Tuesday 24 November 2015

The First Winter Mountain Walk Of The Season

Cairn Lochan

The first real snow of the winter – snow that lies deep and lasts more than a few hours – fell a few days ago. Waking to a white world I wandered through the fields and woods admiring the sudden change of seasons. Underfoot the snow crunched. A bitter wind numbed exposed skin. In the distance the mountains looked dramatic and enticing.

The next day the wind had eased and the forecast suggested a lull in the November storm procession. Time to see what conditions were like up high. From the Coire Cas car park a beaten path led through the snow below the Northern Corries of Cairn Gorm. The snow was deep enough that I was glad of those that had gone before me. Above the clouds were moving fast but there were patches of blue sky and the occasional burst of sunshine. The air was freezing. I could feel its sharp iciness on my face every time the breeze picked up.

Cairn Lochan
The footsteps faded away as I climbed the western shoulder of Coire an Lochain and onto Miadan Creag an Leth-choin. Plunging through the snow was arduous and my pace slowed. Cairn Lochain looked magnificent, its cliffs plastered with snow. Dark dots were climbers moving slowly upwards. I climbed towards the summit in an increasing wind. Cloud swept in, enveloping me, and on the featureless broad summit plateau visibility shrank to a few metres. Almost a white-out though I could see a few rocks poking through the whiteness. I used the wind to direct me. Feeling it on my face again I realised I’d turned too far south. I put the wind behind me and soon the summit cairn appeared. 

Climbers in the mist
The views came and went as the wind brought waves of clouds. Climbers were finishing a route on the frozen cliffs. The going required care as there were areas scoured of snow with just an icy film over the rocks where I slithered and skidded, my trekking poles keeping me upright. On any southern or eastern slopes the snow was deep and I was wading rather than walking, stumbling at times over buried rocks. Flat light and blowing spindrift made judging angles difficult and a few times I was surprised when the ground fell away more than I expected. Moisture froze on my hat, my jacket and my beard. 

Real winter conditions
By the time I reached Stob Coire an t-Sneachda the light was fading. A faint tinge of pink far to the south marked the setting of the sun but the building clouds were too thick for anything more. Descending the Fiacaill a’Choire Chais I skidded frequently on the path as the stone steps were mostly hidden in the snow. Eventually I had to accept I needed to switch on my headlamp. I’d forgotten what a difference it made. Instead of peering into the growing darkness and trying to guess the nature of the terrain in front of me I could see clearly. Not for the first time I reminded myself I really should use it sooner.

The walk took longer than expected as the snow was deeper and the terrain more icy than I expected. That was good though. It made it a real winter mountain day, the first of the season.

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