Ben is a madman.
Whether it be on the hill, on the road getting there or on the way home, his antics are sure to add spice to a day out; let me explain. Once the January-February snows had fled the higher ground I imagined that we’d have very little more this winter, perhaps the odd fall in the hills, certainly not enough to cause the kind of mayhem we’d recently experienced .
When reports of newly blocked roads flashed across the TV screens I contacted Ben and suggested a look at Lochnagar’s ‘Black Spout’, as soon as conditions allowed. Now I’ve rarely been in Ben’s car when we’ve not had at least a ‘near miss.’ Bumps and scrapes seem to be the order of the day and today was no exception!
No heater in the car! Pile on the clothes. In order to see the way forward one of us would have to jump out at intervals, grab a handful of roadside snow, and with it, ‘wash’ the freezing windscreen.
We tried the Cairn O’ Mount road only to find ourselves suddenly reversing, involuntarily, back towards the Clatterin’ Brig. And so the long way round. On an icy country lane Ben failed to negotiate a right hand bend, we wound up in the farmer’s field; thank goodness the gate had been left open.
The snow rutted lane above the River Muick was precarious, eliciting squeals of manic delight from my barely in control driver!
At last the car park. The snow plough had kindly cleared it, leaving a huge drift of snowy detritus at one end. The car refused to stop. “Whoomf!” “We’ll dig her out when we get back,” Ben assured me, cheerfully.
Footprints led to the bridge across the river and pointed to the dark pines of Allt na giubhsaich Lodge. There were deer prints too, in fact we could see a number of stags poring forlornly at the snow in nearby fields, shaggy and dark against the all pervading white. With the white whale of Cuidhe Crom and Little Pap billowing beside us we passed beneath Conachcreag with it’s ‘Castle of the witch’. Snow ruled!
Climbing gently on the buried path we passed Bill Stewart’s memorial and, close by, the spring known as ‘The Fox’s Well’. We could hear the water trickling somewhere down beneath the snow, but that was all. The normal route onto Lochnagar is via ‘the ladder’, which means: reach the col, turn left and ascend on granite boulders to the spectacular corrie rim.
First though it’s customary to make the short detour onto Meikle Pap for wondrous views into the North-east Corrie with its dark little lochan and impossible looking cliffs.
Not today though. As we’d climbed so clouds had rolled in and settled to obscure the top third of said cliffs; all we could see with any certainty was our day’s objective, the white wide open maw of Black Spout Gully.
We dropped down to the frozen lochan, a milky pearl set in a broach of tarnished silver.
Tarnished by infuriating boulders, most half buried in snow and treacherous; the mad man danced his way across, I followed with care. A great tongue of uninviting scree disgorges itself from the Black Spout’s cavernous mouth, (in summertime the route is hardly worth the effort), today the scree was mercifully buried beneath deep snow and commensurately easier. Soft snow to begin with made our crampons superfluous, more a hindrance until we got above the scree and into the gully proper; once in the chasmic confines of the ‘spout’, away from the clutches of any sunshine, things firmed up and made for easier going. There’s rarely any difficulty with this route; a classic winter climb, it’s graded ‘Winter 1’, which means technically easy. Soon we were up in the claustrophobic confines of the roofless tunnel, huge granite walls soaring above us, hemming us in.
Every ledge was covered with snow and the bare walls festooned with ice.
Men’s voices echoed nearby, attracting our attention to the opposite wall; there three men were happily attempting Black Spout Buttress, a good summer climb low in the grades but a more interesting proposition when draped with snow and ice.
We struggled upwards kicking steps where appropriate, otherwise spiking any harder snow with our crampons and relying heavily on ice axes for purchase. Parts of the gully are choked with big granite boulders, iced beyond recognition today but enormous fun to overcome.
There comes a point some way up when a subsidiary gully rips down from the cliff top to join this main one, forming a deep “Y” gully. At its dark entrance we sat on a granite slab and bolted down a sandwich or two. But this freezing stance was no place to linger. Our coats had already frozen white and solid, (my beard was decorated with icicles); we felt the frost getting in and cooling the sweat on our backs, turning fingers numb.
On and up we moved, lost in a gloomy world of ice. When we entered the freezing fog of the upper gully, we knew that soon it would all be over. The gloom thinned as the Spout widened near its exit. One last push and a final gentler snow slope and we were up, panting from our efforts but exhilarated.
We set a bearing to make sure we didn’t miss the nearby summit cairn. Cac Carn Beag, (the little cairn of the pile of excrement, to put it as politely as I can), is topped by a granite tor, onto this we scrambled for a bitterly cold lunch.
Of course there was no view, not that we needed one; the ascent through the gully, though modest in terms of winter mountaineering, had engrossed us fully; even as we ate and drank a warming brew, the adrenalin continued to buzz.
Further bearings led us down past Cac Carn Mor (don’t ask! ) and onto deep soft snow.
Our objective was the Glas Allt, which was to lead us down to Muick-side.
We heard its tinkling waters long before we saw them. When we did see them it was with breath taking suddenness!
One moment we were moving slowly in a sea of fog, the next we were below it, an arctic wonderland spread before us, a land so white, save for the thin black line of the stream, it hurt our eyes.
We followed the burn ever downwards, down beside its plunging waterfall and steeply down again to the pines of Glas allt- Shiel and the frozen waters of Loch Muick. We were in royal country now! Although spring is almost on us the days are still short; as we relaxed our pace along the Loch-side track we were aware that the clouds were thinning; but it was too late, already the first stars of the coming night were twinkling.
It was pitch black when arrived at the car park. Ben extricated the car from its snowy cocoon to discover a broken headlamp, the drive back home was sure to be fun. It was indeed.
On the iced Deeside road we happened on a woman who’d slid off the road and into a tree, though she was unhurt her car was immovable. As I spoke to her in hopefully calming tones there was a flash of blue light! “Goodness me”, cried the poor woman, “are the police already here?”.
Of course, they weren’t. Un-puzzled myself, I turned just as Ben was pocketing a camera, his eyes averted heavenward in a cherubic look of complete innocence.
Didn’t I say he was a madman!