Wednesday 27 November 2013

First Snow Camp of the Winter

With a thaw forecast a last venture out in the first big snowfall of the winter seemed very attractive, especially as there looked like being twenty-four hours or so of good weather. The idea of a snow camp, the first for eight months, was also appealing. As I hadn't been up it yet this year I decided to head for Bynack More, an outlier of the main Cairngorms massif.

The walk began in pine woods still dotted with yellow-leaved birch trees. Down here a thaw had already stripped away much of the snow, leaving a complex dappled pattern of light and dark, snow and tree and heather. Lochan Uaine was green with tree reflections. No ice yet. Beyond the trees the snow cover slowly spread and deepened. Once the climbing really began it was crunchy and unstable, sometimes supporting my foot, sometimes collapsing as I put weight on it. High clouds kept the light flat and dull and there was only a hint of pink in the western sky.

Above the long cleft of Strath Nethy I crossed the high moor below Bynack More. Somewhere here I would camp. It's not a place I'd choose in summer - the ground is either boggy or gravel and there's no water nearby. Snow can be levelled for a flat bed and melted for water, opening up many places for comfortable camps. This one I'd never used before and I was curious to know what the dawn would bring as I pitched the tent as darkness fell.


The evening was calm with the temperature just below freezing. I fell asleep watching stars coming and going between the high drifting clouds. Wet cold air brushing my face woke me hours later. A wind had sprung up and was blowing spindrift into the tent. Although the middle of the night it was lighter than when I'd gone to sleep. I looked out at a bright half-moon and a starry sky. The clouds had gone with the wind.

A Comfortable Camp
Hours more passed before I opened my eyes again. The light had changed. The sky was turning from black to blue and a yellow-orange line on the horizon spoke of the still-hidden sun. Bands of cloud again streaked the sky. The temperature was -4°C. I lit the stove and lay in my sleeping bag watching the sun rise over distant hills. The dawn was glorious. Reason enough to be here in this wild and beautiful world.

Ben Avon from the ascent of Bynack More

Leaving camp I headed up the long rocky north ridge of Bynack More. No more than a walk in summer, with some optional easy scrambling, it was rather more difficult covered with hard snow and rime ice. I stayed just below the crest, out of the cutting wind. As the slope steepened I stopped to put on crampons and swap a trekking pole for an ice axe. The going was easier on the firm surface than on the breakable crusty snow below however and I was soon on the windswept rocky summit looking out on the vast array of the Cairngorms. The weather was already changing with the clouds thickening from the west. 

View from Bynack More

Crampons biting securely into the shiny snow I crossed the lower top of Bynack Beg and descended steeply into Strath Nethy. Flocks of white ptarmigan flew low over the hillsides. As I neared the flat valley bottom I was catching the crampons in heather as often as I was stamping them into snow. Off with them. They were becoming hazardous. The River Nethy was low and easily boulder-hopped. An arduous climb through more patchy snow and clinging heather then it was a final skid down a steep little-used path through the woods. The whole trip had only lasted twenty-four hours but I had been transported into another more elemental world and the experience had been intense.

Strath Nethy


  1. Excellent, but only -4c! I had -8c on Dartmoor on Monday night ;-) *
    Did you close door against spindrift?
    I see crampons used this time.
    Lovely write up. Very relaxed. Alone I see dawn as a race to get up**. Unfortunately.
    The landscape looks amazing with a frost on it. But -4c, that's poor ;-)
    *subject to thermometer variances :-)

    * as a sensible aside, how long does it take you from waking to walking out. It takes me a good hour. Esp in winter.

  2. Tony, yes, I closed the door against spindrift. I wasn't in any hurry to leave as the dawn light was so good. I spent an hour or so taking photos. I left about 21/2 hours after waking.

    Where did you camp on Dartmoor? That is, what sort of place. I was on a high broad shoulder that is quite exposed. I expect it was much colder in valley bottoms and sheltered spots.

    1. Hopefully you'll see my video sometime. It was lowish on flat area, near a stream, certainly bottom of a small hill. Large open area. I'll certainly use it again.
      The light was fabulous, I don't blame you taking your time.
      Probably good to air your sleeping bag too?

    2. Even a low dip can be a cold sink. And it's usually colder near water.
      I didn't bother airing my sleeping bag (actually two bags as I was testing PHD's new Filler inner bag) as it was only a one night trip and it wasn't damp.

  3. Thank you for this. You love for the hills really shines through. It stirs the soul.
    I backpacked 1500 miles this year, mainly around Scotland on different routes. I finished in September and this really fires me up to have a night or two out there again. I wish I lived closer!

    1. Thanks Ian. 1500 miles is impressive!

    2. Thanks for that. At times when it was constantly wet it made me realise just how tough some of your big ones must have been...

  4. Inspiring account Chris. Thank you. Great photos too. I really MUST get up to the Highlands more often. As you say, it was only a 24hr trip, but the experience must have left you with feelings that last longer.

  5. As you know Chris you have inspired me for over 30 years now and I never tire of your posts, your tips, your reviews and especially your passion!

    One day I hope to hike with you - it would be an absolute honour sir!

    1. Thanks Chris. I hope I can go on doing so for a while longer! It would be great to hike with you.

  6. Nice photos there Chris. Came across my first snow on the Corridor route in Lakes this week but not as much as you - only needed my microspikes (spent some time with Terry) Do you use a traditional crampon or a Kahtoola KTS/ K10?

  7. Thanks Mark. On this trip I was testing some Hillsound Trail Crampons, which are similar to Microspikes. They were fine though I had to be careful with foot placements on the steepest sections. On anything steeper or more sustained I'd want traditional crampons (I have Grivel ones) or the Kahtoola KTS, which I find a good compromise between a full crampon and ones like the Hillsound or Microspikes. I use these with walking boots. When ski touring I have some Grivel 9-point aluminium crampons that fit Nordic ski boots.