Morning Light – Ben Macdui
Usually, when visiting Ben Macdui I camp high and rise early as I prefer to visit the summit cairn alone, not because I avoid human companionship – it is just that I prefer solitude in the hills. Due to family circumstances I decided to get up exceptionally early and commence my walk before first light, rather than hike in the previous evening.
As the weather was unusually fine with settled high pressure and predicted light winds of 10-15 mph I had planned a visit to the Cairngorm plateau and to Ben Macdui. I thought I would also divert to the memorial and pay my respects to the memory of those airmen, who on August 21 1942,in their Avro Ansen, crashed into the coire on the western side of Ben Macdui. The crew of five were killed and it was three days before the crash site was found and five before the remains of the airmen were recovered. A small memorial cairn was erected at the head of the coire together with parts of the aircraft.
I was up at 0200 hrs, my four dogs walked and on my way at 0300 hrs. The outside temperature was +4˚C at my home and as soon as I drove down to Speyside the temperature dropped to -1˚C and remained at that temperature throughout my drive through Strathspey into Aviemore. It was only when I ascended the ski road to park at the ski parking area, that the temperature rose to a balmy +8˚C, a classic temperature inversion.
The sky was ink-black as I set off at 0415hrs to ascend the plateau, I had my headtorch switched to minimum, as I only needed a few metres in front of me illuminated. Every now and then I would switch off my headtorch and look at the night sky. Without any light pollution the milky way stood out as a prominent irregular white band and the sky was filled with billions of stars. These days, by too common usage, the word "awe" and "awesome" have diminished the meaning of the words but that night sky of incredible clarity was indeed awesome. It was one of those nights that you can just lie on your back and just stare and wonder in amazement about the infinite universe. After an hour there was a change from inky blackness to a lightening of the sky to deep violet. I switched off my headtorch and ascended without light. I possess excellent night vision so it was right for me. I fitted my camera to a tripod and took this photograph of Cairn Lochan:
Ptarmigan were croaking from among the rocks as I continued with my ascent and as I reached the beginning of the plateau I could see the glimmer of dawn over the low ground toward the Moray Firth:
I continued with my walk across the plateau and ptarmigan were now common and I was close to many pairs of these lovely grouse. Photographing wildlife with a simple camera in low light conditions is not really practicable but I took a photo just for the record:
I love this time of day as night turns to day and it was great joy when the sun rose above Beinn Mheadhoin as captured here:
The quality of light strengthened. Deep shadows lightened and the landscape was revealed in all its magnificence. As shown here lighting up the montane grasses and the tops of Braeriach, Sgor An Lochan Uaine and Cairn Toul:
Typical Cairngorm plateau, Cairngorm to the left and Beinn Mheadhoin on the right. The plateau is unusual for this time in March: it is usually under many feet of snow and only appears like this usually in June:
Typical terrain of tundra and boulder fields:
I reach the summit cairn and Trig Point of Ben Macdui at 0800 hrs. I had estimated my arrival at approx 0800 – 0830 hours allowing for stops of 40 minutes for photographs and watching birds. Glorious weather, wall to wall sunshine, no haze and a balmy 8˚ C.
A view to the South, Beinn A Ghlo can be seen in the distance. In the mid-distance on the “horizon” of the boulders are stone “sangars” there are several close to as well as within 100 metres or so of the summit, built by hill walkers as temporary shelter from the usual ferocious winds that normally buffet the plateau.
On Cairngorm, a few kilometres away on the plateau there is a automatic weather station. The average windspeed is around 30 mph and there are only two months of the year when windspeeds do not normally exceed 100 mph ( July and August when the max is usually around 95 mph). Windspeeds often exceed 100 mph and the record is 176 mph on January 3rd 1993. Ben Macdui is 64 metres higher than Cairngorm. A view to the NE, across the plateau with Cairngorm and Beinn Mheadhoin:
This view to the west from the summit cairn shows “sangars” in the foreground built by hillwalkers as a windbreak. You will notice a sharp “cut off” in the middle ground where the boulder field appears to end. This is because there is a sharp descent of 600 metres or so into the Lairig Ghru, the highest mountain pass in Scotland. The background shows Braeriach, Sgor An lochan Uaine and Cairn Toul:
It was now time to walk to the memorial cairn – first across the boulder field:
And after 300 metres or so I came to the coire where the Avro Anson crashed in 1942.
