Friday 8 March 2019

Sunshine and Storm in the Cairngorms

Loch Avon

One reason I never tire of the Cairngorms is that they're never the same from one day to the next. On this overnight trip the contrast between the two days could not have been greater.

Back in the autumn film maker James Chapman had contacted me to say he'd like to make a film with me as part of his last year's work at college. After a meeting and many emails we finally set out from Coire Cas in early March shortly after the unseasonal February heatwave had faded away and a light dusting of snow covered the hills.

Cloud over Cairn Lochan

Clouds drifted over the mountains and bursts of sunshine lit the snow as we climbed to the Cairngorm Plateau then headed down Coire Raibert. Our destination was Loch Avon, which James was keen to see for the first time, rather than any summits. Coire Raibert is gentle but the slopes above Loch Avon are very steep and the stream in the corrie makes a sudden plunge down a ravine for some three hundred metres. There is a rough path here, on this day with a few patches of snow and icy rocks in places but no real problems.

Loch Avon comes into view

Once by the loch we admired the reflections of the mountains in the calm water and the touches of brightness as the sun cut below clouds far to the west. All was peaceful and serene. Above rose the great cliffs of Carn Etchachan and the Shelter Stone Crag. I pitched my tent on the flat glen floor below them - a favourite site - while James opted for the Shelter Stone itself.

Loch Avon, Carn Etchachan & the Shelter Stone Crag

Night brought a wondrous starry sky and the ethereal beauty of snowy rock peaks in the pale light of night. I felt excited and content at the same time.

Down by the loch the mountains were still reflected in the dark water. The air was sharp and cold.

The calm beauty changed during the night. I woke at 4 a.m. as a gusty wind blew through the open tent door. The sky was overcast, the stars gone. The thermometer read -2C. I checked back - four hours earlier it had been -7.6C. The weather was changing. I zipped the door shut and fell back to sleep. Waking again at dawn I heard a gentle swishing on the tent. Snow. Snow falling steadily in a gusty wind. Clouds swirled round the summits. This was a different place now.

We decided to return by the same route, hoping that the ravine would still be passable safely and that the wind and snow in Coire Raibert wouldn't be too severe. There was much more snow on the rocks now, soft and slippery and treacherous. There were passages we'd descended I wasn't looking forward to ascending. One was a short traverse above a waterfall. The rocks had been wet and greasy. Now they were snow covered. Reaching this section we decided to climb straight up the sides of the gorge instead, using ice axes and hands on the mix of snow, heather and stone. At times I needed to stand on the head of James's ice axe in order for my short legs to reach the next relatively secure footing. I was very glad of the security of my axe thrust into the snow or ground.

Eventually the terrain eased and we could traverse into Coire Raibert and into a blasting wind and horizontal snow. Visibility was minimal - if the rocks and grasses had all been snow-covered we'd have been in a total whiteout. The snow stung the face, the wind knocked the body sideways. Any thought of filming or photography were long gone. I checked our position on my phone a couple of times, pretty sure where we were but feeling it was wise to be certain. The last time was when steep slopes appeared to one side. I was puzzled. The GPS map position showed we'd come further than I'd thought and were almost at the big cairn at the top of the Fiacaill a'Choire Chais, our descent route. A few minutes later and the cairn rose up out of the storm.

The descent was easier than I'd expected, the wind having blasted the snow off the ridge so there was less than there'd been the day before. Soon we were down in the abandoned-feeling Cairngorm ski resort. Ragged snow fencing laced the mountainside. Drag lifts swayed in the wind. James suddenly commented that it wasn't freezing anymore. His frozen camera had come back to life. I noticed that the snow had changed. The fine stinging pellets were gone. Now it was heavy wet flakes that soaked into our clothing. The storm was behind us and it was only when we removed our packs in the shelter of the Coire Cas buildings that we saw they were plastered with snow.

The Cairngorms had shown us calm and storm, beauty and ferocity. Now it was time for Aviemore and the excellent Explorer Cafe.

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