Tuesday 8 November 2011

Bright, Dry and Snow Free: A Day on the Cairngorm Plateau

By coincidence yesterday I found myself following the pattern of a piece I’d recently written for TGO magazine on big mountains that can be climbed on short winter days (which will be in the next issue – out very soon). A morning meeting was cancelled at the very last minute so as the day was fine I decided to head for the hills instead. However it already being 9.30am I was unlikely to actually start walking before 11 at the earliest and with sunset at 4.20pm that didn’t leave much daylight. So, following my TGO article, I decided on the Cairngorm Plateau and Ben Macdui from the Coire Cas car park as the latter is at over 600 metres.

The day was warm with just a gentle breeze during the ascent and I had my sleeves rolled up, which is unusual in November. Indeed, my most important item of gear was a pair of sunglasses, which I wore all the way to Ben Macdui as I was heading straight into the low sun. The last time I had worn them was in late August, which was also the last time I was in the hills on a clear sunny day. One word dominates all my journal entries since that trip – cloudy – so it was a joy to be out on a clear day. And what clarity! From the summit of Cairn Gorm I could see a great sweep of mountains from Lochnagar to the south right round the western horizon to Ben Wyvis to the north. Every one stood out sharp and distinct. Crossing the Plateau to Ben Macdui I was struck by the lack of snow – just a few tiny patches lurking in shaded hollows on north-east facing slopes. There was more snow than this in August. Indeed I think the hills are more snow free now that at any time this year. The pale brown arid stony plateau could have been a desert landscape rather than an arctic-alpine one. There were hints of winter though, with ice on the edge of pools and frozen puddles between the boulders. And the wind on the Plateau was keen, necessitating a jacket.

On Ben Macdui I could see that mist filled the glens far to the south and east, creating what must have been superb inversion conditions for anyone on the hills. Here though there was no mist and I could look down the wide gash of the Lairig Ghru to the summits beyond. The bright sun had lit the hills wonderfully all day but it was on the return across the Plateau in the late afternoon that the real glory of the day emerged. As the sun sank towards the horizon, sending long dark shadows across the landscape, it turned the hills a rich golden colour. Then the first touches of pink appeared on the scraps of cloud drifting across the sky. As planned I reached the northern edge of the plateau, above the great scoops of Coire an Lochain and Coire an t-Sneachda, as the sun set, knowing that at this time of year with the sun sinking into the north-west there was a likelihood of a vast sweep of colour across the distant horizon. And so it proved. The intervening ridges darkened into shades of blue and black whilst a sharp rippling line of silhouetted hills ran across the horizon below a sky slowly deepening into orange and red.

Meanwhile a big waxing moon rose in the south-east, with enough light to throw pale shadows. The combination of the last daylight and the first moonlight gave a strange purple cast to the hills.

By the time I reached the start of the descent down the Fiacaill a’Choire Chais the colours in the western sky were rich and deep while the hills were black below them. I stared as the last orange and red shades began to fade then made my way down the stony ridge and back to the dark empty car park. It had been one of the best days on the hills of the year. I’m glad that meeting was cancelled.


  1. Absolutely loving that. I had my first walk on the plateau this summer - a 29 miler! It was truly brilliant and inspired by the Ken Wilson 'Big Walks' book. Your photographs are magical. Winter must be a different proposition I must experience soon.

  2. Gorgeous.

    (The photos, not you, sweetie!)

    A cracking day out, Chris.

  3. and to think, you could have spent the day in a meeting. That was close. Next meeting, you'll remember this day, to keep you going 'til the tea and biscuits arrive.

  4. I'm glad your meeting was cancelled too. A lovely inspiring post. Winter sun eh - takes some beating.

  5. Fantastic Chris. I think you are right in saying that this past weekend (and into Monday) has been the best weather of the year and absolutely perfect for getting out into the mountains. You've really captured the beauty of the plateau with those photos - the quality of the light is just superb.

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  7. Hi Chris,

    Monday was indeed a beautiful day in the Cairngorms. I left Glenmore Lodge at the back of seven and immediately saw two woodcock in the half light. As I joined the path that leads to the bridge over the Nethy at Bynack Stable the red grouse became very audible. “Breakfast” of bacon buttie at the bridge and onward up the hill where the contactors have been working on the Larig an Laough path.

    Red grouse were in great numbers, both audible and visual. Peat hags had that thin pane of ice but how wonderful to have snow free walking at this time of year!

    The quality of light was truly fantastic with every rock standing out in sharp relief.

    As I ascended Bynack More I watched four ptarmigan, one male in full winter plumage, one about 90% and the other 70%. The fourth was a hen.

    On top at just before 1030 hours the view was magnificent. I stayed for one and a half hours, enjoying brew ups and just immersing myself in the view. Not until I was descending did I meet anyone. Perfect!

    So glad that you too were enjoying a perfect day not so far away.


    Rob fae Craigellachie

  8. Superb Chris,
    I'm in the middle of a four month trip at sea (work), and this has made me very homesick! :)

    kind Regards

    Ian Johnston

  9. What a superb day to be on the Cairngorm plateau, Chris. Wonderful photos of your walk.

  10. Hi Chris. Just found your blog for the first time and a great post and photos for my first experience! I love the walk along the edge of the plateau from Cairngorm to Cairn Lochan. Bieng up there in the moonlight must have been amazing. Thanks for sharing

  11. Thanks everyone. It was one of the best on the hills I've had this year.

    Surfnslide, I hope you enjoy my other posts.