Friends across the Alps had been complaining to me about the lack of snow for the skiing season. Indeed I experienced this myself in Austria during January, where the pistes were turning a delicate shade of brown. Scotland was to be another matter…
My climbing partner Ian and I have travelled to Aviemore for many years, but this time we had quite an adventure, due to driving in the darkness through drifting snow on the A9. Beautiful dry macadam was suddenly replaced by blizzard conditions and convoy driving. The quiet journey of our lone vehicle suddenly ended when we, along with a dozen others fought our way past Dalwhinnie and Kingussie. Visibility was reduced to zero at times, drifts were over four feet high and the threat of abandonment seemed real. The wind buffeted us continuously, and our eyes had to be fixed on every foot of the road. Thankfully we were prepared for anything, with piles of ski and bivvy kit in the car. That didn’t save us from entering Aviemore in a sideways skid, but with a little skill and luck we arrived safely. It seems the Drumochter Pass was closed only minutes after we arrived.
We spent a couple of days still fighting the conditions. Deep snow, driving winds and zero visibility made mountain travel difficult. By the middle of the week however, conditions began to change. Through fresh snow fell at night, the clouds began to rise and allow the peaks to occasionally peer out. We clipped on our touring skis and ascended the snow plastered Meall a Bhuachaille via the Ryvoan Bothy. The air seems a little too still for my liking at the start, and high cloud began to move in from the NW, but the day remained clear. As we walked through the woods of Glenmore, we were surrounded by pines laden to breaking with fresh snow and looked upon by clear blue skies. I stopped in the forest and heard a beautiful silence.. It was only occasionally broken by a lone Wrens call and my gentle breathing. How we should value such moments. Silence truly is golden, and it should be embraced because of its beauty and rarely in this modern world. When was the
last time you experienced the peace of silence I wonder..? My heart truly feels at home when the air is bitter and silence reigns. It’s one of the few places I can actually hear myself think clearly.
We fought up the steep slopes, through deep powder and scathing ice, to attain the wonderful summit in clear conditions. All around were the Cairngorms, clad in their frosty white garb. Loch Morlich was frozen completely over, and every tree that I could see was dusted with icing sugar. We even enjoyed a few rays of sunlight for the first time in days.
After such a long climb, it was disappointing to find that the ski descent we had hoped for wasn’t possible. High winds over the previous days had scoured the peak of powder snow, and rocks stuck out like landmines, awaiting a ski to destroy. So it was with a heavy heart that we walked down and skied the last mile, over the lower slopes and back to the Hayfield.
I’ve always enjoyed winter climbing. I’m not saying that I’m any good, as standing on crampon tips which are 4″ in front of your feet makes tipping over a real possibility. That however is my life. Gripping ice axes with stubby fingers which feel the cold isn’t great either, but again, this is my life. I climb what I can and smile all the way uphill. The Northern Corries were in excellent condition, but visibility was appalling. It really was hand in front of your face stuff. Ian and I found the Mountain Rescue Box in Coire an t-snechda, but couldn’t see a thing on the hill. Well, this is Scotland and what do you expect..? The Cairngorms are well-known for their cloud and you just have to get used to it. What I wasn’t used to was the constant avalanche of debris which was showering down the mountain, due to the sheer number of people up there. Ian and I had never hear anything like it. We questioned each other repeatedly in our amazement of the frightening noise. I’m a lover of peace in the mountains, and this was not peaceful. In fact it felt all wrong to me, and we turned for home. It seemed a waste to have walked so far, with so much weight and have achieved nothing, but attempting a route with half the world and his wife dropping the hill on your head is not my idea of climbing.
That could have been the end of the trip as Aviemore was lost in cloud, but it was an inversion which disguised a beautifully sunny last day in the Cairngorms. Above the grey visibility was almost unlimited, with islanded peaks poking through the fluffy sea below. We donned our touring skis and skinned up the side of Lurcher’s Gully, for a long ski home. We cut the first tracks of the day, watching out carefully for rocks and open streams as they poked through the crisp neve. It was a glorious run down, with the sun casting long shadows across the snow to our left. I flew down the mountain looking through the eyes of a child and giggled all the way home. It was a fitting end to the trip. I packed away my skis with sore feet, but a broad smile too.
They won’t be packed away for long though…