This post has two storytellers: Jonathan and Natalia. Our first outback highland experience was also our first hiking trip as a couple, and this curious account presents two points of view of the same sequence of events. We thought it would be entertaining and educational to write this entry in a form of a duet. Without further preamble….
J: The scariest and most dangerous experiences of my life have rarely been those that I expected to be scary. No, it was the ones that I thought were going to be casual, the ones that I wasn’t prepared for that have caught me off guard that really threw my little world into a spin. That’s what happened with Ben Macdui, the second highest peak in the UK. But we’ll start at the beginning, like a proper story, rather than jumping straight to the climax.
N: We are in Aviemore, your most typical small mountain resort town. We are also, more generally, in Scotland, which means, foreigners or not, we get to exercise the great Right to Roam.
We had a plan. A map. A compass.
We would get a nice early breakfast, catch a bus to the trailhead by the Ski Center, summit “Britain’s most haunted mountain” by the name of Ben Macdui, descend into the valley, and camp inside a bothy in the valley. The following day would be chasing us up two other smaller peaks and race us back to the Ski Center. Easy, right?
We woke up, bright and early, and packed up our camp at the little campsite in Aviemore. Short walk into town, and we went straight to… the café, because everyone knows that the most important part of summiting a mountain is diving into a full Scottish breakfast before starting out. Eggs and bacon and tatties gave way to sausages and coffees and burps.
Early breakfast turned into a late one pretty seamlessly, and we found ourselves at the Ski Center around noon.
Now, this was around 11am, and was perhaps our first backstep of many. But we knew that it didn’t get dark until about 7:30, so our fear was as far away as the sun from the western horizon. What wasn’t far away was the wind, which was whipping around at a sustained 30mph.
A very nice lady working at the Visitor Center stepped outside with us to show the beginning of the “trail”. See the quotation marks? Yeah, that’s because there was no trail in the conventional sense. Scots don’t believe in trails. That’s when the term “hillwalking” started to get some color in.
As the nice lady named Susan was gesturing in the direction of the imaginary trail across the ridge, a gentle breeze was caressing her hair with rough Scottish affection of 35 mph. She gleefully exclaimed “Cheers, my dears!” indicating that the explanation was over, and headed back inside. We headed in the opposite direction, freshly stocked up on that glee and feeling like total badasses, conquistadors of the great adversity of the Scottish backcountry.
Our first stop happened not 10 minutes later, when we had to fold our minimalist shoe aspirations and change into boots, slightly more appropriate for the soupy mud we were ascending through. Dampened the feet, but not the mood, we made up onto the ridge, which met us exuberantly welcoming with higher winds, colder temperatures, and patches of snow. Big patches of snow. The ones that make you think that maybe those ice axes you just saw on the first (out of three total throughout our little hike) pair of hillwalkers will be unavoidably necessary. Now, I have ascended many a mountain, including the New England staple, Mt Washington, via Tuckerman’s Ravine, in December, in sneakers and sweats (not that it would be my preferred choice of attire now, but it did happen).
I too consider myself a hiker. I’ve summited mountains. Big Mountains, some in the range of 19,000 feet. Ben Macdui (“Ben” comes from the Gaelic “Beinn” which means “peak”) stands at 4,295 feet. This was going to be fun, but even the word ‘adventure’ might be pushing it a bit, bub.
Yeah, we’ll be fine. Axes are for wusses and ice-climbers (clarity disclaimer: ice-climbers are not wusses. ice-climbers are badasses). We are not going to ice-climb on this hike, and we are not wusses. Logic: axes are optional and therefore avoidable.
Our jackets rippled in our ears and it was cold, but those views! The pale, fast moving cloud hovered right above us, but below us the valley opened up, and it was gorgeous. Forests and lochs and mountains. Unreal. We didn’t move too fast, stopped for pictures, and were having exactly the time we expected.
We continued up, gradually, along the ridge, and found ourselves inside that fast moving cloud. It was cold and wet and even more windy, but we were doing it! This was Scotland after all, and no one promised sun. We kept moving, following a trail marked by the occasional cairn of stones.
Feeling like a time-space traveller seizing the right moment of portal opening, I quickly ditch my winter gloves to produce my camera from the backpack, to capture the soul of the moment. My fingers turn into frozen sausages within seconds, and it reminds me, that a print of a moment’s soul, however beautiful, will never be complete. It will not picture the frozen fingers, or the needle-like wind, or the awe in front of the nature-in-charge. It will, however, and hopefully, continue to remind of all of the important nuances surrounding the pretty view.
