with penguin on macdui

Mon, Oct 20, 2008

It was that time again, when Penguin and Stravaiger, old pals, hill wanderers and bothy grumps decided to meet up and go for a stravaig into the high Cairngorms. The occasion was the final munro party of one of Penguin’s friends, who was due to summit Sgurr Fhuar Thuill in Stratfarrar on the Saturday, so we decided to meet up early, on Thursday night and head for our wee bothy and have a day in the ‘gorms on the Friday, before heading across to Cannich to join the munro entourage. The forecast wasn’t too bad for Friday, getting worse on Saturday and truly horrendous on Sunday, so we settled down to the fire and some drams in the bothy and reminisced about old times and put the world to rights over a bottle of Aberlour 10 year old

Friday dawned calm and grey with the clag almost down to the road as we headed to Coire Cas but as we hit Aviemore and made our way along Loch Morlich the skies cleared to scudding cumulus and blue skies with a hint of fresh snow on the northern corries. The forecasted break in the weather before the arrival of the storms was materialising. It was an easy plod along the path from Coire Cas, across the mouth of Coire an t-Sneachda and up the ridge above Coire an Lochain although the wind was starting to pick up and we stopped for nibbles just below the top of the ridge and the onset of the plateau, where it would be unlikely we’d find any shelter. Across the coire, the great slab streamed with water and glistened in the bursts of sunshine that swept the land like lighthouse beams. Every winter the slab avalanches and it’s a dire place to be when the build-up of snow reaches critical point and the whole lot slides off, to crash into the frozen lochan below.

Looking down the ridge to Glenmore

Heading up the ridge above Coire an Lochain, the path splits with a narrower version traversing along the steep hillside above the coire and giving fantastic views of the slab and cliffs while the other path heads straight up the ridge and peters out on the 1083m plateau. We took the latter path to get some views of Lurcher’s Crag (Creag an leth-choin - rock of the half-dog) and the Lairig Ghru although you’d need to be up to speed with the map and compass if the clag was down as the plateau is featureless up to the small cairn at 1083m. What you might not realise though is there’s a veritable motorway just off to the east of the cairn as the balcony path above Coire an Lochain seems to be the main one.

Ptarmigan above Coire an Lochain

It wasn’t long before we were up in the clag, on a good path mind you and heading up into increasingly snowy terrain. Just after the point where the Coire an t-Sneachda path comes in, both paths join and then disappear and a line of cairns takes you across a boulder field although the start of the cairns was difficult to find and I was relying on the compass by this point. This route up Ben Macdui is a popular one from Coire Cas with the Rangers leading it all the time but it’s not to be underestimated. The excellent path can lure you into a false sense of security and when you hit the boulder field you can easily get lost if you don’t know what you’re doing and getting lost at 1100m isn’t a good idea!

Once past the boulder field the path again becomes a motorway before petering out just before the gigantic summit cairn, although it’s not as gigantic as it was in the 19th century, when the locals built it up in an attempt to overtake Ben Nevis as the highest in the UK. It was an eery place in the dim half light of a clagged autumnal afternoon with various stone shelters giving the impression of a deserted township. The viewpoint indicator pointed the way to unseen summits and we cooried doon out of the wind and watched the snow slough off the rocks. I wondered what the summit would be like if Macdui had turned out to be higher than The Ben. No doubt the path would have been engineered all the way from Coire Cas and without a shadow of a doubt, the funicular would probably not have been required as a cog railway might have been the fate of this grand and remote mountain. It’s not far from Coire Cas and the car park and all amenities but this is almost 1300m. It’s the biggest area above 4000 feet in Britain and the weather can turn in the blink of an eye. One minute you may be enjoying weak autumnal sunshine at the cairn and the next a raging blizzard may sweep in and the wind swing round to the north and you’re suddenly facing a long tramp back into a whiteout and freezing temperatures, with pathless rough terrain to negotiate. The wild and remote Feith Buidhe on one side and the almost vertical drops into the Lairig Ghru on the other. A wrong turn can easily lead into very wild and remote country.

The Feith Buidhe (yellow bog) is a fantastic area. After heavy rains the bare slabs over which run the inumerable burns have a sheen of rushing water which must be crossed and every hillside is alive with the sound of roaring burns. During the second world war the commandos used this area for training and there are little stone shelters dotted around, one man bothies high among the roaring torrents where soldiers heading for war torn Europe would spend the night in all weathers. I just can’t imagine what it would have been like, crouched in a tiny stone coffin, surrounded by the wildest and remotest lands in these islands, battered by storm force winds and lashed by incessant rains, your only companions hidden in the black night, dotted around the Feith in their own shelters, wondering what awaited you on foreign shores bristling with guns, barbed wire and a million enemies. It must have been, well, I have no idea what it must have been like but we owe an incredible debt to those who spent their last days here. Next time you pass the Commando Memorial above Spean Bridge, spare a thought for those men who left loved ones behind and gave up their last days of freedom in places like the Feith Buidhe to allow us to walk freely among these remote and wild lands. On a cold and stormy night in the bothy, we should raise a dram to their memory.

Allan on the summit of Ben Macdui

The tramp back from the summit was increasingly weather lashed as the wind and rain came in across Braeriach and we just got a glimpse of the Great Slab before the gale force wind swept it out of sight behind curtains of driving rain. Not weather in which to linger so we made our way back to Coire Cas and installed ourselves in front of the huge fireplace in the cafe, a couple of bothy grumps just off the hill and heartily tucking in to their latte and scones!

You can see all the pics here.

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