the Coire an-t Sneachda path and followed it back to the ski centre.
Mission accomplished in every way.