Ben Macdui is Scotland’s second highest mountain (1,309m) and is a big hill day at any time of year, but particularly in winter. Last Sunday (1 April) I met up with four clients with the aim of reaching the summit and practicing some winter Skills on the way.
The forecast was great: cold air temperatures (-8c), sunny and no wind. We set off from the Cairngorm Mountain car park. The avalanche forecast was ‘considerable’ and the safest slopes were east and north eastern aspects. Over the previous two days some new sow had fallen and had built up on north to south western aspects. The risk today would arise from those new snow deposits softening in the sun and sliding on the old base.
We headed off to Coire nan Lochan and found some nice snowy slopes to practice ice axe and crampons techniques. By 10am it was already really warm and the snow was softening up. After some winter Skills practice we pushed on up to the plateau.
The Cairngorm plateau is a huge area of wild land at about 1000m, the biggest high plateau in the UK, affected by the strongest winds and coldest temperatures. During the ‘Beast from the East’ winter storm in early March it was -15c up here with 40mph plus winds giving a windchill of -30c. Committing to a crossing of the plateau needs careful consideration of the wind speed, visibility, wind chill effect and and snow conditions. Sometimes it’s so windy up here that the wind can blow you off your feet and often you get ‘white out’ conditions where the visibility drops to only a few metres. Windslab or soft thawing snow can make progress across the plateau very slow going.
With sunshine and no wind our only challenge today would be sun: thawing and softening the snow, overheating, the risk of sunburn and sun glare.
It quickly became apparent as we walked the 4km across the plateau to Ben Macdui that the preferred mode of travel today was skiing. There seemed to be way more people skiing than walking and for good reason, the conditions were fantastic for ski touring.
After about an hour and a half we reached the summit of Ben Macdui. The snowy views in every direction were beautiful.
From the summit we crossed back across the plateau. By the time we reached the summit of Cairngorm the cloud had built up and the skies darkened leading to some light snow. We descended via windy ridge to complete an 8 hour hill day in some excellent winter conditions.