Thursday 30 March 2023

A Spectacular Winter's Day In the Cairngorms

View over Stob Coire an t-Sneachda to Cairn Toul

After the rain on Craigellachie I was hoping for some drier, brighter weather for my next hill walk. The forecast for the week ahead didn’t look promising, except for Monday when a weak ridge of high pressure should bring sunshine. So that day I headed up onto the Cairngorm Plateau in search if sun and snow. The forecast didn’t let me down. The sky was clear, the sun bright. The rain of the last few days had fallen as snow high up and it lay soft and ankle-deep, the mountains back in winter.

The Northern Corries: Stob Coire an t-Sneachda & Cairn Lochan

Patches of old snow dotted the mountainsides below the new covering. Some of this was icy so I donned crampons. Higher up I didn’t really need these but kept them on just in case. There were surprisingly few people about but a few climbers did pass me on their way down. One I knew, Dan Bailey of UKHillwalking, and we stopped for a brief chat. The soft snow meant the climbing wasn’t very good he said but he and his companion had had a good day out anyway.

View across the Cairngorm Plateau to Cairn Toul & Sgor an Lochain Uaine

Once I crossed Stob Coire an t-Sneachda, where, as so often, many rocks protruded through the snow I could see the Plateau stretching out to Ben Macdui, shining white, and looking perfect for skiing. I was on foot though, without even snowshoes, as I’d left these behind when I saw I’d be carrying them before I reached the snow. I hadn’t expected good skiing conditions and had remarked on this to Dan, who told me the Plateau was snow covered. I must buy new ski boots!

The snow was just deep enough to slow me down without making walking really arduous. My snowshoes would have assisted but not very much. My heavy pack didn’t help. Although only out for the day I’d brought one on test filled with 14kg of gear to see how it carried in these conditions. It was fine.

Not that warm in the sun!

The fine weather wasn’t meant to last long and soon the cold breeze was becoming a bitter wind and thin clouds were starting to streak the sky to the west.

Cairn Lochan

I climbed up Cairn Lochan to one of my favourite winter views, looking across the great cliffs. At the head of the wide gully that bites into the mountain here, separating the two summit cairns, the snow had slumped, forming lovely cornices and waves below the crest. During the day I admired other snow patterns too, some quite abstract. 

Snow abstract

As I began my descent the wind started to pick up the loose snow and the ground became streaked as ankle-high spindrift raced like waves over the snow and eddied round dark rocks.An ephemeral beauty.


Returning across the now-shady mouths of the Northern Corries I looked at the last sunlight shining on the cliffs high above while the blue sky above deepened. Then the sun was sinking below the horizon, turning the fine thin clouds orange. A wonderful end to a spectacular day.

The coming change in the weather

Since then it’s been raining. The forecast was right.

Sunday 26 March 2023

Pondering ski gear in the rain after learning something new in an outdoor shop

Braeriach from Craigellachie

Wandering up Craigellachie in the rain I was pondering ski gear and the novel, at least for me, experience of going into an outdoor shop with lots of questions and less knowledge than I thought I had. The shop visit was the follow-up to the discovery that my plastic ski touring boots were on the way out and needed replacing that I wrote about in this post.

My assumption was that I would replace the boots with a similar pair or possibly even the same model. I just needed to find ones that fitted my wide feet. But it had been twenty years since I’d last paid attention to ski gear, and I was to discover much had changed. I’d had a warning of this at the igloo building weekend where Andy Ince had shown me his current set-up – huge plastic boots, the widest skis I’d ever seen, and complicated new -fangled bindings – and said that’s what Telemark skiers were now using and that the old 75mm Nordic Norm three-pin and cable bindings were on the way out. I didn’t really take this in as I wasn’t looking for such a set-up anyway. If anything I wanted lighter boots, not heavier ones.

Cable-bindings & duck-bill boots. Out of date!

Then in Cairngorms Mountain Sports in Aviemore I was told that 75mm NN really was disappearing. I couldn’t replace my boots with the same model as they’d been discontinued as had similar boots. I aske about leather boots with clips and power straps. Gone years ago. My cable bindings were no longer made either and spares were unavailable so I wouldn’t be able to replace the cables when they failed (and they’re pretty worn, being over twenty years old). Oh. The Nordic touring system I’d been using since I learnt to ski forty years ago would soon be no more. It looked as though I needed new boots and new bindings. And to adjust my thinking. What was now available? 

My old duck-billed 75mm NN boots

The assistant showed me a new binding with a long-winded name, the Rottefella Xplore BC Offtrack Nordic Binding. It looked good and very different to 75NN. No more duck-billed boots! I examined some boots designed for this binding. They looked the type I was after.

I didn’t make an immediate decision. I hadn’t expected to discover that I probably needed a whole new system. I was glad I’d talked to an expert and he’d given me good advice, including that the new bindings were not that proven in Scottish conditions yet and maybe I should do some research online. (I have and found rave reviews from Norway and the USA but nothing from Scotland). It was decades since I’d needed such assistance in an outdoor shop and it was useful to be reminded how valuable it is to discuss with an expert gear you can actually handle in a bricks and mortar shop. Such places are well worth supporting.