I try to stuff my camera back inside my rucksack as fast as I can, aware of how cold Jonathan might be patiently waiting for me to satiate my photo-documentary needs. Yet my hands move at the speed of the above-mentioned frozen sausages, which is not very fast. Eventually, my half of the travel household is perched again on my shoulders, and we lean into the wind, blowing slightly sideways, and it almost feels like flying. Man, you just gotta imagine something fantastical like that to counterbalance the harsh reality of elements. Imagination is a great tool, and, unlike ice-axes, one I refuse to avoid.
And then the trail started going back down. And by down I mean down. We could see it below us, circling down through another valley. This was the wrong trail, and we hadn’t seen another one. We hunted around, backtracked, and still found nothing.
Nothing, but a consistent slap in the face by Windy MacWinderson. We went back up to the ridge again. I looked around. No cairns. I felt the tingling of excitement, as the thought of bushwhacking sparkled through my head like a lightning at the brink of a storm. Adventure! Finally!
Now, I was raised to avoid certain things at all costs: accepting candy from strangers, starting fights at school, and leaving the trail. So when Natalia pulled out the map and compass, that familair voice in my head shouted DO NOT LEAVE THE TRAIL. Yet, I didn’t want to go down, and we couldn’t find the other trail. And her logic was solid. We looked at the map, knew where we were, and knew that if we went SE, we would find the trail we had to be on. So, I ignored the voice, and we ventured off.
Bushwhacking in the Scottish “Bens” is a misnomer. Any bush putting roots down in that rocky, often of volcanic ancestry, ground would be a true wacko. As such, the terrain left little to offer as potential directional markers. With the cloud getting thicker the higher we went, the view changed very minimally, and when not using the compass, we could only tell the approximate direction by which way we were blown over by the wind.
10 minutes, 20 minutes, 30 minutes, and nothing. That voice in my head now sang an annoying rendition of “I told you so, I told you so,” to the tune of Jingle Bells. Which did not drown out the constant battering of the battering wind. We were going up, sure, but now we found patches of snow, and the air was getting colder. Not quite freezing temps, but not far from it. I felt lost, and my smile was starting to fade.
About 20 minutes into our off-the-beaten path (another misnomer, for that original trail was anything but well-marked), and as the hill broke downwards, I pointed at two silhouettes in the fog ahead of us. Two people were moving slightly perpendicular to our trajectory, and if we hustled, we could catch up with them. Pride tried to talk us into avoiding any human contact for the fear of being perceived as people who didn’t know what they were doing (we didn’t), and was muffled in all of five seconds, so we sped up toward the walkers.
We hustled up to them, saw they were on a trail (thank the Scottish Gods!) and stopped them to ask where on earth we were. They had just summited, and pointed us in that direction. Two miles that way, they said. Follow the cairns, and when there’s snow, follow the footprints in the snow. The visibility is bad. The weather is drisch.
We thanked the two, and parted our ways. For a while we had the luxury of an actual trail, until we hit the first snowy patch. The problem with snow at elevation when you are wrapped in a cloud is that some 30 feet ahead it blends completely with the said cloud. We put our heads down and dug deep. We saw the footprints and followed those, and occasional cairns lifted our spirits enough to not turn around and keep going. At times the snow patches were interrupted by the ground and rocks, which, the closer we were getting to the summit, were starting to pile up on top of each other, impersonating cairns from a distance.
Many times we had one of us walk to the edge of our vision, hoping to locate the next cairn without losing the one behind us. Very slowly, and with the wind still beating us like a butcher pounding meat, we inched out way up.
Finally we hit a stretch of snow which was going straight up and didn’t seem to end. The snow was wet and slippery, the wind was still picking up speed, getting close to 60 mph, one side of me was covered in frost (the one that wind blew on), and my whole being was zoomed into this one step at a time. Cairn frequency slightly increased, as well as their size. Some of them were now a circular shape: a wind protection as we later deduced. When we spotted a large circular cairn with a pillar at the top, we knew we had finally reached the summit.
We summited Ben Macdui at 4pm. That was much later than we had planned, and the top was a barren wasteland of large rocks, small little wind shelters built out of said rocks, and one large ring of stones with a pillar on top of it. We hid behind this, ate some trail mix, took a selfie, and pulled out the map. Our plan was to descend the back of the mountain and camp in the bothy (a small camping shed protected from the elements). We put our frozen fingers back in our gloves, hoisted our packs, and marched south.
We found the first two cairns in the direction we needed, and then nothing, just a field of rocks and same old cloud veil limiting our vision at about 15 feet. Backtracked, re-checked coordinates, tried a slightly different direction, still nothing. Back to the summit, tried going straight down in the hopes of maybe a glimpse of a valley opening up. Instead we got hit with even stronger wind (70 mph), colder temps, and steeper unmarked terrain.
