In search of the Grey Man on Ben Macdui

In February I ski-toured across Cairn Gorm and Ben Macdui, starting in the dark and cloud as the snow fell. It was a very evocative trip, bringing images of the Grey Man of Ben Macdui to my mind as all I could hear was my skis swishing across the snow and my rapid breathing as I laboured up the hill. As that day wore on, the cloud broke up, giving a beautiful blue sky day, but the memory of skiing uphill as dawn broke through the fog, totally alone, stuck with me much more than the long views.

When I got home, I told our 4-year-old son about my trip, and the legend of the Grey Man. He was captivated, and immediately asked if he could climb Ben Macdui to see for himself. Our son has always had a keen sense of adventure, and regularly suggests what we should get up to – sleeping in a cave, camping in the snow and canoeing to deserted islands.

Ben Macdui was, however, going to be something altogether bigger in scale. First, it was clear it would have to be a summer trip, to give us the long days and better weather that we would need to safely cover that distance at a 4-year-old pace. Second, we had to be confident that our son could walk it himself, knowing that it was quite a long way. We have been working towards this trip since that Sunday in February when I first mentioned the Grey Man to him.

Building stamina, range, balance and confidence has been key. We have been walking and wildcamping on Carn Bhac, walked Cairn of Claise and Carn an Turic and our son and Stacey walked Cairnwell in a short morning before a storm came in. We got to summer and have been enjoying loads of outdoors time, but the start of the School year, a big milestone as it changes everything in terms of our son’s freedom and time for adventures, loomed large in our minds, and on the calender.

We took a week’s last minute holiday when the weather forecast looked Ok and decided it was now or never. We spent the first half of the week in the North West, canoeing on Loch Lurgainn, climbing Cul Mor and visiting Smoo Caves. We got back home on the Tuesday night, planning to set off on the Wednesday for Cairn Gorm. A check of the mountain weather forecast told us to rethink – we know our son starts to have difficulty walking in 30 mph wind, and he starts getting blown over in 40 mph. The forecast had it at 35 mph. We made the decision to postpone by a day, and prayed to the weather gods for more settled weather.

Luck was on our side, and the Thursday looked good to go, with a high chance of cloud free summits and some broken sunshine. We set off early, having breakfast in the car as we drove up the familiar A9. As we passed Dalwhinnie the mountain tops started to break free from the cloud occasionally and we drove on with our excitement rising. We pulled into the Ski Centre carpark just as the ranger station opened, so left a route card. Our route plan took us over Cairngorm to Ben Macdui via the Feth Bhudie snow patch and down to Loch Etchachan for our first day. Day two had us possibly going over Derry Cairngorm before heading to Loch Avon, with a third day taking us back out to the ski centre carpark. We weren’t quite sure how to take the ranger’s comment that our route was ‘an interesting choice’ but decided that we knew both our and our son’s capabilities well, and this was the perfect route for us.

We set off up Cairn Gorm, climbing steeply onto the ridge to the left of the ski development. This route is lovely, as you don’t see any of the lifts until pretty much at the top station. We made swift progress uphill, and quickly reached the Ptarmigan café, where we felt a little like zoo animals being pointed at and having our pictures taken by those who had travelled up on the funicular. I wonder what they were thinking? Did they envy us? Think we were mad? Or maybe they were simply thinking their hot chocolate was still a bit hot?

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We tucked in some shelter of the stop station and had a quick snack and some drink before following the amazing track up to the summit cairn. The last time I had been up here there was no sign of the posts marking the route every few steps.

Just as we hit the summit the cloud lifted, giving us great views of where we had been and what was to come. Our son was mesmerised by the cloud moving so fast just above our heads, when it normally looks to be moving so lazily from the valley floor.

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We walked on past the weather station, startling another couple of walkers with a loud 4-year-old Hiya, and started the descent off Cairn Gorm before the long traverse to Ben Macdui. We got down to the Bealach quite quickly and diverted off the main path towards the top of Hells Lum Crag, and a contouring path leading us to Coire Domhain, and a likely route down to the Feith Buidhe snow patch. This is somewhere I have been really keen to take us since we found out last year that it often holds several snow tunnels late into the summer, which have a certain playful magic and awe inspiring quality about them.

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We made it round to Coire Domhain, but it was becoming clear to us that we were aiming too big to get down to the snow patch and all the way round to Loch Etchachan on a single day. We knew the distance was going to be a challenge for our son anyway, and the weather forecast was not so good for the Friday, so we made the decision to leave the snow tunnels for another day, possibly on our way back, and instead carried on contouring round to reach the Feith Buidhe river, where we stopped for lunch as well as refilling and treating some more water.

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As we had contoured round the edge of the Loch Avon basin, we were well away from the main route, and we relished the solitude, with our son following a family of young ptarmigan led by their mother, and startling a mountain hare he had not seen, which only bolted when it was literally within his reach.

