Sometimes tiny details in the weather forecast are worth pursuing. Towards the end of last week the gloomy outlook was for overcast skies and the clouds well down on the hills. But in the Mountain Weather Information Service (MWIS) Cairngorms forecast I noticed a mention of the possibility of areas above 1100 metres rising above the clouds. There’s only one place with much land above that height and that’s the Cairngorm Plateau. A high camp called.
Shrouded in mist I climbed onto the Plateau and started to wonder if I should find somewhere to camp soon. I’d left late and it would soon be dark. I could see little anyway. Then a hazy brightness appeared away to the west, gradually strengthening into an indistinct sun. The land began to glow gold, the mists began to sink away. I was above the clouds. All thought of stopping vanished. I headed for Ben Macdui.
Through the thinning mists I could see Braeriach rising above the cloud-filled Lairig Ghru pass. From Ben Macdui the Cairngorms were an isolated archipelago floating above a white sea. No other hills were visible. There was no wind, no sound except the crunch of my boots on gravel and patches of old snow. As darkness fell I dropped below the summit to camp at 1200 metres, well above the clouds.
The night was dark, cold and starry. There was no moon. I’ve rarely seen such a brilliant display of stars. The sky was alive. I wandered round gazing in awe before retreating to the warmth of my tent and sleeping bag. I left the doors open though so I could stare out at the sky. I woke once to see Orion had risen, the constellation of autumn and winter.
Dawn came with a sharp frost. Ice in my water bottles. And a pink tinge on the horizon with blue sky above. Cairn Gorm rose above the clouds. Beautiful. Forgetting about breakfast I was up and out in minutes, watching the still hidden sun lighting slopes above me. The early light was glorious.
Back on Ben Macdui I gazed again across the Lairig Ghru. The clouds were lower now with some distant hills poking through. The Cairngorms were no longer alone.
Back at camp strands of thin cloud were drifting past, giving an insubstantial feel to the landscape. Then a fogbow formed, curving above my tent. I’d only ever seen one a couple of times before so I stood and stared for a while, feeling glad I’d seen this fairly rare phenomena. Little did I know what the day was to bring.
Camp packed I returned to Ben Macdui then started back across the Plateau, meeting many walkers heading up. To the west cirrus clouds traced delicate patterns on the blue sky, the precursor to a change in the weather. Ahead I could see that the clouds still covered the northern Plateau. I’d be back in them soon.
The splendour of the day was not over yet though. Another fogbow materialised, an arch I would never reach, never pass through, but which was always there in front of me, never coming closer, never retreating. I walked towards it, mesmerised.
I lost the fogbow when I entered the mist, which was cold and damp. The world shrank to a few metres. But then as I approached the edge of the Northern Corries the cloud started to thin and a fogbow started to appear again, this time with hints of colour in it.
Peering down the steep slopes of Coire an t-Sneachda I could see a bigger fogbow and in its centre a Brocken spectre, my shadow thrown onto the fog. I’d seen this more often than a fogbow but the sight of one is always magical. It was a final touch of wonder before I descended into the clouds and a grey world.