Thursday 20 March 2008

Wild Cairngorm Weather

After drifting through the Yellowstone Wilderness in sunshine, gentle snow showers and the occasional gust of cold wind returning to the wet cold brutality of the Cairngorms was a bit of a shock. My first day out on my home hills was a short venture up little Meall a’Bhuachaille above Glenmore on a day previously spent sitting in the Mountain CafĂ© in Aviemore staring out at torrential rain. Flashes of blue sky and an easing of the rain stirred me out of my lethargy and onto the hill where a brisk cold wind kept me moving. On the summit I was leaning into the wind and looking across the Glenmore woods to clouds tearing across the big Cairngorm summits. I was glad I had gone no further and no higher. By the time I was back down in the glen the rain was pouring down again.

A week later a reasonable weather forecast lured me out again, this time on skis and intent on the crossing of the Cairngorm Plateau to Ben MacDui, one of the finest ski tours in the area when conditions are good. The forecast had said the effect of the wind would be “negligible”, a statement I remembered as a bitter north-easterly blasted me up onto the plateau through squalls of hail and wet snow and into dense damp clinging mist that condensed and froze on my clothing and equipment, coating my poles with ice. Hood up over a warm hat, overmitts over my gloves, goggles on my face for better visibility and for protection against the stinging wind, I was wearing more than I ever needed while skiing in Yellowstone. Temperature isn’t everything, this damp cold penetrated and chilled far more effectively than the dry air of the Rockies. A navigation exercise across the plateau and a return into the storm didn’t appeal so I headed for Cairn Gorm instead, needing a compass bearing to navigate the few hundred yards to the start of the summit slopes as I was in a complete white-out. Rocks scoured clean of snow by the wind gave depth to the hillside and confirmed that I was still climbing. When the ground and sky merge it can be very disorientating. Soon the terrain flattened out and I glimpsed the surreal snow plastered contorted shape of the Cairngorm Weather Station, behind which I sheltered for a quick snack and a warming drink of hot Rock’s Organic Ginger cordial from my flask. A thinning and lightening of the clouds suggested the air might be clearing. A touch of blue flickered above, astonishingly bright in this otherwise black and white world. Revived by the hot ginger and visibility that stretched farther than ten yards I skied over to the rocky top of Cnap Coire na Spreidhe, a wonderful viewpoint for the deep straight cleft of Strath Nethy which led out beyond the snow clad hills to the green and brown fields and moors of the lowlands, a different, colourful world. The wind was still strong and cold so soon I turned and skied carefully back down the wind blasted snow. The weather had been wild and unforgiving but for a few minutes the wind had torn apart the storm and revealed some of the beauty and majesty of the Cairngorms, reminding me of why I love these hills despite the rain and wind and snow.

The picture shows the weather station on the summit of Cairn Gorm. Photo info: Canon EOS 350D, Canon EF-S 18-55 mm IS@ 18mm, f8@1/2000, ISO 200, raw file converted to JPEG in DxO Optics Pro.


  1. Fabulous photo Chris, it has a strange miniature quality, like some tilt shift photography, I can quite put my finger on it, the snow looks kind of fake, like the stuff you spray on a christmas tree.

  2. Thanks Fraser. "The stuff you spray on a Christmas tree" is a good description. The snow on the weather has been blasted there by the wind. Some of it is rime ice to which snow has stuck. Snow falling without a strong wind wouldn't settle like that.It does look rather artificial. The fact that there was mist drifting about adds to the air of unreality.