Friday 6 July 2012

Mountain Magic

Due to the weather being absolutely terrible during the last few weeks, I have been stuck at my keyboard finishing off parts of the Leicestershire & Rutland Annual Bird Report for 2010 and other stuff. As well as that I decided to finish writing a short account of one of my epic mountain adventures. I hope you enjoy reading it and I look forward to receiving your comments. The adventure took place in February 2010.

Mountain Magic

The land slopped gently up towards the obvious cleft in the far hillside. The snow yielded to my every step. The only sound disturbing the silence came from my boots as they broke through the snow’s icy crust. My walk began before the sun had risen, but a cold dry day was in prospect judging by the clear skies above.
          The sun was just rising as I reached the Chalamain Gap, though very little light penetrated the chasm. Snow and ice clung to the walls and covered the jumble of rocks that lay at its base. It was eerily quiet and colder in there than on the open hillside.
            Suddenly a Mountain Hare darted from its hiding place. How easily it climbed the steep walls to my left and how wisely it avoided the blue ice cascading over an exposed rocky buttress. Meanwhile a pair of Ptarmigan peered down from above, their white winter plumage camouflaging them against the snow – or so they thought.
            Emerging from the 'Gap' the view was awe inspiring. Ahead the land dropped down steeply into the Larig Ghru (the Larig Ghru is a large pass cutting between the flanks of some of Scotland’s highest peaks) and beyond the mighty flanks of Braeriach were visible and so to were those of Sgor Gaoith towering to the west.
Larig Ghru
              Before heading across the ‘Ghru’ there was the small matter of traversing around the base of Lurcher’s Crag. This was easily done, but care had to be taken not to fall into the pass below. Sound footwork and good use of the ice axe saw me safely down into the narrow pass. Snow had filled the base making it easier to cross and begin my ascent of Sron na Larige.
Sron na Larige with Braeriach just Behind
 At first deciding on the best way to safely ascend was quite difficult. A direct route was the most obvious, but the snow was deep and soft and my every step was a great effort. A layer of cloud appeared above blocking the view. This, however, worked to my advantage. I only needed to worry about making my way up rather than how far it looked.
Eventually the steepness eased off, but ahead was a long up-hill trudge to the distant saddle. The saddle marks the beginning of the main climb up to the summit of Braeriach. Across to the east I could see the massive bulk of Ben Macdui – Scotland’s second highest mountain. The walk to Ben Macdui is often described as Britain’s wildest walk, but in winter the land to the western side of the Larig Ghru must surely be wilder due to its remoteness? Potential navigational difficulties presented by poor weather also add to the seriousness of this adventure. The walk to Braeriach is a 13-mile round trip, so in full winter conditions it should only be attempted during very calm weather.
I arrived at the base of Braeriach a very tired chap indeed. I almost talked myself into turning back, but after taking in some well-deserved calories I carried on. Walking on frozen snow is a delight even when wearing crampons. In contrast walking on or in deep snow saps energy very quickly. As I gained height the snow became progressively more frozen until I was walking on it rather than in it. Below I could see the magnificent Coire Bhrochain.This great corie was created thousands of years ago by the destructive powers of an ancient glacier. That frozen past had returned for a brief time, as everything was hidden beneath a blanket of snow and ice. I could just make out the frozen waterfall that sits below the shallow pools on the plateau opposite. These pools are the source of the River Dee. Cloud began to build below in the corie and occasionally everything below me disappeared from view. Above the mountains, the sky was a wonderful deep blue, which cast a blue tint on the snow.
The final walk to the summit was easy going, though it was important that I didn’t misjudge my steps as the sheer walls of the corie beckoned below. The summit of Braeriach stands at 1296 metres and is Britain’s third highest point. The summit cairn was submerged somewhere in the deep snow, but with the aid of my GPS, I located the highest point. The nearby tops of Cairn Toul and Angel’s Peak looked inviting, but I knew that a night in a snow hole, with temperatures as low as -20°C, would have been the reward for that plan. Further to the south the Devil’s Point was just visible and to the south-east I could clearly see Carn a’ Mhaim being dwarfed by Ben Macdui.
Bag on the Summit of Braeriach
A couple of cross-country skiers arrived and had a quick chat with me about how wonderful the day was, as you do. All too soon they showed me how easy descending a mountain can be on skis, but I was left to finish on foot. A blister began to form as I made my way down. At first I ignored it but eventually I decided a bit of first aid was required. I removed my boot, whilst sat in the snow looking down into the Larig Ghru. It was at this point that my feet told me that outside the comfort of my winter clothing it was very cold. I quickly applied a ‘Compeed’ blister plaster (these are the best, don’t bother with cheap brands) and changed my socks. By the time my foot was back in its boot, it was my fingers that were the ones complaining, however, they soon warmed up again once they were back inside my warm winter gloves.
The sun was going down when I arrived at the Chalamain Gap for the second time that day and the temperature was rapidly falling. The Ptarmigan were still staring down at me from up high and once again, out of nowhere, a Mountain Hare broke cover and chose to flee, rather than rely on the camouflage of its winter coat. Clearing the ‘Gap’, I noticed the setting sun had bathed the distant forest in a bright orange glow.
As I made my way back to base camp, I accidentally flushed a pack of Red Grouse. I jumped as the first birds noisily took to the wing. At least fifty eventually scattered this way and that way before alighting on the side of an ancient glacial moraine. Exceptionally some Ptarmigan were with them and they rarely retreat this far down the mountain.
Nightfall was approaching rapidly, but to my right the snow covering the walls of the Northern Corries was flushed in a gorgeous pink radiance. It was beginning to get really cold and my hat was stowed in my rucksack. However, I had no intention of getting it out, as it was just too much effort to go searching for it. By the time I reached the icy slope down to the river and the final leg of my journey, I was forced to search for my hat. I also armed myself with my ice axe and crampons, as the slope was just too icy to negotiate without them. It seemed a little silly to need such drastic equipment considering I was so close to the finish. However, sheet ice covered the slope, so I had made the right choice. I kept the crampons on until I reached the ‘Sugar Bowl’ car park. My trek had taken me 13 hours. Unfortunately, I had averaged just one mile an hour trudging through the deep snow, but nonetheless I had achieved one of my personal ambitions to carry out an epic walk in full winter conditions.
The End of a Perfect Day

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