Ben Macdui – A Winter Whiteout On The Cairngorms
In the winter of February 2005 our small walking group wanted to test ourselves with a severe winter mountain walk. We decided on climbing Ben Macdui the highest mountain in the Cairngorms and the 2nd highest mountain in Britain.
The Ben lies in the artic like southern plateau of the Cairngorm mountain range and is a much wilder place than Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in Britain at 1,344 metres/4,409 ft. It is a harsh environment where nothing grows apart from the hardiest of alpine plants. The summits can be shrouded in cloud for days. In winter the weak northern sun often does not penetrate the deep glens for weeks.
After a 270 mile drive we spent the night at the Aviemore YHA hostel. It had a bar and was near to the starting point, so it suited our purpose well. After a good breakfast we changed into our outdoor gear and although it was already snowing and cloudy we hoped this would soon ease, unfortunately it didn’t.
We started the long climb up to Ben Macdui and the snow eased off for a while but as we were approaching the summit conditions deteriorated. We eventually reached the summit trig point at 1,309 metres/4,295 ft and although it was still snowing we decided to have a short coffee and food break. The temperature must have been at least minus 15 degrees C and possibly colder. With no gloves on during the food break, the hands soon began to suffer, so much so that with gloves on it took me nearly an hour to recover the circulation.
Soon after leaving the summit it started snowing again and it came down heavier and heavier until we were in a complete whiteout with no visible reference points to aim for. Fortunately as well as the map and compass we did have GPS to aid our descent. It was a good job too as the lochans were covered in snow and the last thing we needed was to go through the ice into the freezing water. Although I imagine it would have been fairly thick with the temperature at that time of year in the Cairngorms.
As we got lower the snow eased a little and we could just about see our destination point and the thought of a hot shower, food and a good drink kept us going. It was certainly a day to remember and highlighted how so many people can get into trouble in the mountains through not having the correct gear and equipment.
As an aside it is claimed that Ben Macdui is the home of Am Fear Liath Mòr (The Big Grey Man Of Ben Macdui) a spectre like figure that haunts the summit and passes of the mountain.