Craigellachie birches

Leaving the shop I went for a walk up Craigellachie, that steep, rugged, mostly wooded crag that rises directly above Aviemore. Rain poured down. The paths were slippery and muddy. The woods glistening and fresh. Big stands of birch trees were silver and purple, waiting for the first pale green tinge of the coming spring.

In the rain

Once above the trees Aviemore spread out below me. My eyes though were drawn across Strathspey to the Cairngorms, to the dark cleft of the Lairig Ghru and the snowy corries of cloud-shrouded Braeriach. Dark, grim, grand. And probably not the place to be today.

The Lairig Ghru

I descended in the rain, thinking about new boots and bindings. I still am but it does look like the Xplore bindings – trying something new is always exciting – as long as I can find boots that fit both me and them.

Craigellachie birches

Wednesday 22 March 2023

Carrying the IceBox

Following my last post about the igloo building trip I thought I'd post this picture of my pack with the IceBox strapped on to show how it can be carried. The IceBox isn't heavy - just 2.2kg - but it is quite wide and so only really fits on the back of a pack. 

The IceBox in use

There's much more information including videos on using the IceBox on the Grand Shelters website.

Tuesday 21 March 2023

Building Igloos In The Rain

Igloos with rainbow

It didn’t rain all the time. Just when we were finishing the igloos. Before then there were some light showers that passed over quickly, leaving rainbows in their wake, a pleasant touch of colour on an otherwise grey day. Otherwise the only brightness came from our clothing.

An igloo begins to take shape

This was the annual Inverness Backcountry Snowsports Club igloo building weekend (well, intended to be annual, some years the weather or lack of snow has forced cancellations and there were of course the lockdowns). Ten of us had made our way through the heather and along strips of snow into Coire Laogh Mor where we found some deep enough snow patches. The weather was warm for mid-March and the forecast was for showers with fog and strong winds higher up. There’d been a big thaw the previous few days too. Not ideal conditions then but these trips are planned well in advance so we went anyway. We couldn’t always expect the wonderful conditions of the previous two trips in 2018 and 2022.

Igloo Ed in Yellowstone, 2007

I’ve been on these weekends since the first one in 2010, having inspired them with a talk I gave to the club, then called the Inverness Nordic Ski Touring Club, about an igloo ski trip in the Wind River Range of the Rocky Mountains that I made with the inventor of the IceBox we use to build the igloos, my friend Igloo Ed. I’d first skied with Ed and learnt to build igloos back in 2007 on the most extraordinary winter trip I’ve ever undertaken in Yellowstone National Park. The combination of thermal features – spouting geysers, clouds of warm steam, bubbling hot mud pots, warm rivers – and deep cold down to -36°C plus very deep soft snow was strange and memorable. 

Ed with our equipment, Yellowstone, 2007

Since 2010 I’ve been on every igloo building trip with the club and have posted about them all on this blog. They are one of the winter events of the year, even when conditions aren’t that good.

An igloo rises

The one advantage of the warmer weather this year was that the heavy wet snow was easily and quickly made into blocks so we were able to take our time and have plenty of breaks and still finish before dark.

My little igloo

I’d brought a tent, intending to camp as I’d done on a number of previous trips, leaving the igloos to those who’d never stayed in one before. However as we had three IceBoxes and making the igloos was so easy we built a little one just big enough for me. Two of the party were staying in their tent anyway so we ended up with three igloos of different sizes sleeping four, three and one.

Warm and dry inside

The rain and a damp evening precluded much in the way of outdoor sociability after the igloos were completed and we soon retreated inside to change into dry clothes and cook and eat. I ventured outside a couple of times, the first time to see the last of a red sunset over the bright lights of Aviemore, the second to a half-clear sky with the constellation Orion standing out, big and bright.

A comfortable home for the night

I’d only spent nights alone in an igloo once before, on that first trip with Igloo Ed, and I did enjoy the quiet and calm. Inside an igloo there’s no sense of the weather, no sound of wind, no flapping fabric, no rattle of rain on the flysheet. I felt relaxed and peaceful.

Igloos are strong

At dawn I was outside again, the air colder now, but a flurry of fine snow soon had me back in the igloo for another coffee. The snow shower soon passed and I took my coffee outside to join the others. Clouds were low down on the hills not far above and most people seemed happy to stay with the igloos a bit and then descend, as I did. The night had been just cold enough for the outsides of the igloos to freeze hard. Their strength was proven by people climbing on top. Two club members out for the day joined us and their dog provided entertainment by posing on top of the igloo too.

Dog on igloo

Thinking back to previous igloo weekends I remembered that the weather could be much worse. Back in 2013 one igloo half collapsed when the temperatures rose in the evening and wind and spindrift eroded away the walls, leaving four of us to sleep in a two-person igloo that just made it through the night. Two years before that, in 2011, we’d had a fine day building the igloos but had woken to a big storm and a near white-out. The plan of a day’s skiing was abandoned and we needed compass bearings to find the descent route.

By comparison a little rain and a grey sky wasn’t worth complaining about. We’d built igloos and slept in them. The weekend was a success.