Wednesday 28 November 2007

Winter Comes To The Cairngorms

Snow has lain on the high tops of the Cairngorms for over two weeks now, with storms sweeping the hills on an almost daily basis. The snowline has risen and fallen as warm and cold fronts have passed over, bringing rain and a thaw then snow and a freeze, but the summits have stayed white. I first ventured up into this winter world soon after the first snow fell, a thin covering above 700 metres. The ground was frozen, the lower paths ribbons of ice. Walking was easiest in the dry, cold snow high up, hardest in the forest where the paths were slick with wet fallen leaves as well as ice. The light was hard and grey and a cold west wind swept the hills. I climbed past frozen Lochan na Beinne and up the long northern ridge of Cairn Gorm to Cnap Coire na Spreidhe, whose summit cairn sparkled with white frost feathers. The temperature here at 1150 metres was -5C. I carried an ice axe and crampons but didn’t need to use them, though the crampons could have been useful if the paths had been icier.

Two weeks later I returned to the high tops, this time on skis, with climbing skins attached for the ascent of the Fiacaill a’Choire Chais, the long rocky ridge that forms the west wall of Coire Cas, which lies directly below the summit of Cairn Gorm. The ascent soon took me into thick damp mist. Higher up the air was colder and the moisture on my clothes and hair froze, leaving me plastered with frost and ice. A bitter north-west wind brought snow and visibility was soon reduced to 10 yards or less. A pair of ice climbers appeared out of the mist and clanked down past me, crampons on their feet, helmets on their heads, ice axes in their hands. “Nasty up there”, one said, “we’re going down for mugs of hot tea”. I pushed on; glad I had a flask of hot spiced ginger cordial in my pack (Rocks Organic Ginger – my favourite cold weather drink). A compass bearing for Cairn Gorm was needed from the big cairn at the top of the ridge to ensure I missed the steep slopes at the head of Coire Cas. Skiing up Cairn Gorm I traversed round rocks and across hard, wind-blasted icy snow, glad of the steel edges on my skis. Six walkers appeared descending, the leader kicking steps in the snow. None had ice axe or crampons or even trekking poles.

On the summit it was difficult to see the automatic weather station from the cairn, a distance of about 20 yards. I sheltered behind the weather station while I had lunch and warmed myself with hot ginger cordial. The wind was gusting to 25mph. The temperature was -7C. My plan of crossing the Cairngorm Plateau to Ben MacDui was abandoned. Struggling into this cold wind on compass bearings would be slow and unpleasant. Instead I skied back down to Coire Cas, difficult enough in the flat light, happy after the first ski tour of the season. I hope there will be many more.

The first photo shows the Cairngorm Weather Station in the dense mist. Photo info: Canon EOS 350D, Canon 18-55mm IS lens at 21mm, f8@1/800, ISO 200, raw file converted to JPEG in DxO Optics Pro

The second photo shows Beinn Mheadhoin and Ben MacDui, seen across the Loch Avon basin from the north ridge of Cairn Gorm. Photo info: Canon EOS 350D, Canon 18-55mm IS lens at 18mm, f8@1/160, ISO 100, raw file converted to JPEG in Capture One Pro.


  1. Chris,
    I'm so jealous. But despite green tinted glasses I really enjoyed reading this.

  2. Great to read while I'm at in a dull office in Manchester City Centre wishing I was in Scotland. Oh well I'll be up in Mull in a fortnight, hope the white stuff makes an appearance then! Love reading other peoples accounts of days out on the hills! Jamie,

  3. We've just got back from a wonderful backpacking trip up to Bridge of Orchy on the sleeper. Sunday was an amazing day of clear skies, no wind and walking in untouched snow over Beinn a Chreachain and Beinn Achaladair. Monday was just as exciting as the clouds came down and we continued over the twins walking on a bearing with very little visibility. I always forget quite how disorientating a white-out can be until I'm in one and can't tell if the land goes up or down... Lots of snow about above 700m or so, but needless to say, nothing going on around the Glen Coe "ski centre". Just ski-tows scarring the landscape :-(.

  4. You had much better weather than me on Sunday James. I was on Beinn a'Chlachair to the south of Loch Laggan. The morning was quite sunny, though with much drifting cloud at all levels (below me at times). By the time I reached the snow line I was in the cloud and I stayed in it to the summit where I needed compass bearings for the descent. The walk out was under dark clouds with rain starting.