Tuesday 23 November 2010

A Quiet White-Out on Creag Meagaidh

High pressure in winter can often mean dull calm weather with sheets of grey cloud covering the sky. Such was the prediction for the Cairngorms a few days ago. Further west though the forecast suggested the clouds might break and allow some sun through. With that in mind I decided to head for Creag Meagaidh, a big mountain in the heart of the Highlands that I hadn’t visited for a few years. Sure enough as I drove west patches of blue sky did appear and the clouds only capped the summits rather than hanging low over the whole landscape in a sombre grey blanket as they had in Strathspey. Leaving the car I wandered through the young woodland in lower Coire Ardair, woods that have sprung up since Creag Meagaidh became a national nature reserve in 1985 and grazing by sheep and deer was reduced. Leaving the trees I followed the curving path into the upper corrie where the great cliff at its head comes into view. One of the biggest mountain cliffs in Britain the Coire Ardair headwall is a dramatic tangle of buttresses, spires, ridges and gullies. At its foot lies Lochan a’Choire beside whose dark cold waters I camped. The ground here was wet but not far above the mountainside was white with snow and when I clambered into the lower reaches of a wide gully high above the lochan I could see massive icefalls decorating the grey rock walls. That night a gentle breeze brought occasional flurries of snow and racing clouds high above meant there were only glimpses of the stars. I left the tent door open so when I woke my first sight was of the great mountain wall rising above me.

Leaving the tent I headed up to the cleft known as The Window that separates Creag Meagaidh from hills to the east. The ascent is steep in places and I was soon kicking steps in the crunchy snow. I had my ice axe ready in case of a slip but the greater danger was of going through the snow and banging my leg on a hidden boulder. Alert to this I climbed slowly, testing each foot placement. Once beyond The Window the terrain eases and I was soon on the huge plateau that stretches some one and a half kilometres from the top of the Coire Ardair cliffs to the summit of Creag Meagaidh. The wind that had whistled through The Window was gone and all was quiet and calm, the only sound the crunch of my crampons in the icy snow. A thick mist covered the plateau and the snow and sky merged into one just a few hundred metres in front of me. Only wind blown ripples in the snow gave any definition to the ground and stopped me feeling disorientated in this quiet white-out. Eventually the summit cairn loomed up in front of me and I felt a bitter wind searing my face. The clouds swirled and broke about the mountain, suddenly revealing for brief seconds dark glens and lochs far below and distant white peaks. Occasionally the sun shone through the clouds, casting shadows on the snow, and lighting patches of hillside. I lingered in the chilly air, captivated by the magical impermanence of the light, then turned and plunged back down into the dense mist and made my way back to camp.

Photo Info: Camp in Coire Ardair. Sony NEX-5, Sony 18-55 lens@18mm, 1/50@f8, ISO 200, raw file processed in Lightroom 3.


  1. That looks like a tricky tent to find in the mist and snow! A nice red one - that'll do the job!


  2. Chris,
    How did the TN Cuben fly stand up? Or is this for a later review in TGO... Alan

    If you don’t mind me asking what is your favoured sleeping bag for this time of year?
    I am more than 2 minds whether i should invest in one better than my Rab Summit 400.

  3. The flysheet was fine but it was only one quiet night - no strong winds, no heavy rain. When I've tested it some more I'll report on it in TGO.

    My favourite sleeping bag over the last few years for this time of years has been the Rab Quantum 400. However I'm testing winter sleeping bags at present for a review next year and using a different one every time I go out.

  4. Chris, I know you are a big fan of Western Mounteering Down products. I got hold of their UltraLite bag last winter. It has replaced my old ME Lightline as a go anywhere bag. At about 850g for sub zero winter weather it is unbeatable. It might be worth considering in your trial. It cost me an arm and leg mind you.
    Dave Porter

  5. Nice walk Chris, nice description of getting through The Window. Did you come back the same way, was it as tricky coming down as going up? Again you could not see stones / boulders under foot?
    Did you have crampons to hand?

  6. Tony, I wore crampons from the top of The Window to the summit and all the way back to the last snow at the bottom of the window. Coming down from The Window took some time as I did break through the snow quite often.

  7. Hi Chris,

    The specs on the Ultra - same as the Photon?


  8. Hi Terry,

    It looks much the same size. I haven't been sent any specs. Of course the cuben fibre flysheet and groundsheet are the big difference.

  9. Sorry Chris. That's what I meant - the size of the tent. ie, the porch depth and so on. Wondered if it was any smaller than the Photon.

  10. I think it's the same size as the Photon, Terry. I'd say it was just big enough for me at 5'8".