Cairngorm Winter Bothy Trip

Munros: Ben Macdui

Date walked: 11/12/2015

My mate and I had this weekend set aside for a while but we’d decided to wait until the weather forecast was up before we made any real plans. I’d suggested a winter bothy trip to the Hutchison Memorial Hut if the weather was on our side. As the weekend got closer and confidence grew in the good forecast (for not one but two whole days!) it was time to start making plans :D . Usually I’m all about the munros, but the trip out to the hut would be an adventure in itself so for once I wasn’t focusing on summits, just a nice route out and back again and I’d be happy.

In my head I thought we’d be starting on the route by 10am, sunset at just after half 3 and the light at dusk would give us till around 4, about 6 hours to make the hut in the light. We’d decided to start at the Ski Centre car park and walk up through Coire an t-Sneachda, down Coire Raibeirt, round Loch Avon, up to Coire Etchachan, and follow the burn down to the hut which would make for a stunning route :D . We arrived in the car park just after 10am but sorting out supplies for the weekend between us meant that it was 11am before we started on the path :roll: . I thought a little of the three hours of daylight that had gone from an already short day and set off. Our pace suffered from the heavy packs and the awkward terrain leading up to Coire an t-Sneachda. My shins took a couple of good hits in the boulder field when I placed my foot in holes between the boulders, struggling to tell with the snow cover what was solid and what wasn’t, testing with the walking pole and then falling in anyway! I ended up in deep a few times having to haul myself out. :lol: When the path steepened it was time to put the crampons on for a bit until we topped out where the snow had been scoured by the winds. It was hard work and slow going.

We were running later than we thought and stopped to reassess before heading down Coire Raibeirt. We looked at the distance still to go and the height gain on the other side of Loch Avon and decided that our plan was still a goer. It was likely we’d be in the dark for the final stretch down to the hut which wasn’t ideal, but would be okay. The clouds had been clearing throughout the day, tonight and tomorrow were set for more of the same clear, calm weather – so we went on.

I’ve been down Coire Raibeirt before and remembered how steep the path is, but in the conditions the walk down to Loch Avon took much longer than I’d thought. The crampons came on again as the usually wet path had turned to ice, then off again as we contoured round Loch Avon in calf deep powder snow. By this time it was coming up to half 3, sunset, and we still had a way to go :? . We met another group heading the opposite direction just below the Shelter Stone. They’d been up Ben Macdui and were on their way round to head up what we just came down. We had a quick chat and wished each other a safe journey and then pressed on in the fading light. We made our way up okay alongside the Allt nan Stacan Dubha, plenty of footsteps had trampled this way before us, but it was beginning to feel like a bit of a slog, with the packs really starting to weigh us down.

With the light going the temperature beginning to drop, we took the chance to add some layers and get the head torches out. We spotted the light from a head torch high on Shelter Stone crag and turned our own on to show them someone was out there and waited to see if they signalled for help, just in case. When all seemed well we plodded on with our route. The rest of the route from Coire Etchachan was done by torchlight and starlight alone.

Our timings hadn’t gone exactly to plan. We were both getting tired from the heavy packs. There was a combination of overestimating our pace with the added weight, and underestimating the terrain in the conditions. :( It would have been different if our end point had been back at the car but the fact that we were aiming for a hut in the dark more than half a day’s walk from civilisation was a little unnerving cause this was the first time I'd done this type of trip!

We carried on up the hillside, eventually crossing the stream at Little Loch Etchachan and gaining the path above the burn. If it had been light I knew we’d be able to see it soon - a tiny hut in the vast landscape - but in the dark all we had were snowy footprints in the torch light, a sprinkling of stars, and the sound of the burn. Finally a tiny dot of light appeared in the distance. Someone’s head torch from the bothy! The little light came out and went back in a few times, each time it seemed equally far away, like I was only bobbing up and down instead of moving forward.

But really it wasn’t long before we hit a little stream and there was the hut right in front of us :D . We popped our heads in the door and said our hellos to our bothy companions. The fire had heated the hut up nicely. Did I mention I’d manage to forget my gaiters for this walk? I was frozen into my boots. I had to sit by the fire to literally defrost so that I could get them off, and then sit in my thermals to let the ice melt off the bottoms of my trousers which were solid. The walk in had been a bit more of an adventure than I had bargained for, but finally we were there, with some lessons learnt for the next time. :clap:

1 - Coire an t-Sneachda.JPG
View into Coire an t-Sneachda

2 - Coire an t-Sneachda.JPG
View out from Coire an t-Sneachda

3 - Loch Avon.JPG
Loch Avon

4 - hutchy hut.JPG
The Hutchison Memorial Hut at first light

There were 6 of us in the bothy that night, cosy but not uncomfortable. We talked, and ate, and drank a little. When I had recovered from the walk in, I went out to take in the stars. The night was so clear. The longer I stared, the more stars appeared. It was incredible. You could sense the mountains in the darkness and almost feel the vastness of the landscape, enough to make your skin tingle with more than just the cold. As it does sometimes in the hills, when we're lucky, time stopped existing.

But what goes up must come down, and people who walk over mountains to bothys must eventually walk back to their cars :lol: . In the morning we had a quick look at the map and picked out our route back over Ben Macdui and set off. The picture taking had come to stop round about Loch Avon the day before when the light had disappeared so I got a little snap happy as we walked back up to Coire Etchachan in the early morning light. Our packs were lighter and our pace more relaxed. It felt like no time at all till we were on the summit of Ben Macdui. We got the stove out and had a brew, taking in the snowy summit. Last time I was there I couldn’t see a thing - we had to walk on a bearing to get from the ruin to trig point. Now I could see all the surrounding hills. When we started to feel the cold we packed up and headed down the gentle decent back to the ski car park. I started to think about the little things post I read on WH a not that long ago – taking this bag off, putting on fresh socks, putting on my trainers, turning the heat up in the car, sitting down in an actual seat – were all little things I’d be thankful for after this trip. But mostly I was just amazed again at the weekend I'd had. :D

5 - hutchy hut.JPG
Leaving the Hutchison Memorial Hut

6 - cairn a'mhaim.JPG

7 - view.JPG

8 - coire etchachan.JPG

9 - view.JPG
View en route to Ben Macdui

10 - ruin.JPG
Snow filled ruin on Ben Macdui

11 - summit.JPG
On approach to the summit

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