Yesterday, I purposefully went out in search of the harshest, most challenging winter conditions I could find!
I wanted to find the most desolate tract of land, in an area where I am least familiar with, where there was the greatest chance of encountering whiteout conditions.
My wife and friends think I’m absolutely mad but anybody else who has been through the journey or going through the journey towards becoming a winter mountain leader will know why this is so important.
‘Dead reckoning’ in white out conditions is the toughest navigation skill to master. It is a skill where the basic principles can be ‘taught’ in the classroom, or practiced on the hill in fair weather, but to gain confidence relies on practice, practice and more practice in less favourable conditions.
Dead reckoning is a wayfinding strategy; a process of calculating current position by using your previously determined location and then incorporating estimates of speed, heading and elapsed time.
In very poor visibility, when there are no visual points of reference, the ability to be able to accurately estimate your speed and distance travelled, using a combination of pacing and timing, across constantly changing terrain, and through ever changing weather conditions, is an essential skill.
The Moine Bhealaidh (yellow moss) in the Cairngorms was my chosen training ground.
This huge tract of high-level, featureless terrain rarely drops below 850m. West of the mighty Beinn a’ Bhuird and Ben Athfhinn and separating the summits of Beinn Bhreac and Beinn a’ Chaorainn.
At a height of nearly 400m the Linn of Dee provides the easiest route up onto the high plateau. Starting on excellent tracks through lower Glen Derry, the walk passes through magnificent ancient forests where the gnarly, weather-beaten granny pines take centre stage. The area around Derry Lodge, is a special conservation area and much work has been done to help the landscape here to slowly start to naturally regenerate ensuring it can be enjoyed by all for centuries to come.
Beyond the lodge and gaining height, the pines start to thin out giving way to spongy carpets of blaeberry and heather. In summer time a whole host of rare alpine plants can be found here.
Now onto the open hill and away from the protection of the forest, it was time to put on some extra layers and my goggles. The rain had turned to snow and goggles create a protective cocoon for your face and eyes.
Visibility was poor, perhaps 50m, but it was far from a white out. For a white out you need to have falling or blowing snow and a uniform covering of snow on the ground. It is only when there is this consistent, uniform covering of snow, when all of the rocks and vegetation are completely covered over that you get true white out conditions; when it’s impossible to differentiate the ground from the sky, when there is absolutely no contrast, nothing to focus the eye on, just a completely flat grey/white light.
The wind was strong, maybe 45mph, and it was snowing heavily. The wind was strong enough to scour the slopes on the approach to Beinn Bhreac’s westerly Top, lifting the snow up into the sky and transporting it.
North of Beinn Bhreac, and stretching out for nearly 5km is the Moine Bhealaidh and it is here that I hoped that the wind-blown snow would settle and I would really get to put the navigation skills to the test.
The wind however had other plans and as I ventured north onto the lee slopes, rather than abating, the wind seemed to only increase and accelerate downslope.
This is not entirely uncommon and a variety of weather and terrain influences can create these strong downslope winds.
It was gusting now, maybe up to 70mph, and any mobility was tortuous. Movement was only possible during brief lulls between savage gusts.
I had sought to find difficult conditions, and find them I had, but now a decision had to be made. Do I continue on in the hope that the winds would abate, or seek to find some relief on a more sheltered aspect? Do I abandon my plans and head back down to the sanctuary of the forest?
This day was over a week in the planning. Studying maps, weather reports and avalanche forecasts. A 4am alarm and a 3 hour drive to get here. I had a list of skills and exercises that I was keen to revise and hone…
In the end the decision was easy.
Descending back down to Glen Derry, the snow turned back to rain and another change of gloves.
For the briefest moment I felt disheartened that I hadn’t completed all what I had set out to do; beaten back, defeated by the mountain.
On the walk back through Glen Derry the air was filled with the aromatic scent of the pines and I immediately felt renewed and at ease again.
I decided to stop in at Bob Scott’s Bothy to eat my lunch that I hadn’t the opportunity to do whilst battling in the wind.
This delightful refuge, nestled amongst a stand of majestic granny pines and sighted conveniently adjacent to the racing Derry Burn, was completely rebuilt in 2008 after it was devastated by fire.
Today, it is a well equipped and well maintained bothy and offers a welcome refuge on a driech day to enjoy my flask of chocolate and squashed sandwiches.
Reading the various notices and clippings adorning the timber-clad walls, I read one particular feature which included an excerpt from Nan Shepherds book, ‘The Living Mountain’
She writes of the Cairngorms,
“Summer on the high plateau can be delectable as honey; it can also be a roaring scourge. To those who love the place, both are good, since both are part of its essential nature.”
The long walk back to the car gave me time to reflect on this.
For as long as I can remember I have had a fascination with the weather, particularly the wild and extremes of weather.
It is these extremes of weather, the blasting from the wind, the scouring of rushing water, the warming and cooling through the seasons that, over millennia, sculpt and shape the mountains and the glens.
Perhaps this is why I love the mountains so much for they are ever changing. Even when I visit the same mountain, time and time again, it is never the same. It is always a new and refreshing experience, always exciting.
Nan sums up my rambling thoughts far more poetically
“One never quite knows the mountain, nor oneself in relation to it. However often I walk on them, these hills hold astonishment for me. There is no getting accustomed to them.”