Friday 22 February 2013

A High Camp: Cairngorms In Winter

Moine Mhor Camp


Clouds were racing over the summits and a cold east wind swept over us as we left the shelter of the forest in Glen Feshie and continued up the path in Coire Fhearnagan towards the mist-capped snowy slopes of Carn Ban Mor. Our intention was a high camp on the Moine Mhor, a vast rolling mountain plateau, which Terry Abraham wanted to film for the Cairngorms in Winter video. The forecast was for the wind to lessen during the day and for clear skies the next morning. We could only hope it was correct.

We reached the snowline just as the slopes steepened for the final climb. In the first big snowbank just off the path a party were digging snowholes. The bank provided a briefer shelter for us as we took the opportunity for a break and to don more clothes out of the wind. Then it was onto the hard, rutted, old snow, refrozen since the last thaw. If there hadn’t been many deep boot prints, kicked when the snow was softer, crampons would have been useful. As it was we simply used the platforms made by others. The wind was fierce now, blasting down the slopes into our faces. At times it was hard to struggle into the gusts.

Terry filming on the Moine Mhor

As the slopes eased on the shoulder of Carn Ban Mor the cloud swept over us and the light became flat, making it hard to distinguish features ahead or even, at times, whether the snow immediately in front went up or down. Not bothering with the summit – a slight raise on a rounded bump – we were soon starting the gentle descent towards the head of Gleann Einich. A faint edge in the snow had me slowing down and peering hard. There was a drop of some sort in front of us. I edged round it carefully. Soon we could see it was the shallow gully of the Allt Sgairnich, parts of the sides of which were banked up into cornices. There wasn’t far to fall but walking over one of those would have been an unpleasant surprise.

Terry looking towards a cloud-capped Sgor Gaoith

Out on the arctic-like expanse of the Moine Mhor we dropped just below the clouds, which we could see tearing across the sky over Braeriach – a sight that soon inspired Terry into some time-lapse filming – and shrouding Sgor Gaoith. Close to the lip of the steep craggy slopes running down to Loch Einich we found a splendid situation for a camp on some patches of flat snow. The crusted sugary snow wasn’t easy to pitch the tents on though as pegs quickly pulled out even when buried horizontally. Even wide snow pegs had to be stamped firmly down. I utilised my ice axe and trekking poles as secure pegs, finding when I thrust them in that the snow was at least two feet deep. 

Camp on the Moine Mhor
Tents pitched we watched the faint pink glow of a mostly hidden sunset then retreated to the warmth of our shelters. The temperature was -5º but the wind made it feel much colder when we were outside. Snow melted and dinner eaten I quickly fell asleep only to be woken a few hours later by a stronger wind rattling the tent. I knew I could quieten it at least a little by going out and tightening some of the guylines but that meant getting dressed and venturing out into the bitter wind. I was warm and comfortable in my sleeping bag and had no fear of the shelter failing so stayed put, half-dozing and then, when the wind grew noisier, reading for an hour or so. (Having recently downloaded the complete works of Charles Dickens to my Kindle I browsed through this, settling on his description of days of storms during his voyage to America from his travel book American Notes – the thought of a severe storm at sea certainly put a bit of wind in the Cairngorms into context).

Loch Einich & Braeriach

Eventually I drifted back to sleep to be woken many hours later by the guttural calls of ptarmigan close to the tent. The sky was lightening with the dawn but when I looked out the clouds were still down on the summits and only to the north was there any sign of a clear sky. The wind had lessened but still felt sharp and stinging on the skin. The temperature was back to -5ºC. Overnight it had fallen to -8. I melted some snow and made coffee and muesli porridge. Terry braved the cold and came out to film me lying in my sleeping bag, eating breakfast and talking about the geological information on the back of the excellent Harvey British Mountain Map of the Cairngorms and Lochnagar, which showed that we were camped on glacial moraines on a big wedge of metamorphic rock that lay between the rockier granites of Sgor Gaoith and Braeriach.

