Interface Images
Landscape by Keith Ratcliffe  
© 2007

Laying the Ghost

I haven’t really explored the Cairngorms. I learnt to ski (not very well) here and I developed the basic skills of winter mountaineering in Coire Cas many years ago. Flailing Ice axes in the hope that they would slow you down and tripping over crampons that always spiked each other’s bindings are fondish memories of those days. There is however one memory that may colour my view of the area – not getting up Ben MacDui.


I was on a winter mountain leadership preparatory course at Glenmore Lodge and our group went out for a days ice climbing on Coire an Lochan. I did a great climb with some tricky ice pitches under the supervision of a leading New Zealand climber who was working at the Lodge. On reaching the plateau the group reformed and the Senior Instructor announced that we were going to spend the night on the plateau in snow holes.

We had been told to always carry overnight gear as this was a requirement of being out in the winter hills so we were prepared for it but it took ages to dig the hole and it was dark as we settled down to make a meal. No sooner had we got the ice melted than we were told that there was a simulated rescue and we had to go to Ben MacDui to search for a missing climber. We set off with headlights piercing the dark and bouncing off the snow in an eerie silence save for boot sounds. The existence of the fabled Grey Man who is said to haunt the mountain seemed very believable in those conditions.

As we toiled on I began to feel really weary and each footstep was an excruciating effort. We went downhill at first but when we began to climb again my legs felt like the proverbial lead and I just couldn’t continue. My partner alerted the instructor who gathered the group together and shared out a flask of coffee and some energy bars. He then turned us round back to the snow holes. I felt really bad at not coping and depriving the rest of the group of a great night walk.

Only later did I realise that all I had eaten all day was one sandwich, a chocolate bar and some tea. I just hadn’t kept the boiler stoked to feed the body engine. In my review with the instructor at the end of the course he pointed out that winter days in Scotland often didn’t allow for discrete food stops and you had to be prepared for this. He told me that he carried a bag of mixed fruit & nuts in his pocket and regularly took a mouthful at every opportunity. He also had a small water bottle that he refilled during the day with snow if necessary as dehydration is a problem even in cold conditions. The lesson was learned.

So, 25 years on and adequately equipped with bombay mix in a coat pocket and my platypus water system I am ready to tackle Ben MacDui. I have joined a group as part of the Aviemore Walking Festival on a bright, clear & thankfully still day in May. Our Leader is from Glenmore Lodge who is accompanied by two trainees who weren’t born when I last set foot here. There was a snowfall on the previous day but the sky cleared overnight to freeze it fairly hard. The outcome is never in doubt today, I may not be as fit as I was those years ago but I have much better stamina and the wisdom to pace myself and keep the boiler stoked.

The Grey Man

The summit comes into view as a grey cloud gathers over the top – will the Grey Man make a ghostly appearance today? He doesn’t and the cloud clears by the time we reach the trig point for some stupendous views. Ben Cleuch in the Ochils near home in Stirling is visible 64 miles away, the great pile of Ben Nevis appears 55 miles to the West and up North Ben Hope 96 miles away is just discernable. In the foreground the great rock walls of Cairn Toul & Braeriach glow like burnt umber in the high sun. The high plateau of the Cairngorms shines and sparkles under the fresh overnight fall of snow and there is not a breath of wind as we eat a proper lunch. The day continues with a promenade around the rim of cliffs that surround Loch Avon including a peep into Hell’s Lum and a visit to the site of the St Valery Refuge and we return to Coire Cas in late afternoon at the end of a magnificent day in the high Tundra.

At least one ghost of Ben MacDui has been laid today – as for the other ghost – who knows?
© Keith Ratcliffe

June 2007

To see any of the Landscape diary items that you have missed please visit the Archive

Landscape Archive