After days of mist, damp and cold weather the skies finally cleared. OK, it was still only two degrees in the middle of the day, but the sun was out and it was time to get outside to enjoy the bright conditions.
Rising on the opposite bank of the Spey to Rothes, the bare summit of Ben Aigan looked temptingly white with snow above the skirt of trees on the lower slopes.
Arriving at the Forestry Commission car park on the A95, as it heads east towards Keith, it was clear that many others were also taking advantage of the brisk winter’s day.
Heading left out of the end of the car park we started up the white forestry track. There had been a series of snow and hail showers the day before and these had covered a thick layer of ice with a thin layer of fresh snow. The covering was just enough to give a little grip but the slick surface below was revealed as the low sun reflected in the odd footstep that had removed the top layer of snow.
Following the wide track as it gently climbed the hill I quickly regretted my decision to leave my windproof in the car as the brisk wind soon chilled any exposed or thinly covered skin.
After a couple of kilometres a path headed straight up through the trees at a large, muddy passing place. The trees here had sheltered the mud and pine-needle forest floor from snow and we pushed upwards over frozen bogs and ruts in the firebreak.
When the path broke back into the light to join the main track up the hill, the rounded summit of Ben Aigan dominated the skyline. We turned left to continue gently climbing, the crispy snow-covered track keeping the running interesting. Off to our right one of the (now officially permanently closed) mountain bike trails left the road and began threading its way into the forest. I made a mental note to choose a warmer day to explore these paths and find out new ways around the hill, keeping an ear and eye out for any faster two-wheeled users still using the trails.
Finally, leaving the trees behind, the track became much rougher with inch-thick ridges and mounds of ice adding to the hazards underfoot. At a junction we followed the right-hand track – the one to the left also provides an alternative route to the summit. A mountain bike tread ended abruptly mid-track in a watery hole and an explosion of mini icebergs as the weight of bike and rider had got just too much for the frozen surface.
As we traversed the hillside the sea appeared, the Moray Firth stretching away behind the prominent transmitter mast on Ben Aigan’s adjacent lower peak. Turning left at the next junction, the last pull towards the summit seemed short and we soon joined other people enjoying the views next to the cairn.
Rothes huddled in the glen below to our north but it was the view to the south towards Ben Rinnes, resplendent in an even white covering, which was the real reward for the climb.
With the distant Cairngorms as a stunning backdrop, the lowering sun silhouetted Ben Rinnes in the foreground. I again regretted leaving my extra coat in the car as the bitter winter wind threatened to remove the last remaining heat from my body. I admitted defeat and reluctantly turned to leave the summit well before I had truly soaked up the view.
Retracing our route back down the hill I followed Eric’s footsteps, watching as his foot placement became braver with each successful flying step. The bravado couldn’t last forever, though, and with a loud crack the ice under Eric’s foot gave way, the speed of his forward motion preventing his leg becoming bog-bound in the icy mud.
It was a quicker return trip, especially through the firebreak path, because the frozen moss and turf allowed a flying descent through the trees. The odd slip meant the snow-covered ice on the tracks felt slightly more treacherous on the way down than on the ascent but we arrived back at the car park without incident.
I’d forgotten what a great view of Moray and Speyside you get from Ben Aigan – it’s one quite different from Ben Rinnes. My plan now is to work out the best way to get across the Spey from Rothes to start the run without a drive to find a road bridge.
Distance 5 miles / 8km
Terrain Forest and rough tracks, small section of muddy forest ride
Start/finish Forestry Commission car park on the A95 at grid reference NJ333491
Maps OS Landranger 28, OS Explorer 424
Great views from a straightforward ascent of Speyside’s other “Ben”