AN EASTER DAY IN THE CAIRNGORMS

 

The Big Six highest tops on ski, 22 April 1982

 

On a Saturday evening in early April a lone skier slid cautiously over a snow bridge on the Dee below Corrour. The sky was leaden but Sunday's forecast was good. Sadly, it rained in the night - the rattling of squalls on the tin roof providing relief only from the snufflings of the resident rodent. Morning's gloom had inspired no one to leave the bothy till late: the skier made a tentative approach to Cairn Toul before retreating through slush and showers to Derry Gates and an afternoon's planking at Glenshee. A week later, Braemar was wet, windy and warm, though an optimistic forecast hinted that great things might be possible on the morn. At dawn a herd of deer grazing peacefully by Derry was startled by the sight of a cyclist wobbling up the track, a pair of skis waving antennae-like above his head. By the Luibeg Bridge the creature, now minus his wheels, gazed up at the scudding cloud, considered the mists cloaking the tops, and reluctantly veered north for the Sron Riach. MacDhui was all ice and blast and swirl. But the great whale-back of Beinn a' Bhuird basked between showers and provided a grand run down to the Quoich. Thus was the appetite whetted, the scene set.

 

Curiously, the following Saturday was once again gloomy, while the seers at Dyce spoke of a meteorological redemption on Easter Day. Anticipation was tempered by suspicion as I drove up Deeside on this, the third Saturday evening in succession. Yet the omens were good as Bob Anderson and I tottered away from Allanaquoich: the last of the squalls evaporated and a bright spring evening ensued. From a lake that was once the Dee, pairs of mallard flapped in unison and made off across the water; Braemar Castle, on the far shore, glowed under the dark forests of Lochnagar; but the high level of the river foretold of a long walk to get to snow and promised some entertaining stream crossings on the way.

 

Shortly after dawn, two sleepy figures stood outside the Howff, watching a gaggle of geese winging north: a dark, flickering vee under a clear sky. An hour's frustrating tramp along the Quoich in spate brought us to a snow bridge and access to the snow skeins on the north bank. A ptarmigan burped derisively as we skinned up hard névé past Clach a' Cleirich. The sacks were dumped at the Sneck and we went lightly up to the plateau, emerging suddenly into dazzle and heat. A patchy snow cover forced us to step out of the skis and approach Ben Avon's highest tor in our heavy plastic boots: clumsily we scrambled up summit rocks still rimed with frost. Sitting there in the morning light I could see MacDhui as if it were only a mile distant. I turned to Bob and mentioned (as though the thought had just occurred to me) that the Grand Tour, the six highest Cairngorm tops, might be on that day. Non-committally, he agreed about the possibility and we rose and sauntered down across the plateau, chatting. It was a time to linger, to suck in the crystal ambience, to soak up the fresh warmth of a spring mountain day. We were so laid back that we walked well past the skis and had to go back to look for them. An inauspicious start to an ambitious day!

 

From light to shade, from sun-soaked snow to corrugated ice, we slithered and rattled back to the Sneck. Beinn a' Bhuird was a blinding white space suspended beneath a blue space. We took a second breakfast by the cairn and contemplated the vistas and distances. It was only 9.30 and nothing seemed impossible. Coire Ruairidh was a bowl of smooth, hard snow, beginning to bake in the morning sun. We swooped down in flowing parallels, skidding to a halt where a lone figure stood motionless on the corrie floor. He was shirtless, a skier and he was examining a few bright spots of blood and a scatter of ptarmigan feathers. An eagle's breakfast table perhaps. We zoomed on, schussing far out into the Yellow Moss, revelling in the sensation of pure speed.

 

Upper Glen Derry, a sizzling cauldron, gave an entertaining descent down a corniced wraith of snow bordering a steep gully. We pressed on, skinning swiftly past the hut to the cool shore of Loch Etchachan for an early lunch. The loch still bore a white blanket, though a suspicious translucence at the edges warned against a crossing. We saw, with some concern, that the slopes of Cairn Gorm were speckled brown and looked bad for skiing. The slope up to MacDhui is long but mercifully gentle and even. A cool breeze freshened our brows. With the autopilot switched on, the skis slid smoothly and rhythmically and we gained the cairn with little pain or psychological damage. After the lonely blank spaces of the eastern tops, MacDhui was like a carnival - the cairn draped with lunching, chattering skiers and walkers. From his sack Bob produced two hard-boiled eggs, each labelled 'Happy Easter', then rolled his down from the cairn, much to the amusement of the noisy occupants.

