At 1309 metres, Ben Macdui is the second highest mountain in the UK. It’s also only a 40-minute drive from my house. It seems incredible then that, until last week, I’d never climbed it.
My pal David and I had often talked about going up and I’ve walked past while doing the Lairig Ghru. But, in 25 years of living on Deeside, I’ve never bothered to stroll up to the peak.
It’s amazing how the proximity of things often causes them to be overlooked. I’m way too blasé about the attractions and activities in this area. There are hills, castles, lochs and forests here that people will travel miles to see. Yet I (and many other locals) don’t bother. I’m going to try and bother more from now on because we’re pretty spoiled.
They may be stunningly beautiful, but the potential dangers of the Scottish hills are real. These dangers are often talked about but they’re also often scoffed at. I must confess I’ve been a little dismissive in the past. I’ve been up in the high Alps for goodness sake, what’s a little hillock in Scotland?
But it’s not so much the severity of the terrain that’s the problem; it’s the weather. If the mist closes in when you’re high on the mountainside it can be extremely disorientating and it’s all too easy to lose your way. And, with a whole lot of nothing covering 95% of the Scottish Highlands, heading in the wrong direction could mean a walk into the abyss.
Seemingly, it was a lovely day when David and I set off on our bikes from the Linn of Dee car park – warm with broken high cloud and little wind. It was so warm, in fact, that I was able to wear my most ridiculous outdoor outfit – the one I put together for a duathlon I recently competed in over on the west coast. The lower half of this outfit consists of: compression running tights with shorts over the top, white socks and trainers. It looks bloody awful and, if David weren’t such an old friend, he would have been entirely justified in kicking my arse for looking like such a dufus.
Anyway my arse remained un-kicked and we enjoyed a pleasant cycle up to the Bridge of Lui where we dumped the bikes in the heather. At this point I changed my trainers for a pair of hiking boots, yes, still with tights. This made me look like even more of a numptie and when David showed me a picture he’d taken of me posing beside the burn, I was tempted to kick my own arse.
But there was no time for sartorial discussions as we were keen to complete our ascent as quickly as possible. We forged speedily up the first pitch and enjoyed a Mint Aero after 45 minutes or so of climbing.
Progress was good as we headed up the ridge but some cloud looming to the south looked a little ominous. The main path up to the summit from the south side runs out when it hits a large boulder field that basically surrounds the peak. From this point it’s a question of picking your own route and scrambling up. Not a problem, except the cloud rolled in at almost the exact time we reached the boulder/scree field.
We were careful to take compass bearings against the map and were confident we were heading in the right direction. It turned out we were and, without too much fuss, we reached the summit. Unbelievably there was no snow up there. Pretty incredible for mid-March at the top of Scotland’s second highest mountain. It just goes to show what stunning weather we’ve had recently.
Anyway, we enjoyed a relatively chilly lunch, sheltering from the wind behind the summit cairn, before beginning our descent. The mist was pretty thick at this point, visibility down to about 100 metres or so – not uncommon up there, the myth of the Old Grey Man has something to do with seeing your own shadow against the cloud doesn’t it?
We were pretty confident we had set off on the same bearing we had come up on. But, after some minutes of scrabbling over the rock field we had still to recognise any of the landmarks we’d spotted on the way up. A little frantic compass comparing and map studying ensued and we concluded we were on the right track; we must have just narrowly missed the points we’d passed on the way up.
Another five minutes of descending though and we were pretty sure we weren’t on the same bit of hill. We stopped to take stock. It was suddenly rather cold and the wind had picked up. There was a bit of me (probably the bit only covered by a pair of tights and some tennis shorts) that suddenly felt rather exposed.
Then we got lucky, the mist cleared slightly below us and we caught sight of a river and I recognised it. We had come down in slightly too southerly a direction to start with and we were descending a different face to the one we had ascended – we were going down towards the Lairig Ghru. This was fine as I knew there was a path that led along the side of a stream to the valley floor – pretty jammy.
But, it was a salutary lesson about how easy it is to go wrong. What we had forgotten was, at the very final stage of the ascent we had turned more to the west to climb the last couple of hundred metres. We knew we had to descend in a south/south easterly direction but we forgot we had to walk almost directly east for a little way before we did it. Without anything to look at, it was so easy to make the mistake.
Anyway we got down fine and it turned out to be an excellent route because we ended up walking in a nice loop back to where we’d left the bikes. David and I agreed we would have probably done that on purpose had we been able to see, and that nobody needed to know we hadn’t done it on purpose. Well, now I’ve told them so you can add that to the list (just above the tights) of reasons to kick my arse.