Ben Macdhui, otherwise written ‘Ben Macdui’, is the second highest mountain in the British Isles, exceeded only by Ben Nevis, and the highest of the Cairngorm Mountains. In the first part I described the first part of the climb, to the summit of Cairn Gorm. The two peaks are joined by a high ridge, but a fair bit of climbing lied ahead and several miles to reach Ben Macdhui.
To the west of Cairngorm is a plunging cliff in the tight horseshoe of the Coire an t-Sneachda. To the south the land soon drops into the long, deep corrie around Loch Avon. The route toward Ben Macdhui heads west to the cliff-edge. The clifftop, incidentally, marks the border of Inverness-shire with Banffshire.
The path looks precarious from a distance, as it follows the edge of the sheer cliff. In a strong wind or hail it could be very hazardous (and the first time I climbed Cairn Gorm I was battered by pea-sized hailstones in a fifty-knot wind), but this time it was a fine walk, climbing higher, and alternately dipping, in just light wind and rain, which frequently lifted, and the path is far enough from the cliff-edge to be comfortable.
However, when there is snow, it is another matter. Snow can build up on the cliff, and form cornices, which is to say snow ridges overhanging the void, and with the path invisible a walker can easily step trustingly on the snow cornice; effectively stepping out onto thin air.
I went in August, so that danger was not there; there was still snow though, in a sheltered spot above Loch Avon. Within the snow patch, animals were gathered, of a type I had never expected to meeting in these slopes. Turning then from the corrie (Coire an t-Sneachda), the path leads south, along a broad ridge below which the land drops down increasingly steeply to Loch Avon.
Here was the enduring snow patch in the distance and within it many moving shapes. Binoculars showed me a distinctive shape I had not seen since a holiday in Norway many years ago – reindeer. The over a rise the rest of the herd appeared, unbothered by me nor by other walkers on the path. Reindeer have not been native to the Highlands since the Ice Age, but they were reintroduced in places in the 1950s, and now there is a thriving herd, unbothered by man, and not hunted.
Soon then as the other walkers gave up or disappeared, I came to my lunch spot: the azure water of Lochan Buidhe.
Lochan Buidhe is a broad, shallow lake and an important landmark on the path. From its foot runs a little stream, Fèith Buidhe, which plunges down the corrie to the east into Loch Avon: it may be considered the source of the River Avon.
From Lochan Buidhe, the path turns south again and climbs relentlessly over rocky ground: thank goodness for sturdy boots with solid soles. There is eventually a line of tiny cairns to mark the way. I thought at the time that to find the top I would just have to look for the highest mountain going and walk to it, but the landscape is very misleading – gorgeous, frightful, but misleading, as all around there are other famous peaks of the Cairngorms, and in this the mountain top just a mile and a half away may be lost. At this point though another walker appeared heading for the summit and reassured me of the way and spurred me on notwithstanding the ground.
Then, eventually, there was the summit, marked with a crafted cairn and a toposcope. Ranged all around it in the distance to the south were other mountains with whose names I was very familiar, even if I had not trodden their slopes, yet: Braeriach, Carn Toul, Carn a’ Mhaim, Derry Cairngorm, and far off somewhere The Fiddler. Then the cloud lifted and far in the distance to the south-west appeared a familiar shape: Ben Nevis. Here the two highest mountains in the kingdom can salute each other.
There I stood in the midst of the Cairngorms, higher than any man in civilisation, unless they stood on the summit glimpsed for a moment in the distance. My companion of the last climb had disappeared as suddenly as he had appeared, leaving the mountain to me alone. It just remained then to find a way back.