Sunday 24 November 2013

Cairngorms Snow Changes

Damp & Chilly

In the two weeks since I was last up on the Cairngorm Plateau conditions have changed. One of the fascinating aspects of the winter mountains is that they are never the same from one day to the next. Snow is an amazingly volatile substance, changing with the slightest variation in temperature or direction and strength of the wind. Although it has remained cold I knew as soon as I stepped on the first snow patch that there had been some thawing and refreezing. The snow was smooth surfaced and crunchy underfoot. Only the top few inches were hard though. Below it was soft, meaning I was often breaking through, sometimes knee deep, and walking was arduous. Strong winds had scoured the slopes too, ripping the snow off exposed areas and packing it into hollows, where it was sometimes several feet deep. Many rocks were showing through the snow and I was glad I hadn't brought my skis.

Snow-ice on pine twigs

The clouds were low on the hills and there was a dampness in the air. Lower down there was no wind though and I didn't need a jacket, especially as climbing required much effort. Walking without a jacket meant I got quite wet though, something I felt when I reached the tops and a cold wind cut through my clothes. An icy rain was falling too, freezing as soon as it landed.

Waterproof jacket on I turned away from the wind and climbed slippery, frost, ice and snow covered rocky slopes to the summit of Cairn Gorm. I had ice axe and crampons but there were few places I could have stopped a fall with an ice axe and not enough ice or hard snow for crampons. My trekking poles kept me from falling when I did slip.

Difficult slippery terrain

The cloud was thick and the weather station on the summit hung ghost-like in the sodden air. The temperature was around freezing, the wind bitter. This wasn't conditions for staying up high for long so I turned and descended. The exposed rocks were useful in the white-out as there was nothing else to focus on. I soon learnt to avoid unbroken patches of snow as I couldn't judge the angle on them. I'd only been out for three hours but it was enough in this damp cold weather.
Cairn Gorm Weather Station


  1. Looks difficult terrain. We once had freezing rain in Bristol and it was treacherous! The while area was a skating rink. Never had that since, just snow and or ice.
    What shoes did you wear here Chris?
    Why could crampons not be used? Looks icy and snowy for them to grip on. That pic of the slope looks slippery!
    Great trip report.

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  3. Tony, where there was much snow I sank in so crampons weren't needed. Where there wasn't much snow I'd have been scraping them on rocks much of the time and they would have been a hazard rather than helpful. Without trekking poles it would have been much more difficult/ I was wearing Ecco Biom hike boots.

    1. Thanks Chris. Makes sense. I guess you'll be trying snow shoes soon.

    2. Not until it snows again Tony. There's a big thaw at the moment and the snow is vanishing.

  4. I can feel the cold through the pictures. I'll be keeping an eye out for your winter walks to see how the conditions change as I am walking Dalwhinnie to Fort William in Mid January along the Theives Road via Corrour. Cheers.