Monday 12 December 2011

Thoughts of Winter

With the first big storm of winter just past I've started thinking about trips in the snow and winter camping and walking so I thought I'd post this piece which I wrote for TGO a year ago after the first big winter storm of 2010. My thoughts haven't changed.


 As I write this in late November the snow lies deep across much of Britain and winter has set in hard with record low temperatures. The weather has brought the usual chaos to the roads but once it settles down the hills and wild places should be superb for winter backpacking. For me this snow has brought a feeling of excitement and desire that never comes with grey skies and rain, the norm on too many winter days. I have visions of climbing pristine white slopes with a perfect mountain world spread out all around and then camping beneath a star-filled sky with a crisp frost sharpening the senses and making every sound ring. I relish the thought of lying in my warm sleeping bag with a mug of hot chocolate watching the snow drifting gently across the landscape. Winter camping can be a joy. And when the wind picks up and rattles the tent and sends swirling snow into every crevice I love feeling secure inside my tent, listening to the storm thrashing the land.

Before the snow that closed the lowlands came there was already snow in the hills and I had made two overnight trips into the frozen mountains. Both of these brought the pleasures of winter backpacking and also the pains. The first was to a favourite spot of mine, the great cliff-ringed bowl at the head of Loch Avon, arguably the finest corrie in the Cairngorms. The forecast was for clearing weather but the hills were shrouded in dense cloud and drizzle was falling when I set off. The wet summer and autumn and recent heavy rain meant the lower ground was saturated and the streams full. I climbed up the Fiacaill a’Choire Chais into the wet mist, crossed below the invisible summit of Stob Coire an t-Sneachda and descended into boggy Coire Domhain from where a badly eroded stony path lead steeply down to the corrie and long Loch Avon. As I dropped out of the cloud the loch appeared, grey and windswept, while whitewater streams roared down the hillsides. The floor of the corrie was sodden and I had to pitch on damp ground, choosing a spot that didn’t squelch too much under my boots. As the chilling drizzle continued I was soon inside the tent in my sleeping bag with a hot drink wondering what had happened to the drier, clearer weather. During the early part of the night gusts of wind shook the tent and rain rattled on the nylon. Awake before dawn I noticed whiteness around the edge of the porch, a light dusting of snow. The temperature was now below freezing and there was ice on my water bottles. Looking out I could see stars. Daylight came with a bright sky, hazy sunshine and dappled clouds. The mountains were spattered with snow, stark and dramatic. The tent was frozen to the ground. Back up on the Cairngorm plateau the sky was blue and I could see far out to the west. The fine weather didn’t last long though and by the time I reached the summit of Cairn Gorm the clouds had rolled back in and all I could see was the weather station, plastered with frost and snow. The rain returned as I descended back to the car. I didn’t mind. The glorious morning had made the trip worthwhile.

My second trip was to Creag Meagaidh and another favourite spot, Coire Ardair with its little lochan nestling under huge jagged cliffs. Again the forecast suggested fine, cold weather. Again it was only partly correct. I camped beside cold, dark Lochan a’Choire with the rock walls, shattered pinnacles and stony gullies rising above me into grey clouds. There was only a smattering of old snow on the corrie floor but not far above the slanting slabs were white. Venturing into one of the wide stony gullies I could see long icefalls spreading over the cliffs high above.

During the night there were flurries of snow and when I woke the ground was frosty and crunched underfoot. Clouds still hung over the summits and a chill wind blew. Not wanting to move camp higher in these conditions – especially as the tent was a previously untried test model – I made a round trip to Creag Meagaidh, a real winter excursion requiring use of ice axe and crampons. I kicked steps up the crusty snow filling the wide steep cleft leading up to the notch called The Window. Above this the snow was thinner and icier so I used crampons for security on the slope up to the huge gently tilted plateau of Creag Meagaidh. I was in the cloud now and found it hard at times to distinguish between the air and the ground. Both were white and hazy with only ripples in the snow and the occasional rock giving me anything to focus on. Compass bearings led me to the summit and a sharp cold wind. Chilly though it was I welcomed this wind as it sometimes tore apart the whirling clouds to give brief views of the surrounding peaks and down to dark glens. A silver sun pulsated weakly through the clouds. The light and the clouds changed every second and the world felt very unstable. Only the snow-encrusted rocks of the summit cairn seemed solid and fixed. I followed my steps back across the plateau to The Window then dropped below the cloud and back to camp. From above my little grey tent looked tiny and fragile against the immensity of the landscape. It had kept off the wind and snow however and provided a warm shelter for a hot drink before I packed up and descended out of the mountains.

As with many winter trips there were only short periods of clear weather on these ventures and the tops were often in cloud. However one of the delights of winter backpacking is being out there in the wilds during times of magical light, clearing skies and frosty sunshine even if these are brief. This is very much the time of year to welcome any sunshine, any abatement of the wind, any clearance of the clouds. It’s also a time to enjoy the comforts of camp. In summer with the long hours of daylight I resent spending much time in the tent, impatient to be outside and walking. In winter I’m happy to lie in the tent, warm and snug, listening to the wind, watching the snow fall, staring out at the ice-bound landscape. I don’t close the tent up unless the weather is really stormy, unlike in summer when midges often force me to zip myself in, and so don’t lose my contact with the outdoors. And when storms do mean closing the doors then I’m happy to lie and read a book and make endless brews and mugs of soup. Even in bad weather winter backpacking can be fun.


  1. I've never thought of it that way before but it's true, I spend more time with the shelter door open in winter than in summer.

    Great piece Chris, it's been a long wait for winter this year in Norway but it's finally creeping down over the landscape.

  2. Great write up Chris. I've never camped in winter conditions (other than at Loch Morlich). I really must brave the elements and give it go

  3. Chris, I like the photo of the Cairngorm weather station. I assume it still there after recording a gust of 165mph last week !

  4. great post...everything I love about winter camping.

  5. Chris - you've almost persuaded me to go camping in winter! Must confess I prefer bothies at this time of year

  6. A very atmospheric piece. Thanks for bringing to light again.

    I've never done any winter camping, but you make it sound so tempting ....