Another view of the coire – there are still bit of the aircraft scattered in the corie.
This photo shows the memorial cairn with brass plaque and pieces of aluminium, steel and wiring from the aircraft. There is also a very weathered piece of wood in which I can just make out the name of J Llewellyn, the pilot carved into the wood. I really can't explain the experience standing there in silent remembrance. A kaleidoscope of emotion, thinking of the pilot in zero visibility with feet on the rudder and hand on the stick as he would have fought the tremendous winds that surround these mountains. I tried to imagine the shaking aircraft bucking the wind and then - oblivion. The memorial cairn is placed on the rim of the coire, adjacent to the crash site. It is such a beautiful place on a fine day; so sad to die there in those circumstances. Despite the sadness there is something intangible, something beyond my understanding – there is a peace, an aura of something really special, perhaps it is just the stunning beauty of the scenery. I always find the experience intensely moving when I visit and stand for several minutes in silent respect of those young men.
If not for them and their colleagues that fought for our freedom in the second world war, I would not have the privilege of spending my free time in these beautiful mountains. They gave their young lives for us.
The memorial plaque:
After paying my respects it was time for me to have some breakfast so I ascended back to the summit and chose a “sangar” away from the summit cairn – about 100 metres away and I chose a very small one only about 2 feet high. I wanted a view as well as somewhere to shield my stove from the breeze. Some of the “sangars” are 4 feet high and I didn’t need that on such a fine day.
As I was traveling fast and light I took a tiny stove.The stove is a tiny Vargo and it , as well as 110 cartridge and a primus windshield, all fitted into my usual Evernew pot:
This photo shows the tiny stove:
It is not my usual practice to carry a gas stove – I prefer to use my Clickstand or one of my many liquid fuel stoves, both classic and modern – but today was a day for everything to be pared down to the minimum. I had two days food, a bivvy bag but no sleeping bag – just my belay jacket as my sleeping kit should I decide to overnight bivvy. The weather was fantastic and I’d planned on an early start to get on the plateau at dawn leaving me many hours of daylight to wander. First things first and a brew before my breakfast porridge:
The view from my “sangar”
Relaxing with a brew and a cigarette. Normally I put on a belay jacket when I stop – prevents chilling but it was a lovely morning – second highest mountain in Scotland in March and all I needed was my baselayer and my windshirt.
Time for another brew:
It was one of those rare days, days when you can see so far in the clear air before the haze begins. On days like these in early spring, the air will haze as keepers on the lower ground take advantage of the good weather and continue with their muirburn. I spent two hours just sitting, sometimes just thinking and enjoying the fabulous views. Sitting quietly I heard, then saw, ptarmigan among the boulders. Just scanning the horizon with my binoculars – simple pleasures. I’d enjoy another cigarette and one more kuksa of tea.
What a privilege, to sit alone enjoying all this:
After two hours I set off across the plateau and it was gone 1100 hrs before I saw another hillwalker. The advantage of early rising is that one has the whole plateau to oneself for hours.
I wandered across the plateau for several hours and decided against bivvying overnight – and that had only been a secondary consideration anyway as a family member was terminally ill and time in the hills was naturally limited. Instead I headed back. I’d had a super day in incredible weather, with wall to wall sunshine with an incredible clarity of air. What more could I want?
Note..a few days later the weather was back to its seasonal norm – with temperatures on the hill below zero and snow fell deeply in following weeks carpeting the plateau well into May. Friends enjoyed some of the best skiing in years and many were skiing into late May.