People say the phrase ‘the biting wind,’ and that’s exactly what this was. It wormed into our jackets and nipped our skin, and it was dang cold.
My sense of direction began to get all turned around. Everything looked the freakin’ same. We could tell which way we were going based on which way the now 50 mph wind (with gusts much stronger) was blowing. We stabbed into the white, with visibility that sometimes dropped as short as 20 ft, and we could not find the trail. It was almost 5pm. My panic started setting in.
I started to look around for a place to camp, but the thought was absurd. It would have been like setting up a tent on a massive rock pile. Nothing was flat, we couldn’t stake anything in, and besides, the wind would have turned our tent into a sail and ripped it from our fingers. To top it off, we were lost, at the very top of the mountain.
Our plan was failing as unequivocally and rapidly as the panic was starting to devour Jonathan. He pointed at the obvious impossibility of breaking the camp down anywhere near the summit. Interestingly, at that very moment I felt relatively calm and not out of options. Not yet.
“What are we going to do?” I yelled into Natalia’s ear over the wind. “We can’t find the trail! Do we have to sleep here?”
“No. We keep trying.”
She was right. So we kept trying. Kept stabbing off from the summit, looking for cairns, and kept being forced back. I started to panic. If we stayed up here, it was going to get colder, the wind might even get stronger, and we couldn’t pitch a tent. It was extremely dangerous. Hypothermia and frostbite became very real fears. I started to break down.
I pulled him close, gave him a kiss, looked him straight in the eyes and said: “We’ll just backtrack the way we came, back to the ski center, and find a suitable camping spot there”. I thought best not to mention the part where we would probably have to backtrack our first bushwhacking again…
It took us a few frustrating tries to find the way that brought us to the summit, including one when frustration started to devour me, and I just marched on downwards.
And then Natalia just started to march. I followed. Then I moved faster and caught up.
“Where are you going?”
“We have to get down,” she yelled back. I saw the same panic in her eyes that had been in mine a few minutes before. “We can’t stay up here!”
“We can’t just go without a trail,” I yelled back. DO NOT LEAVE THE TRAIL was loud, again, and I was fighting back my fear. “Come on, let’s go back to the top, where we know where we are!”
It took us about four attempts to find the cairns that had led us up, and it was even slower going down, as the visibility had somehow gotten even worse. We thought we remembered some segments, and some things looked familiar as only rock upon endless rock and long patches of white snow can. But we were going down.
We made it fairly quickly down to the meeting spot with the two walkers who gave us the directions earlier, and that’s where Jonathan dug his heels in and refused to leave the trail to bushwhack our way back to the trail we had originally left.
“NO!” I couldn’t agree to that. The voice of all my hiking training bellowed in my head. We had already left the trail once. It was cold and windy and we were losing sunlight. We could not leave the trail again. “We keep following the trail!”
I felt uneasy about following the trail we hadn’t been on previously. Not when you’re backtracking. We made a deal: if at any point in time the trail disappears, we go my way. We continued following the footprints in the snow on the slanted slope of the hill, going gradually up. Eventually the snow ended. So did the trail. There were rocks, moss, some grass, and another patch of snow ahead with multiple footprint tracks branching out in different directions.
The trail ended. We followed footprints in the snow to a patch of ground…and there was no trail. I foraged around, in a bit of a panic, looking for signs of one, looking for footprints in the next patch of snow. Nothing.
I could feel Jonathan’s utter lack of enthusiasm when, mid-turn around on my heels I said: “Well…on we go!”
I hated the idea, I absolutely hated it, but what option did we have? At least there was some familiarity in that. If we left the trail where we saw the two guys, and headed NW, logic said we would find our original trail, the one that led down. I agreed, and Natalia pulled out her compass, and off we went, into the barren, rocky and moss and grass and snowy terrain.
We made our way through the snowy slopy foot track back to the meeting point, where I pulled my compass out again, set the direction to NW, and with renewed energy led the way. Upwards.
The thing was, even her trail started to lead us up, into the snow, into higher winds. 10 minutes, 20 minutes, 30 minutes. And still we went up. Did we make a mistake? A backstep? Were we going the right way? We kept on though, because that was really the only option.
On minute 10 or so, the mental graph of my spirits indicated that they were steering away from “Awesome” and rapidly approaching “Awful”. I did not recognize any of the scenery (granted, it looked the same everywhere), the terrain was still going slightly up, there were patches of snow strewn around, and I could feel Jonathan’s mood with every cell of my skin. Minute 20 saw me getting really close to saying out loud what has been going through my head: “I am sorry! I don’t know where we are now! We are going NW, but I don’t recognize any of this!”
