THE storms had abated and for a couple of days there was calm and the promise of sunshine.
I was looking for a mountain walk, certain avoidance criteria permitting of course ie. ungritted minor roads, major river crossings, anything that would normally take more than five hours.
I decided to head up the A9. The forecast suggested that the further east you came, the better the chances of a decent day so that limited the choice further. My first thought had been the Cairngorms, Bynack More most likely, always a good winter walk among snow-laden trees and shining, silver waters.
By the time I was nearing Drumochter, however, the skies had taken on a more menacing demeanour and the amount of lying snow on the road had increased. The prospect of a long drive home in darkness battling a blizzard didn’t appeal so I decided to keep it simple.
Having recently circuited the Dalnaspidal four, I turned my attention to the two across the road, A’ Bhuidheanach Bheag and Carn na Caim.
To say this pair are not the most exciting hills in the country would be an understatement. In high summer, or at least what passes for it here in Scotland, they make a diverting few hours’ trek over a high plateau with few points of interest. For a lot of people they are a necessity for a couple of ticks.
Under snow they become different beasts and they can throw up problems every bit as serious as many of their more pointy brothers and sisters.
The first time I walked these hills was way back at the start of my mountain life. We were novices; we thought we could navigate, but we came a cropper in the thick mist, falling between two stools with our route finding for reasons that now elude me and ending up at a wrong summit.
A swift revisit corrected that error, and then second time round was in stunning sunshine. Since then I have saved them for winter walking when choice is limited elsewhere. My latest venture was the first time in deep snow and it produced a few surprises.
The ugly track that lifts you quickly on to the plateau was buried and as I gained height I found myself having to forget it and make my route on a bearing. The deep clefts dropping west between the rounded lumps were filled to the brim with the white stuff. It was difficult to gauge just how deep the snow was in these gaps, and it would be foolhardy to step into one to find out.
I stuck to the higher ground for my push south to the first Munro. It probably involved more ups and downs than usual but at least I made sure I stayed clear of any contour traps.
So far, I had had the sun with me, but as I stood at the flat summit of A’ Bhuidheanach Bheag a bank of magnificently black cloud rolled and boiled along the southern horizon creating a spectacular spectrum of light on the otherwise white landscape.
On the way over to Carn na Caim it caught and then overtook me, the views speedily devoured. A five-kilometre walk over featureless terrain followed, a seemingly endless plod with trust firmly placed on my navigation, few other clues as to what was ahead. The sigh of relief in finding the summit cairn in conditions like this is palpable. I’m sure it could have been heard for miles in the stillness of the white mist.
Finding the route back down was no picnic either. The head of the quarry where the track starts had vanished and on either side of where I thought it was there was only white layers of varying and dubious levels. Even one step down revealed an optical illusion. I had now decided my favourite colour was definitely not white.
I stayed high out of the gullies and trusted my compass, even though I was convinced I was on the wrong ridge. When the slopes became more pronounced, I stuck rigidly with the ridgeline. There was a steep, snow-laden drop-off to my right and the V-shape became more severe further down, but again I stuck to my line.
Eventually I discovered I had come down the side of Coire Chuirn, one hump along from where I should have descended, but staying true to my descent line had brought me out to safer ground and a quick return to the car.
The lesson had been reinforced - in winter conditions any mountain can be a challenge.