Saturday, 5 December 2020

A Winter Sunset on Cairn Gorm

Each day out at present feels a little wintrier. I’ve carried an ice axe three times now, though still not used it. A few days ago I added crampons as well, and almost put them on. My load has outgrown my 30-litre daysack. I’m up to 38 litres now. When I need a snow shovel and maybe even more clothing with perhaps snowshoes or skis attached some of the time I’ll search out my 50-litre pack.

The weather forecast was for snow overnight with strong winds then easing during the morning to give a fine afternoon and evening. A day for a sunset from a summit. With short daylight hours I decided on a relatively short walk (about 12km) along the north ridge of Cairn Gorm. The snow was light and the prediction was for temperatures to stay well below freezing all day. 

There were few other vehicles in the car park. A few boot prints led up the ridge towards Cairn Gorm, my eventual descent route. No-one had been along the path I took. There were tracks though – fox and grouse clear, much smaller tracks from vole or mouse less distinct. The snow was thin, brushing the tops of the heather. There was a thin sheen of ice on some of the rocks. Care needed! Lochan na Beinne was calm and blue, beyond it the white cone of Meall a’Bhuachaille.


Climbing steadily, I soon reached the ridge above the lochan and turned to follow it upwards. Across Strath Nethy Bynack More was brown and white and rugged, shadows darkening its lower flanks, the early afternoon sun already low in the sky.


The air was sharp and cold. I had on two warm jackets and was not too hot. Every so often a chilling wind cut across the slopes. Mostly though it was calm. Looking back I saw two brightly clad figures on the edge of the broken crags that fall into Strath Nethy. I was only to see one more person all day, a runner spotted briefly disappearing over Cairn Gorm.


Crossing a long section of gentle terrain as the ridge broadened I admired the wind-sculpted snow streaming out on the lee side of every patch of grass and every rock. Walking round these little drifts I watched out for ice on the almost snow-free gravel. 


As I approached the final steepening before the summit of Cairn Gorm the first soft colours of dusk appeared. To the south mist filled the glens and drifted over cols. To the west the clouds swirled and curled. The silhouette of distant Ben Nevis stood out. Nearer, Creag Meagaidh was at the centre of the circling cloud, the deep gash known as The Window prominent. 


Cairn Gorm was cold and empty. I stopped for a hot drink and watched as the sun sank behind Braeriach. The time was 3.30pm. My thermometer read -5°C. Across the Cairngorm Plateau Cairn Toul and Sgor an Lochain Uaine were fading into darkness under an orange sky.

Between the rocks and small patches of snow the ground was a sheet of ice. I considered crampons but decided I’d probably wreck them on the stones and decided to step carefully over the ice instead. As I set off down, the colour now drained from the sky, I saw that others had worn crampons. They had zigzagged about to stay on the ice and snow. I zigzagged to stay on bare ground or the deeper snow patches. Half-frozen streams bubbled across the path in places, requiring care to cross. The first stars appeared; my head torch went on. I was back in the empty car park at 4.30pm but it felt like the middle of the night in the dark silence.

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