Local weather conditions can sometimes mean that a forecast for sunshine and blue skies can be correct almost but not completely everywhere. Such was the case for my first winter camp this season. Cold, crisp, clear weather with at most a light breeze was predicted for the Cairngorms. Ideal, it seemed, for a high camp. As it was I didn’t quite go high enough. Or, alternatively, I didn’t stay low enough.
The temperature was -5°C when I finished scraping the ice off my car windscreen and drove to Aviemore to meet photographer Anders Brogaard, with whom I’d had much correspondence for quite a while but had never actually met. As we’re both lovers of the outdoors there was much to talk about and a coffee in Aviemore became lunch in the Glenmore Café and a late start on the hill. Anders was heading off into the forest and staying low level for his first visit to the Cairngorms, probably wise as he had an enormous and heavy pack loaded with camera gear.
I went up to Coire Cas for the quite short walk across the mouths of the Northern Corries and up to the western shoulder of Cairn Lochan where I camped at 1075 metres not far from the steep slopes dropping into the Lairig Ghru. The sky was cloudy but the forecast was for it to clear during the night. The ground was frozen hard with much ice on the rocks and big patches of old snow. I had to hammer the pegs in with a rock, bending a few in the process. Once the tent was pitched I gathered a pile of snow to melt for water, making this a real winter camp.
As there was a cold breeze and no sign of the cloud shifting yet I decided an early night and waking before dawn was the best plan. That way I might be able to photograph a starry camp and then the sunrise. When I woke though the clouds were thicker, occasionally enveloping the tent, and the gusty wind stronger. Light snow had fallen and a heavy frost plastered the tent inside and out. The temperature was -7°C.
With no sign of a clearance, after a leisurely breakfast I packed up and started back down the way I’d come. If clear I’d been going to head over Cairn Lochan but I had no desire for a navigation exercise in a bitterly cold wind. I needed a compass bearing anyway to point me across the featureless flat expanse that lay between camp and the start of the ridge down. As I began the descent some day walkers passed me heading up. I looked back and could see them silhouetted against the cloudy sky through which the low hazy sun was shining. Then Cairn Lochan appeared, the clouds thinning and vanishing as they passed its western slopes.
Further down I came out of the clouds to see Cairn Gorm shining in the sunlight. Nearer to hand Creag an Leth-choin was still in cloud. Then suddenly I dropped out of the wind and into sunshine and went from just warm enough to overheating in a few minutes. Stopping to strip off some clothing I looked back again. Where I’d camped was still cloudy but everywhere else was sunny. The clouds seemed to be rushing up the Lairig Ghru from the south then rising over the long saddle between Cairn Lochan and Creag an Leth-choin, the very place I’d camped, before dissipating.
Back home I discovered from comments and posts on the Internet that if I’d climbed higher I could have camped above the clouds. Further west on the Moine Mhor there were reports of good camps too. And Anders had a fine time in the woods. I’d just been in the one place where the weather wasn’t so good. Still, it was a fine winter camp even without the stars or the sun.