Saturday 4 March 2023

Above the Clouds in the Cairngorms

Late February saw the start of the first prolonged period of high pressure this winter. The strong winds of recent weeks died away, the temperatures dropped, the hills froze. A night out in the snow called.

On the ascent I was surprised at the amount of fresh snow high up. I’d expected less. Drifting in the wind meant in places it was soft and deep while in others it had been blown away and only thin icy old snow remained from earlier falls. None of the latter were quite extensive enough for crampons though I did consider donning them a few times. Mostly I could boulder hop the iciest sections. 

The rocks and boulders were decorated with forst and snow patterns, fingers of white splayed across the warm brown granite. 

Having left fairly late the western sky was darkening and turning orange as I reached the summit of Cairn Gorm, the sun a searing white ball about to set over the frozen mountains.

The light fading and the cold increasing I dropped down to a shallow corrie and found a flat spot for camp. The snow here was quite thin and I was able to shovel most of it away and pitch on almost clear ground. I left the tent door wide open so I could lie and gaze at the stars and the moon.

I woke to see a band of orange on the eastern horizon above a sea of cloud filling the flatlands beyond the mountains. The temperature was -5.5°C but I was warm in my down sleeping bag and jacket and soon had hot coffee. There was a trickle of water in the nearby stream, just enough to fill my bottles. Knowing the water would freeze overnight I’d filled my pot before going to sleep. Sure enough it was solid ice but after a few minutes on the stove it had turned to boiling water.

As the sun appeared and the light strengthened I wandered along the edge of the deep Loch Avon basin gazing down at the dark water, edged and patched with ice, and across to snowy hills. To the east the cloud was rising and slowly winding up Glen Avon.

The sun was high by the time I returned to camp for more coffee and a slow packing up. It was not a day to hurry. The first other people appeared, two skiers descending a wide strip of unbroken snow. I reckoned they must have carried their skis a fair way.

I ambled up to the crest of Stob Coire an t-Sneachda to see a vast sea of cloud filling Glenmore and Strathspey.  Up here the sun was strong, the views stretching out endlessly. Down there the air would be grey and the world enclosed. Looking back I could see the mist much closer now. Maybe here would be enveloped soon.

But not yet. Back on the summit of Cairn Gorm the sun was bright. I shared the summit with others enjoying the views, the alpine blue sky, the mountain majesty, the grandness of the Cairngorms.

That mist was still creeping upwards though, from both sides now. A line of walkers heading upwards were backed by a boiling wall of cloud. 

I wasn’t far below the summit when the air grew hazy and damp, the sun thin and pale. Soon visibility was less than a hundred metres. The world had changed. Boulders loomed up like huge cliffs only to shrink as I reached them. At times I wasn’t quite sure if the ground in front went up or down. If there’s been more snow it would have been a white-out, but I could see rocks and then heather and patches of grass.

I came out of the mist to a cold car park under a grey sky. Time for Aviemore and a cafĂ©. 


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