Wednesday 15 November 2017

The Stark Grandeur of the November Cairngorms

Cairn Lochan & Coire an t-Sneachda

Much to my astonishment when I climbed up onto the Cairngorm Plateau today it was for the first time in three months. That must be the longest gap between visits except when I’ve been on a long walk for many, many years. Trips elsewhere – Austria, the Lake District, the NW Highlands – and, for the last month, a debilitating cold are the reason. In fact the last has meant it’s been a month since I’ve been up any big hills, something I was very aware of as I climbed somewhat laboriously up to the Plateau. I need to get fit again.

The Cairngorm Plateau

Not so many days ago the Cairngorms were cloaked in the first substantial snow fall of the winter. But then came a sudden warming and a rapid thaw.  Snow is fickle in the Cairngorms, coming and going tantalisingly. The melt only lasted a day but it was enough to strip most of the snow before freezing weather returned. Today winter had returned.

Stob Coire an t-Sneachda & Cairn Lochan
A cold wind greeted me as I climbed the last few hundred feet to the Plateau to look out over a mottled landscape, the dark rocks and brown vegetation laced with snow and speckled with frost. In places larger snow patches remained, refrozen and crunchy. Down in Coire an t-Sneachda the lochans were sheets of ice. Away to the south Ben Macdui was hidden in rolling clouds. Not today I thought. Stob Coire an t-Sneachda and Cairn Lochan would do, a short round to ease me back into the mountains. A few others were about, heavily clad in thick jackets, hats and gloves and moving fast, the cold wind piercing and stinging. 

On Cairn Lochan
At the col at the head of Coire Domhain, between the two peaks, I huddled behind a boulder for a quick snack, glad of the down jacket I’d bundled into the top of my pack. The mist was sweeping towards Cairn Lochain now. By the time I reached the top it had enveloped me. Ahead two silhouetted walkers faded into the greyness. A dark shape croaked overhead. Raven. One of a pair. Another shape, paler and indistinct, raced over the rocks and across a snow patch where it became suddenly clear. A mountain hare, half-brown, half-greyish white – ideal camouflage on the dappled ground. 

Looking back to Cairn Lochan

Descending out of the cloud I looked up at the great cliffs of Cairn Lochain rising into insubstantiality, harsh and cold. In these conditions the mountains seem more forbidding to me than at any other time, even a white-out or a blizzard. Stark, uncompromising, fierce. There is grandeur here but it feels alien. There is no shelter. No snow to burrow into or build into walls or igloos. An exposed windswept landscape. I love it!

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