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Open Country
Sat  6.10 - 6.35am
Thurs 1.30 - 2.00pm (rpt)
Local people making their corner of rural Britain unique
This week
Saturday 13 January 2007
Listen to this programme in full
In this week’s Open Country, Richard Uridge explores Britain's second highest mountain, and asks how it's kept itself so well hidden.
Ben MacDhui is a magnificent mountain, home to some of Britain's rarest habitats, and second in height only to Ben Nevis. And yet it's fair to say that it's overshadowed, in name if not in stature, by its immediate neighbour Cairn Gorm.

Richard begins his exploration of Ben MacDhui by night, an icy wind blowing as he stands with John Allen of Cairngorm Mountain Rescue. The mountain doesn't have the sharp, classic mountain appearance of the Cuillins on Skye or Glen Coe, as it forms the high point of an already very high plateau, and this can prove deceptive. With the car park already at two and a half thousand feet, walkers can easily get caught out by the wildness of Ben MacDhui.

And once you're lost on the mountain, all sorts of illusions can creep into the mind. Walkers and climbers over the years have reported sightings of The Big Grey Man, the first being from Professor Norman Collie, a respected scientist and walker. Film-makers Jez Curnow, John Kennedy and Pete George set out to try to catch the BGM on film but concluded that the myth probably sprang from sightings of Brocken spectres, the casting of your own shadow onto cloud below you, creating an enormous shadow edged by a rainbow-coloured halo.

For Keith Duncan of Scottish Natural Heritage, it's the high plateau from which Ben MacDhui rises that makes the mountain special. At this height, there's been little or no intervention by man, and the altitude and wind have manipulated the habitat, equivalent to Arctic tundra. Plants, animals and birds like ptarmigan have adapted to live in the freezing wind and snow, while man feels out of place.

In 2006, Pauline Sanderson and her husband Phil became the first British couple to climb to the top of Everest, and she takes Richard a little closer to the summit of Ben MacDhui. The Everest Max expedition cycled from the Dead Sea to Everest base camp, to be followed by the climb to the peak. The training for the expedition took place largely in Scotland, and Pauline says if you can climb in Scotland, you can climb anywhere.

Finally to the programme's highest point, with Colin Matthew, head of the Cairngorm Ski Patrol. Richard looks across from Cairn Gorm to catch a momentary glimpse of the summit of Ben MacDhui. As the clouds part briefly, it reveals itself for just a second, before the weather closes in once more. It may be Britain's second highest mountain, but it guards its secrets well.

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