Thursday 24 March 2022

Snow, wind, clouds, sun & beauty on a Cairngorm Plateau snow camp


Recent days have seen the first continuous period of dry sunny weather this year. Just the time for a high camp in the Cairngorms. The mountains are still snow covered high up and the clear nights frosty so there’s not much of a thaw going on. 

Stob Coire an t-Sneachda

With the general idea of camping somewhere on the Plateau between Cairn Gorm and Ben Macdui I set off up the Fiacaill a’ Choire Chais with a big pack. As well as my camping gear I had snowshoes, ice axe, crampons, and snow shovel. I would have to climb a fair way before I’d need any of them, there only being small patches of snow on the lower part of the ridge. The sun was hot and I was in shirt sleeves and quickly sweating. The snow- plastered cliffs of Stob Coire an t-Sneachda looked splendid up ahead, reminding me why I was lugging this heavy load.

Stob Coire an t-Sneachda

As I reached the final steepening of the ridge there were more and bigger snow patches, hard icy snow patches. Time for crampons. Once these steel spikes were underfoot my confidence soared and the climb to the big cairn marking the top of the ridge and the edge of the Cairngorm Plateau was soon reached. A cold breeze saw a jacket and hat come on, though I still didn’t need gloves.

Cairn Toul & Sgor an Lochan Uaine

I gazed out on a white world. There weren’t snowfields. There was just snow, stretching across to distant Ben Macdui. Only on Stob Coire an t-Sneachda did rocks protrude through the snow. Cornices overhung the cliffs, catching the late light. I crossed the summit and there, beyond the hidden gash of the Lairig Ghru pass, shone Cairn Toul and Sgor an Lochain Uaine, with the sky colouring with the dusk behind them. The snow was hard and icy, and I kept the crampons on for the rest of the day.

Loch Avon

 I wandered down Coire Domhain, past the snowholes that are dug here every winter, considered camping, then deciding there was enough light to go on I contoured round to the broad shallow recess of the Feith Buidhe, the stream hidden under the snow. I ambled about for a while, gazing down to shadowed Loch Avon stretching out far below and admiring the great cliffs of Hell’s Lum, the Shelterstone Crag and Carn Etchachan. This is a great place to be.


A flat area gave some shelter from the strengthening wind, which was not forecast. The snow was rock hard and once forced in the tent pegs seemed solidly set. I suspected I might need to ice axe to prise them out in the morning. I dug a pile of icy chunks to melt for water and settled down to a supper of instant soup followed by almost-instant noodles.

Snow melting

Late in the evening the wind shifted and started to buffet the tent from the side, though not enough to cause concern. When I switched off my headlamp and pulled the sleeping bag shut the temperature was -1.9°C. How low would it go? The bag was rated to -7 and I had warm clothing. I didn’t expect to be cold.

The tent and the wind

I certainly didn’t expect to be too warm, but I was when the noise of the tent flapping woke me. It was three o’clock. The temperature was +1.7. The snow was softening and a peg had pulled out, leaving a corner of the tent flapping. I pushed it back in and fell back to sleep, leaving the hood of the sleeping bag open. At five the peg was out again, the flapping louder. Two more pegs had risen up out of the snow. I managed to get them back in, though I didn’t think they’d stay for long. The tent seemed secure anyway, despite being a lightweight model designed more for good ventilation on hot summer nights then snow camping in the Cairngorms. 


Dawn came with more tent flapping and a hazy light with many clouds in the sky. I had a pre-breakfast stroll to look at the landscape again then returned to the tent, a tiny green blob in the vast whiteness, for coffee and muesli porridge.


The snow was much softer now so I set off with the snowshoes rather than crampons. The thin sunshine and drifting clouds gave an ethereal feel to the landscape. Nothing was quite solid, quite real. 


Others were about. Three skiers climbing steadily towards Ben Macdui. A few walkers heading the same way. I had thought of doing do myself but feeling weary from the broken night’s sleep and aware of my heavy load I decided to head for Cairn Lochan instead. It is a favourite anyway, a mountain of contrasts. 


Long featureless snow slopes led steadily up to the summit cairn right on the edge of the cliffs high above Coire an Lochain, a sudden dramatic viewpoint, especially on this day with snow filling the gullies below cornices. 

Cairn Lochan

My return took me back over Stob Coire an t-Sneachda and back down the Fiacaill a’ Choire Chais, with the snowshoes swapped for crampons at the top of the latter. A grand trip.

Carn Etchachan & Derry Cairngorm


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