As we climbed towards Ben Macdui we were treated to a group of about 20 reindeer grazing at the bottom of the barren stone and boulder strewn mountain. We passed them and began climbing up again in earnest. Our son found the large boulders tough on his already tired legs, but carried on with a great sense of humour, seeing the top of Ben Macdui getting closer and closer with every step he took.

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We passed quite a few walkers heading back from the summit. Almost all of them stopped and said how well our son was doing, many were very supportive of seeing children out on the mountains, but it was also interesting to see the number who asked if this was our son’s first Munro (actually his 8th and 9th). Clearly most were gauging if we actually knew what we were doing or were just woefully under prepared.

As we completed the ascent to the top a couple gave our son a round of applause, which we thought was so sweet. After sitting on top of the trig point we tucked into one of the many stone shelters having a break, some more snack and savouring the fantastic views we were treated to on what had turned out to be a nearly cloud free day.

 

We started descending east off the top, passing the ruin of an old hut, before turning a little more north and descending down towards the loch. We passed a number of snow patches mostly in the distance, so a path side, 50 m long one was just too much to resist. We diverted to first walk across it, and then to glissade down it several times squealing with delight at the sensation of sledging in the middle of summer.

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With tired feet but a great feeling of accomplishment we descended to the shores of Loch Etchachan. What a clear loch it is, in what a fantastic setting. We chose a spot a short distance past the outlet stream, and set up our tent, glad to know we had no further to go today. We ate our slow dinner happily forced on us by a single pot cook system, savouring sitting outside in the breeze and warm evening sun. We dipped our feet in the stream to sooth the aches, and gratefully settled into our tent for the evening having had a quick look at the map and decided to head straight to Loch Avon the next day.

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We all slept like babies that night, waking only a couple of times, and before we knew it, it was daylight again and time to get up. We were in no rush so simply enjoyed waking up slow before packing up and getting underway. As promised the weather was not as good, with lower cloud and some short showers coming through. We followed the path down to the rim of the Loch Avon basin, and then slowly picked our way down the loose and steep descent ahead. After a time, the path curled round to the left, contouring towards the shelter stone. This is a massive boulder which has been made into a howff, or rudimentary shelter, and is big enough to sleep four or so. There are many of these at the west end of Loch Avon, so we explored some, climbing over and round the boulders before heading to the loch shore where we aimed to camp for the night.

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I left Stacey and our son at the loch shore to play and set off up to the Feith Buidhe snow tunnels that I was so keen to see. A short 40-minute slog uphill got me there, and I wasn’t disappointed. They were so much more than I was hoping for, making me feel small and bringing a sense of elation remembering our previous day and the contrast of my previous trip in winter to Ben Macdui. After around an hour of savouring summer snow I descended back to the loch shore, with impeccable timing, arriving and diving into the tent Stacey had set up just as a significant rain storm came in.

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After another great night it was time for us to start the final ascent out of Loch Avon and back to the ski centre carpark via the Fiacaill Ridge. As we reached the turn off to ascend to Coire Raibeirt the coastguard helicopter flew into Loch Avon, circled and landed right where we had camped. We waved at the crew as they passed, and speculated if it was a training trip or something more serious. The helicopter unsettled our son a little on the steep and loose ascent, and he was sure we would need rescuing. I promised that all we had to do was keep putting one foot in front of the other and we would soon be up on the plateau again. Sure enough, after a few moments that challenged our son we made it, and were blasted by a pretty strong wind straight into our faces.

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We wrapped up warm and walked steadily uphill, with our son eating a cheese sandwich as we went to put back some of the energy he had just burned. After a short time in the cloud we reached the top of the Fiacaill Ridge and looked down on the ski development, both eager to be back and dreading getting there. All too soon we were back, surrounded by coaches and masses of people. We got some odd looks as we wandered through the development to dump our bags in the car.

We finished in the café, getting a smoothie for our son, who we had promised could have one right from the start. We felt somewhat out of place, sitting in a café, smelling of three-day backpacking trip with a 4-year-old. We are so proud of what he managed to do, covering a distance over large hills that many adults would not want to. He did this with a smile and good humour all the way.

This was without a doubt our son’s biggest adventure yet, and he enjoyed every minute of it. With careful planning and choosing routes within your capabilities the experience of backpacking in Britain’s mountains is something that young children can accomplish safely, whilst having great fun and making memories for years to come.

How we did it:

  • We paid careful attention to weather forecasts, particularly to wind speeds knowing that they had to be predicted to be well less than 30 mph for us to feel happy.
  • We carried a child carrier with us for safety, knowing that I would be capable of carrying our son out if need be.
  • We packed light, taking what we needed. Our total bag weights were 12 kg and 9 kg at the start including water.
  • We had many alternate plans and routes in mind, and used some of them to keep the trip comfy, fun and safe.
  • Our son has good waterproofs, base layers and boots – every bit as good and as reliable as ours.

 

All photos are copyright of An Outdoors Family.