THE dazzling white slope stretched ahead to fuse with boiling skies on the horizon, unblemished except for the protruding heads of a line of fence posts.
Filling the skyline behind was Beinn a’ Chaorainn, a triple-peaked Munro with huge cornices reaching out into space, the dividing line between firm ground and nothingless a dangerous unknown.
We were heading for the summit of Creag Meagaidh along the long west ridge from Bealach a’ Bharnish as part of a traverse from Roughburn to Aberarder.
The walk had been planned for spring conditions, but winter had other ideas. Freezing Arctic winds had blasted down over the previous 24 hours bringing heavy snow, brushing aside with ease the burgeoning switch to warmer days.
While this came as a surprise, it shouldn’t have. It was almost a carbon copy of what happened last year. Then, we had arrived in the Cairngorms on the back of week of warmth only to be cruelly ambushed by winter. For the next seven days our mountain walking was undertaken in conditions that would have left January feeling proud.
Now here we were again, the heavy jackets, trousers and boots, layers upon thermal layers, crampons and ice axes at the ready.
The sun was beating down at the roadside and after the initial track walk in and then the headbutt approach through the pines to open ground, we were feeling somewhat overdressed. That feeling didn’t last long. When we hit the new snowline and the northerly wind some 30 minutes later, we were glad of every piece of kit.
We were soon on the south summit of Beinn a’ Chaorainn, and then came the wide berths around the huge bites out of the ridgeline. There’s no tip-toeing to the edge for a peek at the corries - some walkers have come a cropper in the past thinking they were standing on solid ground when there was only snow and fresh air.
The cairn of the north top was buried and we made doubly sure of our line of descent before heading to the col and the long pull-up to magnificent Meagaidh.
We were always walking beneath wonderful skies, black, bubbling and threatening one minute, fluffy white cotton balls fleeing across a sea of azure the next. Small flurries of snow and hail blew in on occasion without real conviction to remind us of their territorial rights.
Creag Meagaidh is a vast and complex mountain, long sections of flat plateau intercut everywhere by huge corries, soaring cliffs ringing most entrances and exits. It has more in common with its distant Cairngorms cousins than with its rockier, more simply defined near neighbours, a dangerous place in whiteout conditions.
Some of our party had chosen to ascend from the Coire Ardair trade route and we passed them as we left the summit, tiny dark figures in the palest landscape. They had needed crampons for their passage up through The Window, the nick in the skyline which allows access for the ascent to the main plateau. In summer this is a steep push up from the lochan through rubble and shifting scree but under snow it becomes a far more serious proposition.
We opted to stay high as long as possible, squeezing through the narrowing terrain between the Coire Ardair cliffs and those of the Moy Corrie on to the Sron a’ Ghoire ridge, as driving snow showers added to the Alpine aura.
This ridge provides a superb eagle‘s eye view of The Window and an appreciation of the avalanche danger carried by the black and white streaked ramparts which ring the blue water far below. Further down the ridge we dropped down steep, surprisingly solid, fields of snow which sometimes entailed bum slides using the ice axe as a brake. For the unprepared, these slopes could be a death trap.
April may be coming to an end, but winter isn’t quite finished yet. Some of the high peaks are still holding a lot of snow and the northerlies are set to blast us again next week. Be careful if you are heading out.