Friday 5 February 2010

Lurchers Gully White-Out

Just a lowering of the cloud or a slight increase in the speed of the wind can make a huge difference to the weather in winter and a huge difference to a mountain experience. A few days ago I set out from Coire Cas in the Cairngorms on skis intending to climb up to the plateau and ski across to Ben Macdui or, if the weather wasn’t promising, along the edge of the Northern Corries. The forecast suggested some cloud, a little wind and brief snow showers but also a fair chance of good visibility. The high tops being hidden in cloud I decided to stay fairly low at first and cut across the foot of the Northern Corries before climbing up beside Lurchers Gully. The cloud, I hoped, would lift, at least a little. Even below the pale mist the light was flat and the snow covered landscape ill-defined. Orange goggles helped give a little definition to the terrain. In the mouth of Coire an t-Sneachda I brushed the cloud, losing sight of everything more than a few metres away. A slight descent and the hazy world reappeared. Still hoping for better conditions I took shelter behind a boulder while I warmed up with some hot ginger cordial and lunched on egg sandwiches and chocolate. The temperature was -3ÂșC. A few figures appeared out of the mist then quickly faded from view. A gusty wind sprang up and by the time I set off again my skis were half-buried in spindrift. Climbing the shoulder above Lurchers Gully I navigated from rock to rock as visibility vanished. Soon I decided there was little point continuing and started descending into the gully. The rocks slipped out of view. The snow and mist merged. Ripples in the snow just beyond my ski tips were all I could see. Edging down slowly I felt disorientated. Only the slow slipping of my skis told me I was descending. Keeping the speed low was essential in case of banks or drop-offs and my leg muscles strained as I held the skis back, turning into the hill when I hit patches of fast, icy snow down which the skis wanted to race. Time seemed suspended. I could imagine spending eternity just descending this endless, bottomless slope. Nothing else existed. Snow began to fall, blown against me by the strengthening wind. A sudden drop in temperature and everything damp froze, including my goggles. Iced-up and useless I took them off and strained to see into the clinging whiteness. But there was nothing to focus on, nothing solid or real. Finally, the mist thinned and shivered, dark patches appeared, the forest far below. The world grew and the white-out was over. The cloud was much lower than when I had entered it and the sky was dark and heavy with snow. I hadn’t gone far, just a few kilometres, but it had been an intense experience, alone in that unreal world.

Photo info: A walker in the mouth of Coire an t-Sneachda. Canon EOS 450D, 18-55@55mm, 1/400@ f5.6, ISO 100, raw file cropped and converted to JPEG in Lightroom 2.6


  1. Yes a whiteout is wonderful. There is something that becomes very intense in the nothingness, like someone just switched on a strong white light, and when a windblasted tree or crag looms up to break the illusion it seems a very threatening, spine-tingling intrusion.

  2. We should have good snow in the Cairngorms well into late spring – I remember the best late skiing I had on Cairngorm was in 1988 on April 28th. There had been fresh powder overnight and it was fabulous to telemark from Cairngorm right down to the Cas carpark though most of the day was spent making lovely turns from the top down to the Ptarmigan bowl and then climbing up again to have another run -great fun!

    Shame about the nil visibility in Lurcher’s Gully – what a lovely run that can be! Lovely views from the top on a fine day down into Lairig Ghru and over onto Braeriach.

    I remember some of the Aussies that used to work at Highland Guides for Ian Hudson (Cameron will remember them) would ski up to Cairngorm, over the plateaux to Ben Macdui then down into the Larig and then skin up on to Braeriach – some tour, some skiing – those fellows were truly fantastic skiers.

    Hopefully we will be going back to those lovely snowy old fashioned Scottish winters – two years running now – and roll on many more!!

    Like you we have lived in Northern Scotland for more than 20 years now and not that far from you either. We live on a hill and although the amount of snow deposited was not as great, the winter of 92/93 gave us snow cover from late October through to early April.

    For more than twenty five years we have put studded winter tyres on our vehicle in November and keep them on until April – the traction they give is fantastic.

    The coalman unable to deliver to our house recently meant bringing sack by sack to the coal shed by pulk.

    No longer able to ski due to knee injury, snowshoeing, has been the way to get about – just like last February!

    Wildlife has suffered, we had a roe doe and her two offspring from last May that visited our garden throughout the day, every day. Now she has only one – the snow, in excess of 4 feet was not good for the young roe deer.

    Rabbits have stripped the bark from our apple and cherry trees – from ground level to a height of well over three feet.

    Next time out I hope you have a much better day in Lurchers – what a fabulous place it is when under deep snow cover.

    Rob fae Craigellachie

  3. Good description of a white-out Sean.

    Rob, I remember skiing in the Cairngorms in April 1988. I skied Lurchers then and have done on many occasions since.

    I remember the Highland Guides Aussie instructors too. I worked for Highland Guides for one season - 1990/91 - before working for Mountain & Wildlife Ventures.

    I have winter tyres on my car but still haven't been able to get it up the track to the house since before Xmas. Since the coal ran out I've been cutting firewood every day as there's no chance of a delivery.

    Our crab apple has been stripped of bark to a height of three feet and will probably die. Some of the rowans have been badly damaged too. It's a harsh winter for plants and wildlife.