Thursday 17 October 2013

Misty Autumn Cairngorms

Coire an Lochain

The Cairngorm Plateau is always a favourite place, even when the weather is stormy or cloudy. On this week’s trip it looked as unpromising as possible with thick clouds hanging low over the Northern Corries. Hoping that the mist might lift a little I crossed the base of the corries, staring up at the splintered cliffs vanishing into the greyness. After recent rain and snowmelt the burns were full and thundering down and I was glad of the steeping stones. No sign now of the summer dryness. The green of summer has gone too, the grasses burnt orange, making the slopes look a burnished gold from a distance.

The first hint that the clouds might shift came as I looked into Coire an Lochain. Rather than a solid dark line the mist was swirling and breaking, revealing dark crags and the last remnants of the snowfall of five days ago. As I climbed the shoulder of the corrie I went in and out of bands of mist. Looking back I could see the Meall a’Bhuachaille hills rising above mist-covered Glenmore Forest.

Beinn Mheadhoin streaked with remnants of a recent snowfall

On reaching the Plateau I could see the cloud was dense to the south, a solid wall of darkness hiding the hills. But along the rim of the corries, the northern edge of the Cairngorm Plateau, the mist was disintegrating into strips and patches that drifted gently over the tops. As I walked over the summits of Cairn Lochan and Stob Coire an t-Sneachda I went in and out of the cloud, the visibility shrinking to a few metres then spreading to tens of kilometres. Beyond the hills in Strathspey the sun was shining. Up here the air was chill and damp and I was soon coated in a layer of fine moisture. The air was barely moving but even a gentle breath felt cold on the skin.

Drifting clouds at dusk

I’d set off late in the afternoon, planning on being high up at dusk when the light can be magical and intense. I had the hills to myself, others having descended before I’d even set off. They missed the best of the day. As I reached the top of the Fiacaill a’Choire Chais, the ridge down which I would descend, the first hints of pink appeared in the north-western sky. I stopped and watched as a streak of colour spread below a dense band of cloud, quickly deepening into a rich red. Drifting clouds caught the last rays of the sun. Then the sun itself appeared briefly between the cloud banks before sinking out of sight. Quickly the world turned to grey and darkness swept in as I dropped down the stony ridge.


Later, when I drove home after a few hours in the Glenmore Lodge bar* with Daniel Neilson, The Great Outdoor’s Acting Editor and up here for a course you’ll be able to read about in a forthcoming issue, the mist had spread through the valley and I crept along, headlights dipped, visibility reduced to a few metres. Twice deer at the side of the road froze as I passed and I narrowly missed a few rabbits and pheasants, not seen until I was almost on top of them.

*Beer and whisky for Daniel, coffee and ginger beer for me as I was driving, though I was sorely tempted by the Lodge’s superb whisky selection. I made do with a glass of Black Bottle, my favourite blended whisky, when I got home.

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