Dawn view from the tent

Whilst Terry was filming a golden eagle floated high overhead and disappeared into the crags above Loch Einich. Not long afterwards we saw it again, heading south., mighty and magnificent, a true symbol of the wild.

The filming over I had no excuse to stay in bed any longer so donning all the clothing I’d been warming in the sleeping bag I ventured outside. The difference was immediate as the cold wind bit into me. With the tops still hidden we decided to pack up and return the way we’d come. A high winter camp had been the aim of the trip and we’d achieved that.


  1. Excellent! It's an alien world up there. Glad all went well.
    I know that you don't have an inner in your tent there, did that little gap at the bottom all the way around allow much cold in? Did you leave door open at night? How did you, if indeed you did, thaw your boots?
    Nice use of your new lens by looks of it.
    Quite an amazing place there Chris. Thanks for sharing.

  2. I kept telling Terry the Moine Mhor was superb Chris. He kept saying he was not sure. Hope he has learnt how good it is.

    I have never seen a Goldon Eagle in the Cairngorms. I have met others who say they too have never seen one there. A fantastic sight in wild land.

    1. Ha. Aye, it really took me by surprise Martin. Bloody awesome up there. So much snow too. It really did feel like we were in an arctic wilderness.

      I've never seen a golden eagle so that was a nice bonus to another fab trip out. Big birds. Huge.

      This shoot was just to film Chris camping up on the wintry plateau, chit chat about winter camping in the Gorms and so on.

      Still much more to do though :)

  3. Tony, there was less of a gap at the back and little wind came in. When I pitched the tent there was little wind so I pitched it quite high. Then the wind picked up so I lowered the pole and moved the pegs so the edge was right down to the snow. Of course a single-skin floorless shelter isn't as warm as a double-skin tent anyway. I was warm inside though as I had adequate clothing and sleeping bag. I didn't leave the door open at night, mostly to stop it flapping a little in the wind.

    My boots were dry and so didn't freeze. If they'd been wet I wouldn't have left them standing on the snow.

    The new lens is excellent. I am very pleased with it - as you said I would be :-)

    Martin, I think Terry is impressed with the Moine Mhor now, even though the cloud meant we couldn't see the highest summits. I love the Moine Mhor for the space and wildness. It's arguably the best wild camping area in the Cairngorms with dozens of potential sites.

    I've seen eagles quite a few times in the Cairngorms over the years, especially in the Moine Mhor/Glen Feshie area. It's always wonderful to see one.

  4. Thanks Chris.
    Where would you put wet boots / shoes in frozen conditions? Mine froze solid in December! Luckily I thawed them out. But that may not always be possible. I remember Colin not being keen on putting them in sleeping bag. Maybe wrapped up in or around pack....
    Glad you're happy with lens! Yup, I knew you'd like it.
    Tony :-)

  5. Tony, I put wet boots inside a stuffsack or plastic bag on top of my pack with spare clothing over them. I've never put them in the sleeping bag overnight but I sometimes bring them in the bag in the morning to warm them a little - still inside a stuffsack of course.

    1. Excellent, thanks :-)
      I'll try that next time. Got spare plastic bags in my waste pack. Thanks again.

  6. Nice to read the story of your over-nighter while camped on Mohn Moire with Terry Abraham, very much enjoyed the accompanying photos too Chris.

    You have the knack for relaying so much with so few words and/r perchance the use of a well chosen picture...good literature indeed.

    Yes, I believe the Kindle has a place in everyone's ruck sack now. Gone are the days of taking along only one section of a paperback book in order to save weight. Now, a person is able to take along hundreds of titles and the battery life really is a treat ( it lasts forever, which is important for me, because sometimes I like to envision in my mind, while reading a particularly passage). ;-)

    Thank you Chris, for all that you have done, and without any doubt will continue to do.

    It has always been a pleasure to read your stuff over the years. :-)

    Rex Baum