It is easy to think that with harsh winter weather conditions and a remote barren landscape that you are being a truly adventurous and hardy mountaineer as you trek off into the unknown as countless explorers before. Our illusions were thoroughly shattered upon meeting Hugh.
Our exped started much like any other with lots of back and forth to try and find 'new' hills and areas for our winter log books and as is common the best laid plans were continually revised from the moment we arrived at the Coire Ciste car park until our return the following day. So it was on the Sat 23rd Nov that myself, Craig and Michael set off with a (cosy) two man tent and an optimistic outlook.
The soft underfoot conditions dictating a radical rethink of what was possible whilst still in sight of the cars. Contouring across we crossed the Strath Nethy without too much trouble (or wet feet) and climbed the shoulder to Bynack Beg and in the cloud with firmer underfoot snow completed the ascent of Bynack More. A vicious wind but good progress at higher altitudes made for an uncomfortable trade off but our 1kph progress of earlier was not ideal either. Crossing the plateau and following a relatively direct but steep descent to the Loch Avon basin placed us in sight of the Fords of Avon refuge, a halfway point by a previous version of the plan, with darkness in sight a plan was made to stay the night.
Hugh greeted us upon arrival as it rapidly became clear that 4 in a B&Q shed was not ideal. Michael would have the pleasure of forgoing the warmth and security and instead would enjoy setting up and residing in his tent after dinner it was decided. Talking to our host, our questions were met with some surprising answers. Hugh is an offshore worker and with an abundance of downtime that goes with the trade was in the process of a three and a half week exped which is seeing him cover virtually all of the bothies of the Cairgorms and over towards the Monadliath and the Great Glen. Carrying a bergen containing 35kg at the start of his journey and 3 weeks of food it was hard not be impressed as his endeavour. With the modern focus on light and technical design of kit, it was eye opening to see someone not just survive but thrive with an old military bergen, a pair of army surplus boots with almost no tread and a hardy nature.
After well needed carb laden dinners (two as I underestimated first lot of pasta!) we grudgingly opened the door and helped him set up the tent, Craig just keen to try his new snow saw to be honest. Nearing completion of the fortress erected to protect the tent from the elements I was keen to test out the tent myself much to Michaels relief. After the four of us watched a comedy film on a tablet I brought in the refuge to bed it was.
There was ice around the rocks as Hugh waded the Fords barefoot, suited and booted we managed to rock hop keeping our feet dry, but no complaint from Hugh and we went our separate ways; his towards Findouran and our a fast and light ascent of Beinn a'Chaorainn and a brief view of Beinn Bhreac (again from a previous revision of the plan). Back across the Fords to retrieve stowed kit and for the extremely slow and difficult traverse to The Saddle from where the firmer snow conditions made for an easier ascent towards Ciste Mhearad. A nearby large snow bank was chosen after a lunch and crampon stop to have a play.
With 40min on the clock we decided to give snowhole practice a go, and dug and cut our way to something which was a great temporary abode, with perfect snow conditions we managed impressive results in the time and wouldn't have taken much more effort for a luxury hillside mansion. If only we had an extra night to spare... A quick pop over to the ski area to hear the painful scrape of skis on ice and down the shoulder to the Ciste car park just before dark brought a tough but great exped to its conclusion.