Saturday 5 June 2010

Snow and Sun in the Cairngorms

When one piece of work is finished (in this case a review of sleeping mats for TGO) I find it refreshing to spend a day or two in the hills before starting the next project. That way I can empty my mind of the completed task and open up to the next one. In this case heading to the Cairngorms for a high camp was ideal as a photographic book on these hills is what I’ll be working on next. There couldn’t be a better way to think of the words to use in the written section than amongst the mountains themselves. The forecast was for fine weather too and the sun was shining through thin hazy clouds as I headed up onto the Cairngorm Plateau in the early evening. A few late walkers passed me descending then I had the mountains to myself. From below it had looked as though much of the snow had gone, with just large drifts in gullies and below crags remaining. Once on the plateau I saw that this impression was false and much of the land was still snowbound, around 70% between Cairn Gorm and Ben Macdui I estimated. Most of the snow was fairly soft, making walking safe but rather arduous, but in places it was hard and icy and once on a steep section I looked down a big snowfield to an open stream and thought it would have been good to have an ice axe. Trekking poles were adequate though and I made it to the snow free summit of Ben Macdui without a slip.

Finding somewhere to camp proved more difficult than I expected due to the snow and the waterlogged ground around it. Anywhere flat was either sodden or an actual pool. The snow itself was too wet and soft for a comfortable camp. Meandering down towards Loch Etchachan I eventually found a flattish and dryish patch of tussocky grass on the edge of a snowbank. The site looked out over the loch to the deep trench hiding Loch Avon with Cairn Gorm rising above it, a fine situation. A cold wind swept off the snowfields and chilled the air, making me glad I’d brought a thin insulated jacket at the last minute. The temperature in the tent fell to just above freezing and in the morning there was ice on the pools of melt water. The sun struggled to pierce a band of thicker cloud and the dawn was subdued and subtle. Crossing back over Ben Macdui I descended into the Lairig Ghru and walked out over this pass and through the rocky ravine of the Chalamain Gap. I had thought that descending into the Lairig Ghru would mean an escape from the snow but the long heart of the pass was full of deep drifts, some of them hanging over the Pools of Dee. At times I could hear the stream roaring under the snow I was crossing and I passed a few places where the snow had collapsed into the water, forming big craters with the crack lines a long way back from the stream. The sun was beating down now and the temperature was high. The fierce heat on my bare arms and the dazzling light reflecting off the snow made sunscreen and sunglasses essential. The effect was alpine rather than Scottish. To have this much snow with the sun this high in the sky is very unusual in the Highlands.

Photo info: Early morning at the camp, looking towards Cairn Gorm. Canon EOS 450D, Canon 18-55 IS at 39mm, 1/160@f8, ISO 100, raw file converted to JPEG in Lightroom 2.7.


  1. Chris - Thanks for your advice on the terrocs. I used them during the Challenge and made it through without a blister. They are a revelation, making it possible to ford rivers and open up new vistas with relatively low consequence. I missed meeting you on this Challenge, but hope to see you on another. Good walking on your Pacific Northwest hike.

  2. Philip - good to hear the Terrocs were fine on the Challenge. I'll be wearing them on the Pacific Northwest Trail.

    I enjoyed reading your Challenge account. I may well be back next year.

  3. Hi Chris,
    THat tent doesn't look like an Akto. Which one is it and how do they compare ?


  4. Hi Alastair, the tent is a GoLite Eden 1. It's about the same weight as an Akto and has a large porch and slightly more headroom. It seems pretty stable as there are lots of guylines, though I haven't had it up in really strong winds yet. However the inner is all mesh and breezes can be felt through it as the flysheet is raised slightly at each end. This makes for good ventilation but a colder inner. I suspect condensation might drip through as well, though this hasn't happened.