I have been talking with my friend Mike for some time about a winter trip out, along with Max, his dog. The remit was a 'challenge', with an iconic summit, and maybe a night out. We decided on Ben Macdui from the Sugarbowl, descending to the Lairig Ghru where we would either camp or use the Corrour, returning along the Ghru the next day, through the Chalamein Gap and back to the bowl. The weather had other ideas however. The snow of the weekend had subsided, but the wind was strong, too strong, blowing hard from the east initially, and then coming around to the south, making Plan A impossible.
Plan B was to 'just' do the Lairig Ghru, hoping that the southerly wind would assist our return, but it quickly became apparent that it had swung from the east already, and was blowing into our faces. We had battled over the flank of Creag a'Chalamein rather than wade in the very deep powder and windslab, (also aware of the avalanche forecast and the tragedy there some years before, as the slope was loaded), and then had to run the gauntlet of stinging spindrift that soaked us, and caked poor Max with ice. By the time we got to the burn crossing, we knew the game was up. The wind was howling up the lairig, and even to make the Pools of Dee in the deep drifts would have been strength sapping with our heavy packs. It had taken us 3 hrs just to get that far, so a tactical retreat was inevitable. We couldn't commit to the distance in those conditions.
As we walked out, we benefited from the shelter of the higher hills, and they took on a benign aspect in the beautiful late afternoon sunshine. The snow-devils and plumes of spindrift told of the reality on high though. Our eyes were drawn to Ryvoan bothy through the pass, and to Meall a'Buachaille to its right, or our left as we stared. That would make a nice spot for the night. So that's what we did to make the best of the situation. We walked along the path towards Strath Nethy, past the Green Lochan (An Lochan Uaine), and the lovely Scots pines resplendent in the golden sunset. We met two lads who had over-nighted at Ryvoan after a mini epic on Bynack Mor - Their eyes told of the challenging time they had had. 'It was wild' they said, and who were we to disagree! I congratulated them on their effort.
When we got to Ryvoan, there were already two folks there, Sam and Alex, who were doing some lower-level walks from the comfort of the bothy, and we spent a convivial evening chatting and sharing our 'bothy tea' ;) I had carried coal and a fire log in, and they were as pleased as we were with the fire, contributing by some energetic chopping at some firewood left in the outhouse bit. It was a lot of effort for Sam for not a lot of wood, but he was happy that it kept him warm.
After a beautiful evening with Venus shining like the brightest of torches and the moon competing adeptly to fill the night with light, the wind got up again. Max barked and growled as the door rattled with each gust - I suspect in Hoddesdon a rattling door has more sinister implications, and he was just doing his job :) The wind did make me lose more sleep about what to do to salvage a good day out of tomorrow though?
I needn't have worried. The day dawned all but cloudless, and the expanse of the Cairngorm massif gave us such shelter that we were able to summit Meall a'Buachaille at 810m without even a jacket at times. We had a relaxed ascent, our packs lighter for fuel, food and water, and lingered on the summit chatting and having a snack. The views were spectacular, the savagery of the summits only being hinted at by huge snow-devils of spindrift as they glinted in the sun. The descent was by the (relatively) new path along the burn and back to the car for a well-earned pint in the (relatively) new pub, the Pine Marten.
As seems to have been a pattern this winter, (and indeed most winters of course), you rarely get to achieve your objectives in full. What is important is to experience, to learn, and most of all, to enjoy. Mike, Max and I did all three! Thanks for your company.