Published 28th May 2019, 19:54

    FIRST week in May, and we are walking in snow and biting winds. Spring has a habit of coming in a different package in the Cairngorms.

    We've been here so many times that it shouldn't have come as a surprise, but somehow it always does.

    Perhaps it was being lulled into a false sense of security with those long, languid, sunshine days of the previous week in the far north. Or perhaps it was the fact winter proved to be a toothless tiger this time round.

    We had pictured a lightweight round of Derry Cairngorm and its neighbouring summits; the reality was that the party setting off from Linn of Dee looked more prepared for an Antarctic expedition.

    The march up Glen Derry was accompanied by lazy snow showers blowing through, enough to render the landscape invisible for a few minutes at a time, not enough to significantly delay the follow-on from blue skies and pin-sharp visibility.

    We felt the wind more keenly with the turn west between the outlying sentries of Beinn Mheadhoin and Derry Cairngorm, the northerlies being funnelled through the gap a warning of what we could expect higher up.

    The Hutchison Hut seemed in Tyrolean guise, a miniscule work of man tucked neatly into the grandeur of the natural world, enclosed by black walls with white ribs thrust out, topped with cerulean skies punctured by balls of cotton.

    Our plans had included a series of variations, but that was before this short winter reprise. Now there were hasty adaptations in the comfort of the refuge. Ben Macdui was off the menu, too long and too exposed for the conditions. Beinn Mheadhoin would mean heading directly into the full force of the wind. Derry Cairngorm was more than enough for some, too much for others. We went our separate ways.

    It was strange to find the waters of Loch Etchachan moving freely; often at this time of year they are frozen solid, but despite the severe drop in temperature it still felt warm out of the wind, the core too high to freeze, just one more anomaly of this Cairngorms spring.

    We could see the cloud moving fast against the bright horizon up ahead. When we crested we started being shunted sideways by the power of the gusts, three italic men crossing a windswept plateau.

    The arbitrary granite tors add an alien feel to this landscape, but their normal warm, red tones had been replaced by a jet blackness. When combined with the streaks of driven snow and ice, they presented a monochrome world of savage beauty and exaggerated menace.

    The climb on to the final monolith was surprisingly fraught, out-facing steps normally so easy to ascend suddenly like a series of mini ice chutes, and the ferocious blasts from the north made keeping our balance a difficult concept.

    We made a hasty retreat to the lochan then turned our attention to Derry Cairngorm. The change of direction also gave us the advantage of walking with the wind at our backs for the first time, and progress was fast. It had been years since I had played hopscotch, but here in the rising boulder field was the biggest game ever, a constant hop from rock to rock to avoid stepping into the unpredictable infill of white between each one.

    I was constantly casting enviable eyes across the gap to the impressive walls of Ben Macdui, but I knew my original hope of taking in this peak and dropping down the Sron Riach ridge was simply unrealistic in these conditions.

    The little inkwell of Lochan Uaine, cradled in the brawny arms of Sron Riach, is a particular focal point, as if sirens from its depths are trying to lure you in. Once through the initial boulder chaos on the southern flank, the walk became more springlike with every step. All that remained was the leg-weary trek back from Derry Lodge.

    We had encountered a few different concepts of spring in one long Cairngorms day – there was no room for any spring in our step on the way out.