Then the trail leveled off. It started to look familiar—though that easily could have been my mind imagining, hoping, that it was familiar. Everything up there, in the wind and the cloud, looked exactly the same. But I let the supposed familiarity lift my spirits, and I sped up. We were going to get down. This was the right move. We had been here before. And besides, we were at least moving slightly down.
A loud sigh leaves my lips, and as I am gearing up to say those words, Jonathan all of a sudden picks up his pace, marches forward, then runs back to me, his face lit up like a Christmas tree, quintessential bliss embodied, gives me a bar squeeze, professes his undying love and trust for my gut, and runs off again. We found the trail. The one we knew, the one that would get us back to the ski center. We knew where we were, and we knew how to get down.
About five minutes later we found the trail. I ran over to Natalia and gave her the biggest hug I had ever given anyone, and covered her wind-battered face with kisses. “I love your gut!” I kissed her again. “Thank you thank you thank you!”
That’s when I felt a huge load lifted off my shoulders, and I followed Jonathan the rest of the way.
I then named the trail Natalia’s Trail, and with this new burst of energy, began to lead us down. Once I almost slipped down a huge snowbank, and I slowed, but we were going down, down, down, we were going down! At one point, the clouds broke, and we could see the valley below us! Ah! There was even a little sunlight! The clouds swallowed us up again, but it didn’t swallow our hope. We were going to make it.
It took us maybe another 10 minutes into descent until we were finally able to see beyond and below the cloud. We could see the valley. We were still thrown around by the wind, but we were not nearly as affected by it as before. No longer there was the bitter unknown, no longer the possibility of spending the night near the top of Macdui, no longer the possibility of getting battered by the elements to the point of no return.
With this, my body checked out from the emergency mode, and I quickly felt the tiredness and soreness all over: shoulders, neck, legs, knees… With the end point in sight, the journey was virtually over, even though we still had a ways to go. I started to feel more pain with each step.
It was about 6pm at this point, and the trail we followed led us to a ridge wearing a lopsided ridiculous oversized snow hat. Stepping on it might cause a mini avalanche, and we didn’t want to tumble down onto the rocks of the valley below. So, we followed the edge of the bank, and it led us up and up.
And then the trail ended. Common trend. Boring even, at this point. We saw where it was lower in the valley, snaking all the way to the ski center, but up there, by the ridge, there was nothing again, but the good old snow.
Jonathan was still riding the ecstatic wave of finding the trail, and came up with a brilliant theory.
An idea hit me, then. The sun shined down on us from the left. The west. We were on the eastern side of a ridge, and there was quite a bit of snow. But the sun was shining down on the other side, and maybe, just maybe, the sun beating down on that side meant there was no snow there. I voiced this opinion, and we tried it out, and hiked to the top of the ridge.
I followed silently, grimacing at the pain as we climbed over the ridge. It was my turn to hug Jonathan at the sight of a newly found trail on that other, dry side of the ridge.
Science for the win! There was no snow, and luckily for us, there was a trail that followed the ridge all the way down to the valley. A beautiful trail that was easy to see, that wasn’t covered in snow. The sun shone down on us, now that we were lower, and we could see ahead of us, for a few miles.
We followed it all the way down, sometimes even able to forget about the wind and how tired and in pain we were – all due to the rugged beauty of the mountain that opened up to us: the trail followed and then crossed a small stream, coming down from the top, the sun was still a couple of feet from the horizon and felt warm on our faces, and we looked longingly ahead at the small loch surrounded by a forest.
I was exhausted, my knees and shoulders hated me, and I was so fed up with the relentless wind, but we were going to make it. We could camp in the parking lot if we had to. We had made it down.
We reached the ski center by 7:30pm, greeted by the last two people we met on that trail that day: there were just heading up to camp the night and then mix-climb the following day. Yeah.
We ended up hitching a ride down to a campsite, but that’s a story for another day.
I can honestly say that this was one of the more terrifying hiking experiences I’ve been in. Truth was, we had no business being up there in that weather. We underestimated the mountain, which is way shorter in elevation than many other mountains we have hiked. But elevation is only one factor. Winds like that coupled with our late start, the poor visibility, and the Scottish tendency to not mark trails made it a pretty harrowing experience. Yes, it is the story that we tell the most frequently when recounting our trip to Scotland, but if we could go back, I would do many things differently.
Looking back on it, I am so very glad our little hike happened the way it did: the grit and grace with which we handled the adversity and the unpredictable unfolding of events, uniquely as individuals, and uniquely, as a couple, are true gifts of Ben Macdui. We came out of it with a strengthened sense of partnership and trust for each other as individuals and as a unit. And of course, adventure! Finally! 😉