Over the twenty something years since the National Trust for Scotland took over the Mar Lodge Estate, the upper Glen Lui (or, Gleann Laoigh Bheag, as it is properly called), has become a real gem of a place. But today is not exactly a gem of a day. There be might fluffy fresh snow on the ground, but it's breezy, and visibility is limited indeed. Some might think it outright miserable!
Or, a natural black and white scene, you might say. In any case, the sort of a day nobody goes out for The Views. I am on my way down to the Bob Scott bothy for a lunch before heading back to civilisation. An end to three days in the hills. Carefully planned in rough outlines, then (even more) carefully improvised, to match the reality of the winter Cairngorms.
A brief promise of sunshine blown away somewhere below the summit of Derry Cairngorm on Sunday morning, leaving just the wind and thick cloud. The map came out there and then, and pretty much stayed out since. Careful navigation over the summit and onto the 1053 point bealach, then down to Loch Etchachan, in hope the cliffs surrounding it will provide some shelter from the strong westerly for the night.
Down at the loch it is indeed much calmer, though you wouldn't know there is loch down here under all that snow. Care is needed not to pitch inside a possible avalanche path, not just in the view of what the conditions are like now, but what they could be in the morning. And so I dig myself a nice rectangular platform, about a foot or so deep, nearly on the loch shore. Not as sheltered as might have been, but safe.
I am done just as the light starts fading. A coffee. While the snow is melting, a couple of messages exchanged with Linda using my InReach, then dinner. One of Ian Rankin's (audio)books for company by candlelight, followed by undisturbed sleep.
Monday morning starts with porridge, then digging myself out of the tent, glad to have kept the shovel inside. I am surprised by the amount of snow drift, my neat rectangular platform all but gone, and the kit I left in its corner buried under good two feet of snow. A scarily compacted fresh, foot thick, windslab capping it all.
Beinn Mheadhoin teases me with some lovely pink tones, but barely long enough to get the camera out -- time to get moving.
The (careful) plan was to camp here for two nights, but it is obvious that if I leave the tent here I will have hard time finding it later, and, more importantly, this place is too exposed for the 70mph southerly forecast for tonight. And so I pack my stuff, all 24kg of it (minus some food, plus some snow), put the snowshoes on, and set off into the clag for Ben Macdui, selecting my route carefully, mindful of the windslab I saw down there.
The wind picks up in no time, and while this is a familiar ground, I need a map and compass to keep me on track. I am comfortable with being here, the conditions are challenging, but, I dare say, within my comfort zone. And yet on a day like this, the plateau is one scary place (as it should be). Navigating here is hard, errors easy to make, opportunities to spot and correct them few and far apart. Escape routes limited even in the summer, for cliffs abound in all directions, and in the present winter conditions some of them, if not most, are unsafe.
The spindrift is heading along the surface directly against me, flowing around my boots like a fast river. It is making me feel dizzy, even seasick, yet my eyes are irresistibly drawn to it. A new experience. Keep looking forward, above it, rather than at it; that does the trick.
The ruin, then after a while the summit. Too windy to hang around. I take a bearing for the 'corner' of the Sron Riach ridge, pace and follow it religiously, using Allt Clach nan Taillear as a tick off point. A couple of jets flying repeatedly overhead, or perhaps just the wind swirling around in my hood; I can't tell. I reach the rocky corner bang on, pleased with myself.
As I am taking my next bearing from the map, there is a brief rupture in the cloud offering a glimpse of the cornices lining the ridge -- they are some of the biggest cornices I have ever seen, meters of overhanging snow. Back into the clag. I back off good 30m from the edge before daring to follow my bearing, and even then nervously (the lack of photos is my witness). Visibility is 5-10m; I make a point of always keeping some visible rocks peaking out of the snow to my left.
I finally emerge from the whiteness at around the 1100m contour line with a sigh of relief and sight of the Devil's Point, the first real 'view' of the day. Even better, I can also see that my preferred option for today, descending down the line of Caochan na Cothaiche is viable, for its eastern side is fully scoured, and poses no avalanche risk. In contrast, lower down the western side of the narrow gully has a huge build up of snow on it, and cornices, with some fresh debris lower down.
The floor of the glen is not entirely calm, but it will do. I dig another platform, pitch the tent. It's early, but this spot is as good as it will get. From here there is a direct line of sight under the clouds down Glen Lui onto the Glen Shee Munros -- it's sunny over there, and I feast my eyes on the vista, nursing a cup of coffee. Dinner (not much gas left), message to Linda, then time for some John Le Carre.
The wind arrives at 9.30pm, as the forecast promised. The usual moment of anxiety -- will the pegs stay in? Should I go out and check? I don't. I dug right down to the frozen turf and double pegged all the lines, they are going nowhere, or rather, I can't do any better anyway (I double peg as a matter of course, 20cm Y paracord extensions permanently on all the guylines). I briefly toy with sticking the anemometer out of the tent, but can't be bothered looking for it, I guess somewhere around the 40+mph mark. It's over as suddenly as it started not long past midnight (again just as forecast), and I sleep soundly after that.
Tuesday morning. I give the tent a good shake. The porch is covered by an inch of the finest powder I have ever seen, and I curse myself for not tiding more last night, rummaging through it looking for my spork. At least I covered the tops of my boots with bags. I drain the gas to the very last drop (thank God for upside down canister stoves!); there is, just, enough for my porridge and a litre of warm water. Outside it's windy and snowing.
As I pack, the snow is depositing on the tent faster than I am sweeping it away, and after a couple of minutes I give up and just roll it in. Snowshoes on and into the blizzard. Goggles would have been useful, but they are too wet inside to be any use, and no amount of wiping is helping. At least there is no navigating to be done, just follow the stream down the narrow glen.
And so here I am on the nice path in Gleann Laoigh Bheag. It stopped snowing a while ago, and there is but a breeze, four or five inches of fluffy snow covering everything. The pines are looking very Christmassy, in a It's a Wonderful Life sort of B&W way. Pristine scenery, no footprints, fresh or old.
My eye catches the sight of a small brown spec on the undisturbed snow, then another. I bend a bit to take a closer look. A pine seed. They are all around me, they have come from heaven down to earth gliding on their little wings. In the midst of this bleak, inhospitable day, life is being, not born, but hewn out by the gale from the cones; life against the odds. A promise of a brighter, greener, future, one hearkening back to the days before the axe and saw laid this landscape barren.
The bothy is warm. A bit of food, a bit of banter. Then I step outside ... into a different world. The cloud has broken, the sky is blue, the sunlit landscape postcard perfect -- The Views. But the views, they come and go. The pine seeds, I expect some of them I will see again in the years to come. From now on, every time I see a seedling in Gleann Laoigh Bheag, I'll be wondering, is it you?
But 'nough idle musings. The most pressing existential question of today is this: will the Glen Shee snow gates be open? For I am back in the 'real' world.