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Navigating through a whiteout in the Cairngorms

Bynack More in the cairngorms
Despite the snow, the way was clear

To the north east of the Cairngorms lies Bynack More, a 3,580ft Munro situated on a barren Cairngorm plateau. When conditions are clear, and the ground free of the snow that so often covers the high areas of the Cairngorms, navigation is relatively straight forward, with a rough path leading you to the summit. Even with snow obscuring the path, the top acts like a marker in the distance guiding you towards your goal. But, when the ground is obscured with snow and the cloud has rolled in, should you find yourself on the plateau your skills of navigation will be sorely tested.

I began my run from Glenmore forest. The day was cold but bright and a number of walkers, cyclists and runners were out enjoying the day. I ran along hard forest tracks, smiling at people as I passed, offering a “good morning” as I made my way along the trail. As I passed Lochan Uaine, the numbers of people on the path began to peter out. Along a rough track I ran, before crossing the bridge over the river Nethy and beginning the ascent. I soon reached the snowline and continued up, my footsteps crunching on the snow, clouds had begun to form in the sky, patches of grey amidst the blue. I reached the plateau and ran towards the summit, the path was hidden, but a myriad of frozen footprints guided my way, all leading towards the distant peak. Before long I stood upon it gazing across at the featureless plateau. The day had begun to be overcast, with the cloud descending and advancing towards me. Already the view was limited, with the mountains that should be visible from this elevated vantage point slowly disappearing.

I descended the mountains and fled away from the advancing cloud. I knew I could not outpace it, but if I could get to the point where I would descend off the plateau, or, if luck were on my side, to below the snow line, I knew navigating my way back would be much simpler. As I ran, tendrils of fog began to overtake me, the way ahead slowly fading into nothingness. Gradually, everything turned white; I could not tell what was land or sky. I stopped, for I knew to run blindly into the whiteout would be my undoing. Spindrift whipped around my feet as I pulled more layers on, as for a time, I would not be running. I navigated slowly, double checking where I was, making sure I knew where the hill was behind me, taking bearings, searching for any features of note on this barren plateau. I consulted my phone sparingly, using it to double check my position, for in this completely white world, it would be so easy to become disorientated and stray. I fought the urge to run, to panic and sprint in the direction I thought the way down would be. To try to escape as quickly as possible. I stayed at a steady walking pace, trusting in my map and compass for guidance.

Your mind plays tricks on you when you are unable to see what is ahead. As a child, I would amuse myself on walks by trying to see how far I could walk along a path with my eyes closed. After only around 10 steps, I would be on the edge of a garish precipice, my knees folding in terror of the drop ahead, my arms outstretched to prevent me overbalancing. When I opened my eyes, there would be no drop. I felt the same here as I did back then, the blackness being replaced by white. The map showed me there was nothing to fall off, no cliffs or drops, but with every step, I felt like I would plunge into some great abyss. Onwards I trudged. The whiteness was eerie, never have I felt such solitude; my senses strained for something to latch onto in the blankness, the only sound being the wind blowing around me. I was beginning my descent now, after meticulously checking both map and phone that I was on the correct track, and I felt calmer. I knew soon, I would sink below the clouds.

Eventually, details began to form below me; to this day never have I been so grateful to see the colour green. Still in the snow and cloud, I could see the moor below, welcoming me down to safety. Soon, even the snow began to dissipate, until I was once again on a brown earth path. Reaching the bridge that I had crossed what seems like an age ago. I looked up to the mountain I had been on. It had disappeared, shrouded in cloud. I half expected to see the cloud descending, rushing down the slope to engulf me like a pyroclastic flow. I began to run again, slowly, for in that moment my heart was not in it. Before long I arrived back at the visitor centre where I had started. The bright colours, the staff, the information boards, the cafe. All of it seemed a surreal juxtaposition compared to the mountain I had been on. I remembered that, almost childlike fear, of panic and apprehension I had felt of the thought of getting lost. Of not knowing where I was, and not trusting my senses.

I have returned to the plateau many times since; both to Bynack More and to other sections of the great expanse. Never has one trip tested me quite as much as this one. Never have I felt such a trial than having to navigate through a whiteout.

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