Sometimes you have that dream idea, one that seems made of stardust rather than reality. When that idea relies on very specific weather and snow conditions aligning, its the sort of of thing you will still be talking about doing in ten years time. Maybe its time I started entering the lottery, as one weekend in march, I got all my numbers pulled.
High pressure over Scotland, freezing overnight temperatures and warming during the day.
As I set of from Cairngorm I was still unsure, as a nearly winter ml I didn’t really want to be calling out mountain rescue saying I’d slid down Ben Mcdui and been impaled by my handlebars. I was going cramponless, given that if it was that icy, the bike would also be useless and I’d turn back. As the temperatures were due to soar as the sun rose, it was early starts to make the most of the hard snow before it became slushy and un rideable. I love being up in the hills early, there’s a kind of peace before the onslaught that comes with good weather. Only myself and a few other keen folks were out in the early morning sun and admiring the stunning views. Going early had another advantage in that if I’d guessed wrong, and the conditions weren’t right, there wouldn’t be too many folks about to laugh!
It felt like a long stressful hikeabike up to the snow, was it going to work? The first few low lying snowy patches were a mix of breakable crust and solid ice from yesterdays melt. Not a great start. Once higher though I reached the main snow fields, stepped on and rode away. It was pretty much perfect. Having thawed just the right amount, so that the hard overnight refreeze left it firm, but not enough to form ice everywhere. Although there were big patches of cairngorm boiler plate ice which I played a silly game in my head of guessing, in true game show classiness, Of Will It Be Grippy, Or Slippy? Also in true game show style, if i guessed wrong, it didn’t take long before i was sliding about on my bum. Fortunately the only other people up here were tiny dots in the distance, too far away to witness my world of hilarious entertainment.
Higher still and the snow swiftly turned into very hard neve, the sort of stuff id never venture onto without and ax or crampons. Considering turning back i left my bike and wandered about to search for a safe route across. Eventually I found a section where the granite boulders had melted their way to the surface and were poking through, providing a safe staircase of grip. The Plateau was incredible, endless rideable snow in every direction, laughing in pure joy we zoomed around, using the curves and contours like a natural bikepark. I know this area very well, in both summer and winter coats, but this was different again, being able to ride anywhere, on a good snowy covering. Making my way to Ben Mcdui the line of cairns contours around the hill, with some incredible views into the mighty Garbh Coire between Braeriach and Cairn Toul. From here the views allowed me to asses the route for tomorrow, in particular one section descending Braeriach that I thought might be slightly exciting. Up to McDui the whole ascent bar one short steep section was rideable, a lone photographer inspiring me to sweat and weave all the way to the summit.
I love the challenge of riding on snow, reading the sound and reflections to work out the best lines. It might not be the most technical riding, but there is definitely a skill in understanding how the huge rubber tires will react to different snow types. And here in Scotland every meter can be subtly altered depending on how the wind has layered the snow or the closeness of rocks underneath or the angle of the sun on the slope. Even freewheeling down a gentle slope with a constant gradient, im always concentrating, seeking out the right dimples or light to help guide a good route.
From Ben Mcdui I was going to attempt a different way off to usual, and then have a few km of riding down in the glen to cross the spectacular Lairig Grhu, before hiking back up the other side. I could see a steep snow exit on the path up from corrour bothy and was keen to hit that before the snow softened too much in the sun. The descent turned out to be a bit wild, the south facing slope having turned into slush already but we made it down and were soon peddling and pushing our way along the glen. I was regretting my choice of sensible clothing, b2 boots and thick winter tights, although great up high, i was now slowly dissolving into a stinky puddle in the 15 plus degrees.
It was a tough carry up to Cairn Toul, endless in the heat and slush. It seemed like I was making no ground, sliding around in the wet knee deep snow. Impossible to push the bike on this, I was having to carry it and falling over with a loaded bike on your back isn’t in one of my top ten ways to have fun. I was passed by by a few groups of men, entertained by my ridiculous presence and had to keep stopping to eat and catch breath. I was feeling pretty silly up here in the slush, it was not a given that things would freeze up overnight and i was starting to wonder if I was going to be faced with several really horrible kilometers of pushing to get back off the hill. My original plan had been to bivi either on Cairn Toul, or in the saddle before Angels peak, where i had hoped there might be water, but decided to push on to Angels peak to shorten the hike in the morning, assuming it did not harden up.
Sunset, alone perched on a mighty peak in the heart of the mountains. Bliss. Until I melted the snow under my sleeping mat and it kept skating forwards, threatening to toboggan me off the hill. That would be a pretty silly way to go. The night passed under a sky of revolving stars. It seemed warm, no sign of the freeze I was waiting for. I was up before sunrise and to my delight immediately fell over on the ice! It had refrozen, the gamble paid off! I knew that today was going to be incredible, the mountains my playground, if only for a few hours before the sun softened it all. Too impatient to eat i had a brew and was packed just after sunrise.
Descending Angels peak, usually a boulder field, on perfect snow in first light is something I will remember forever. Carving great turns and laughing out loud.
A short peddle past great icecream cornices took me onto the endless plateau of Braeriach. It took several laps of this giant bowl before I was ready for my final summit. It was only 8am as I sat for a while, watching the river glisten far below. This is my favorite view in the cairngorms, its a very special place. From here you can peer across to our route from yesterday, the cliffs up to Ben McDui, you can see all the way down and out of the Lairig Grhu, and into Lochan Uaine, encased in the shadows of Angels peak. eventually, the sun strong in the sky, it was time to go. One final amazing descent, away from the high summits and back down to the reality far below.
Until those next magic conditions…