 

Having duly observed tradition we turned and skied off as stylishly as we could manage before an audience. The North Top gave a fine run on good snow, all the better for carving at speed through a group of langlaufers tottering unsteadily on their slivers of plastic. On Cairn Gorm we descended lower than usual and skinned up a large patch of slushy, but continuous, snow all the way to the top. We found day-trippers there admiring the view. Bob gestured towards Aviemore and said loudly in his most naive tone, "Doesn't look like Fort William to me.” Then, "we are on Ben Nevis aren't we?" I said I thought it was Lochnagar and we turned to retrace our tracks into Coire Raibert. The heavy afternoon snow seemed to drag the skis on the up slopes, or perhaps we had hit that low point marathon runners call the Wall. At any rate a vigorous individual on Nordics was rapidly overhauling us. "Competitive bugger," I thought, then recognised Charlie MacLeod, fresh from the Cairn Gorm Car Park and a good excuse to stop for a natter. Later, the sacks were retrieved from above Coire Domhain where afternoon tea was taken. By 3.30 we were crossing the 'Cairngorm Ski-way" now jammed with skiers returning from MacDhui to Lurcher's Gully and the car park.

 

We were probably fortunate in being totally ignorant about the seriousness of the March Burn slope into the Lairig Ghru. Steep? Avalanche prone? Crag-ridden? We never paused to consider these facts but plunged over the edge, astonishing some walkers who had just waded up from the abyss. The March madness burned in our veins, but cooled as we halted, teetering, on the Neanderthal brow of a huge face, craggy above and a deathly, pockmarked white below. In the lead, I decided against heroic jump turns, or even kick turns, and resorted to a side-slipping traverse. Once clear of the rocks I swooped down to the Pools, while Bob sidestepped more sensibly in my wake. The opposite ascent directly up to Sron na Lairige, was a nightmare of sweat and aching calves, best forgotten. Bob, with his harscheissen, forged steadily ahead, leaving me to slither in his wake. The Sron itself was all bare rocks but Braeriach provided better cover. A pair of skiers we met on the crest had done three of the Four Tops. Cairn Toul was omitted when they couldn't cross the raging Dee below the Tailor's Burn. Perhaps unwisely, I told them about the bridge at Corrour: I cannot recall being thanked for the information.

 

An invisible ptarmigan burped in appreciation as we approached the summit exactly twelve hours after leaving the Howff. It seemed an appropriate moment to stop for tea (more precisely, biscuits and water) before sliding gently away over the plateau, heading for the Wells of Dee. I stopped for a picture of Angel's Peak and the great corrie rim. Bob took the camera and photographed me skiing across one of Scotland's finest backdrops. Though tired, we were determined to savour this, the most scenic part of the Tour. The sun, dipping, cast a mellow light on the snow, revealing subtle contours and textures, which had been washed from the scene in the white flood of mid‑day. It grew cooler. The Wells were a faintly translucent depression to our left. The southern slope of Einich Cairn glittered in the rosy light, highlighting a cat's cradle of ski tracks, some forming silky arabesques, others scoring the surface with vicious parallel scratches. On Cairn Toul we wove a white strand among the brown rocks, gasping a little with fatigue. We emerged on to the summit cone. We stood there; we gazed for a while and took a picture or two; we said little. Then we went down.

 

To avoid the dingy squalor of Corrour I suggested skiing the superb slopes of the Allt Clais an t’ Sabhail and bivouacking at Loch nan Stuirteag. Bob didn't veto the idea, but he had a thin sleeping bag, which moderated his enthusiasm. We turned and headed for Coire Odhar, tumbling sometimes on snow that was solidifying into lumpy porridge. At Corrour we found space between a lone lady skier and three youths who had walked in from Blair Atholl. The latter possessed cans of beer and flasks of whisky but seemed strangely deaf to loud hints about parched throats. Fortunately our friendly neighbour seemed more impressed, even envious, by our Tour and she sluiced tea into us and chatted until we slipped off to sleep.

 

In the morning we rose early and went back to Linn of Quoich - taking a wee detour, that took us to Loch nan Stuirteag, Monadh Mor and an exhilarating 2 1/2 mile descent from Beinn Bhrotain to the Dee. And then we walked the 9 long, hot, dusty, footsore miles to the car.