Tuesday 4 February 2014

Winter Storms Continue In The Cairngorms

Figures in the Storm

This stormiest of winters runs on into February. Searching the weather forecasts for a day that looked as though the hills might offer more than a desperate struggle I seized on the 4th as one where the winds were 'only' forecast to reach 35mph on the summits and there might be good visibility between the showers. Not wanting to cope with winds that strong on the Cairngorm Plateau I decided on what seemed a fairly unambitious ski tour into the Northern Corries and down Lurchers Gully with perhaps an ascent of 1053 metre Creag an Leth-choin if conditions were good.

The wind hurling spindrift around the car park in Coire Cas didn't suggest an easy day. The car park is notoriously windy though and I hoped once I was away from its exposed flatness the wind might fade a little. With climbing skins on my skis I left the busy downhill ski area and headed for the two huge cliff-rimmed corries of Coire an t-Sneachda and Coire an Lochain. High above the Plateau was invisible in swirling clouds though away from the mountains the sun shone over the brown and green of Strathspey. A strange aspect of this winter is that whilst the hills have been cold and snowy down in the glens it has been mild with only the occasional dusting of snow. The fairly abrupt cut-off line is around 600 metres.

More Figures in the Storm

As I climbed the visibility came and went as clouds of spindrift blasted down from above. In any even slightly sheltered area the snow was soft and deep but elsewhere it was scoured and hard and rough with many rocks poking through. Other figures came and went in the spindrift - walkers, snowshoers, skiers - all with hoods up, goggles on and bent over ski poles against the wind.

In the mouth of Coire an t-Sneachda the wind almost prevented upward movement as it roared down. Ahead I could see nothing so I turned away and contoured round into Coire Lochain. Again the wind made progress a struggle. At around 900 metres in the mouth of this second corrie I decided turning back was wise. I could see nothing except the occasional rock and I was feeling the effort of fighting into the storm. The spindrift was more than head high. Or maybe snow was falling. I couldn't tell.

Facing away from the wind, my beard frozen to my jacket
The return was as difficult as the ascent. I had the wind behind me now but this brought it's own problems as it shot me towards boulders. I kept the skins on the skis and still picked up too much speed for good control at times. The rivers of spindrift racing over the snow made the ground seem insubstantial and almost alive as it shivered and swirled. The air and ground met and I couldn't always tell whether the snow in front of me went up or down. On the wind-scoured refrozen icy snow I skittered and skidded, utilising muscle power and crude ski techniques to keep my speed manageable. My legs are feeling this I thought. Then I would hit the soft windblown powder and my skis would slow abruptly almost throwing me forwards onto my face.

Eventually the car park reappeared. The wind was stronger here, the car rocking as I changed my boots. I'd only been out two and a half hours and had only skied five kilometres but it felt longer in both time and distance because of the intensity and depth of the experience. The whole time I'd been out I'd had to concentrate to stay on my feet, pick a safe route, control my skis, keep track of where I was and make sure I was in control. All that existed was the snow, the wind, the boulders and the spindrift. An elemental world.


  1. Elemental indeed, and all the more satisfying because of it. Bet there was a big happy smile on your face as you drove home.....
    Thanks for sharing.

  2. Hard work in those conditions Chris but spare a thought for folk in Slovenia.