Climbing Ben Macdui, the UK’s second highest mountain, delivers an unexpected blend of summer sun and winter snows for AT contributor Matt Ray…
A diaphanous mist struggled to hold back the promise of summer sunshine, like tent canvas in the face of an energetic dawn. It’s not a sight that the Cairngorms are known for but as we set off from the Coire Cas ski centre car park, the range began to loom out of the golden haze.
By the time we were ascending the trail proper, sunlight had flooded the heather, picking out the white ribbon of path as the sky deepened to a cornflour blue. I had come to the Cairngorms to hike up Britain’s second highest mountain, Ben Macdui, in the company of Mountaineering Scotland’s Mountain Safety Advisor, Heather Morning. She is one of only 25 or so women who hold the top MIC (Mountaineering Instructor Certificate) award and takes a cheerfully no-nonsense approach to the outdoors. Munros are the 283 mountains in Scotland over 914m (3,000ft) high that were selected by Sir Hugh Munro as being notable (there are another 255 summits over 914m, but he classed those as ‘tops’).
We headed up to the summit via Coire an Lochain, a tiny mountain loch fed by the fresh snowmelt that is still coming down the mountain. We crossed the tumbling waters of the Allt Coire an-t-Sneachda, as they careened down through boulders, sparkling in the sunshine. Pressing on, we saw a red flash in the undergrowth off the trail as a ptarmigan bolted for safety.
After crossing the Allt Coire an Lochain, we soon left the trail altogether, picking our way past boulders and across a surprisingly boggy patch of thick moss to the Coire an Lochain, a tranquil aqua green pool lined with rocks that have fallen from the half moon of buttresses above. I was again reminded of the access afforded to us all in the Highlands. “We have the Scottish Outdoor Access Code and it’s amazing the amount of freedom we have – probably the best in the world,” Heather admitted. She then assured me that people wild swim here, so after overheating on the climb so far I took her word for it, stripped down to shorts and launched myself into the crystal-clear snow melt. It was so cold it took my breath away, but it was more enlivening than a bucket of espresso. By the time I hauled myself out, my whole body was tingling.
We took advantage of the water tinkling down the burns (Gaelic for water course) to re-fill our bottles (the rule of thumb is that water sources in the Highlands are drinkable above the last human habitation) before tackling the short, sharp the ascent to the plateau from Coire an Lochain. Avoiding the snow-covered ground (“get that wrong without crampons and you’re not stopping,” warned Heather), we tackled the steep path out and up onto the Cairngorms plateau.
The weather up there, even at this time of the year, can feature sleety snow storms, but the sun was blazing and there was hardly any wind. “It’s very unusual to get such light winds, warm temperatures and sunshine. Up on the plateau we can potentially have snow every month of the year,” said Heather.
Ben Macdui lay across the plain, strewn with red-flecked boulders and dotted with cairns to mark the way. The going underfoot was loose and you had to keep your eyes trained on the trail. It reminded me of mountain biking, where you need to pick your line and keep your eyes flicking ahead to decide how to move next. My Merrell MQM Flex Gore-Tex shoes were ideal for the job, light enough for me to be nimble, but grippy and solid enough to provide sure footing on unstable ground.
The peaks to our right were picked out in bands of white, black and green as the clouds scudded overhead, revealing different vistas as they passed. As the trail steepened into the mountainside, the boulder field thickened until it obliterated any distinct path and we were soon picking our way through, occasionally putting a hand down to steady ourselves. It’s terrain that looks intimidating, but is actually great fun to climb – you really do feel like you’re on an adventure.
Of course, the conditions were beyond perfect for our trek. But what would happen if one of us twisted an ankle and less ‘unseasonal’ weather closed in? Heather said that every winter people lose their lives in the Cairngorms purely due to hypothermia. “If you are in cold temperatures and you’re wet and it’s windy, then within 10 minutes you’re going to be shivering, and within an hour you will start to have the first effects of hypothermia; slurred speech and irrational behaviour.”
Heather, who has gone on many missions with mountain rescue, showed us the contents of her pack to reveal not only emergency bivvy bags, but a temporary shelter, spare warm clothing, emergency food and even a GPS beacon. “Activate this and the cavalry arrives,” she said, adding that when a couple missing overnight in a storm were found up here, the woman was still alive but the man was dead. The only difference? The woman was in a bivvy bag.
Back on the climb, we were soon on the shoulder of the mountain and the top wasn’t far off. A final push brought us out onto the broad expanse of the summit of Ben Macdui, dotted with semi-circular dry stone walls left behind from WWII manoeuvres. We took a grateful stop to eat and rest. You might imagine a weather-blasted, rock-strewn summit to be devoid of life, but we were soon joined by a couple of snow buntings. These cheeky black and white birds used to be summer visitors, but now live here year around due to helpful crumbs falling from visitors’ flapjacks.
The 360-degree wilderness views were stunning, making the slog up the mountainside all worthwhile. But we weren’t done for the day. Off the side of the mountaintop we could see a new plain, running down, out and then up again to the summit of Cairn Gorm. There was no obvious trail that I could see… “That’s OK, we’ll go off-piste and find a route with a burn to refill the water bottles,” said Heather, cheerfully.
Not for the first time I found myself glad to be in the company of someone with a MIC’s navigational skills. The level of freedom afforded by the Highlands sometimes takes your breath away, and it certainly tests your ability to cross boulder fields of haphazardly stacked stones – sometimes they wobble, sometimes they don’t!
Part and parcel of this outdoor access is that wild camping is permitted in the Scottish Highlands. But the summer here is famously midge-heavy. Does Heather have any tips? “Keep moving and camp high! Normally you’d find somewhere down in the glen to camp, but in the summer in Scotland you want to do exactly the opposite. And I’ve carried the inside of a wine box to fill up with water at the last burn before you go up to the top to camp.”
Cairn Gorm looked a hell of a long way off but amazingly, less than two hours later, we were stood at the top of another Munro looking back at the summit of Ben Macdui. Taking a moment to reflect on the stunning scenery, I knew I’d be back– the walking is truly adventurous and when you’re done with that, single-malt whiskey somehow always tastes better in the Highlands…
Thanks to Merrell for organising this adventure up Ben Macdui, and for offering the opportunity to try out some footwear from the new MQM Collection. The range has been designed to be lightweight and flexible enough to propel someone up a mountain, yet stable and protective enough to provide confidence on the charge back down. To find out more about their MQM (move quick in the mountains) shoes, click here.
Ben Macdui: How to make a weekend of it
With two Munros and a well-earned night’s sleep in the bag, another day of adventure in the Cairngorms is not something to be missed. After spending a whole day on two feet, why not get in the saddle and spend some time on two wheels?
Well, near to Aviemore in the Cairngorms National Park you’ll find the School of Mountain Biking. Here, you can simply hire a bike and helmet for the day, or you can embark on guided rides. While the former gives you the freedom to explore on your own terms, exploring the trails with a guide means you can make the most of local knowledge, enjoying the best views and pushing yourself to your limits.
The great thing about teaming up with the School of Mountain Biking is that you can also join coached sessions, where you’ll learn new skills and improve on your riding technique. Experienced riders with good levels of fitness might well be interested in one of the school’s ‘Epic Adventures’, which sees you tackle one or two Munros with a guide in the remote and beautiful Glen Feshie.
To find out more about what the School of Mountain Biking has to offer, or to find out pricing, head to www.schoolofmtb.co.uk.