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A lone Scots pine protrudes from the snow on the moors below the Cairngorm Plateau. The peak in the background is Creag an Leth-choin, which translates as Lurcher’s Crag. My route led across the partly open stream seen in the center of the picture, then up the ridge above that stream.
On the western edge of the Plateau looking down into the Lairig Ghru (pass of Dhru), a deep steep-sided trench cutting through the hills. In the distance, the snow-free lower ground of Strathspey – the wide valley of the River Spey – can be seen with the snow-capped Monadh Liath (grey hills) rising on the far side. The pointed peak left of center is Creag an Leth-choin.
Looking south down the Lairig Ghru pass with the little ponds called the Pools of Dee glinting in the sun. The slopes of massive Braeriach (brindled upland) rise on the right with the pointed peak of Cairn Toul (peak of the barn) to the left. Note the windblown clouds curving over the summits, a sign of changing weather.
Looking back north across the Plateau from the slopes of Ben Macdui as the cloud sweeps in over the peaks along the northern edge. Two lines of steps in the snow can be seen. Mine is the one on the left.
On the western edge of the rounded summit dome of Ben Macdui above the Lairig Ghru. The sun still shone on the summit, but to the north the cloud was thickening fast and Strathspey was now dark under the thick grey blanket.
View from the western edge of Ben Macdui across the Lairig Ghru to Braeriach, capped by a thin layer of cloud, and the huge bowl of An Garbh Choire (the rough cirque) with smaller side bowls cut into the slopes above.
View from Ben Macdui to the flat-topped Cairn Toul, whose steep east face plunges down into the Lairig Ghru, where the infant River Dee runs out of An Garbh Choire. To the right of Cairn Toul is Sgor an Lochain Uaine (peak of the green pool).
The great sweep of the western wall of the Lairig Ghru from Cairn Toul over Sgor an Lochain Uaine round An Garbh Choire to Braeriach. The route between Braeriach and Cairn Toul is one of the other superb high level walks in the Cairngorms.
By the time I reached the northern edge of the Plateau on my way back, I was in mist much of the time. The rocky edges of the Plateau faded in and out in the swirling air. This is Pygmy Ridge on the cliffs of Stob Coire an t-Sneachda (the peak of the cirque of the snows). The little pools on the floor of the cirque can just be seen bottom left.
A last view down the Stob Coire an t-Sneachda cliffs (popular for winter climbing) to the pools on the floor of the cirque. Shortly after this photograph was taken, the mist closed in completely, and I descended from the Plateau in poor visibility, worsened by the fading of the late afternoon light.
The Cairngorm Plateau lies between the summits of Cairn Gorm (blue hill) and Ben Macdui (Macduff’s hill), the second highest mountain in Britain, in the northeast Scottish Highlands. The plateau covers over eight square miles, the largest area over 3,000 feet elevation in Britain. The Plateau consists of bare, stony undulating terrain and can seem benign in clear, summer weather. However it’s edged with cliffs and steep slopes, and poor visibility is common as clouds sweep across the slopes. Good navigation skills are essential to find a safe descent route in such conditions. The Plateau is also subject to extreme weather. Heavy snow is common in the winter, often brought on strong winds. From October to May, winds over 100 mph occur every month and 173 mph, the highest wind speed ever recorded in Britain, was registered by the weather station on the summit of Cairn Gorm in March, 1986.
This means that hiking on the Plateau in winter is always a challenging adventure, especially as there are only seven or eight hours of daylight. On this occasion, late in 2008, I set out on a freezing but sunny day intent on crossing the Plateau to Ben Macdui.