Saturday 23 March 2013

Retreat from the Lairig Ghru: Cairngorms In Winter

Terry beside the Allt Druidh

The big storm came in hard and fast, with the winds increasing earlier than forecast. I went out anyway as I’d arranged to meet Terry Abraham for more work on the Cairngorms in Winter film and he was already in the hills. However the Sugar Bowl car park on the Cairngorm Ski Road, where I’d planned on starting, was blocked with snow – I nearly got stuck on the edge of the road turning the car round – so I ended up walking in from much lower down and farther away. Terry would have to wait a while.

Walking through Rothiemurchus Forest I admired the pines, which down here were shining in the sunlight. I couldn’t feel the wind but I could see white clouds racing across the sky. There was only a thin covering of snow at first but as I climbed towards the mouth of the Lairig Ghru pass, where I was to meet Terry, the snow grew deeper and I stopped to put on my snowshoes. Even wearing these I was occasionally sinking in knee deep as the fresh snow was dry and unconsolidated.

Snowshoe tracks

As the trees thinned out the wind hit me, cold and sharp. Ahead I could see dark clouds filling the big defile of the Lairig Ghru though to either side the hills were still in sunshine. This is often the case here, the high narrow pass acting as a funnel for winds and clouds. 

The Lairig Ghru

By the time I joined Terry the wind was even stronger. Clouds of spindrift were hurled into the air, whirling and swirling in spinning columns or racing across the ground in shimmering sheets. We headed on towards the stormbound Lairig Ghru, though my confidence in reaching it was rapidly dwindling. On the snowshoes I made good progress through the thick snow and was soon beside the half-frozen Allt Druidh stream right in the jaws of the pass. Terry had no snowshoes though and was finding the going slow and arduous.

Terry filming beside the Allt Druidh
A quick discussion and we decided retreat was a sensible option. The wind was now bitterly cold and the lashing spindrift painful. There was still over two hundred metres of ascent to the top of the pass. The wind would be stronger there and the snow deeper. We’d be in the cloud too. And the storm was forecast to grow in strength the next day.


With relief we turned our backs to the wind and descended to the shelter of the trees. Our upward tracks had already disappeared in the blown snow. Terry did short bits of filming, made difficult by the wind and the spindrift, which kept covering his lens even when the camera was pointed away from the growing storm.

Once down in the trees we found a good campsite on grassy ground in a grove of magnificent and massive ancient pines. Situated in a shallow wooded bowl it seemed sheltered. When we pitched the tents there was only the occasional gust of wind though we could it roaring high above.

A sheltered site?

Late in the evening though the wind began to increase, buffeting the tent. As the night went on so the wind grew stronger, blasting down in great gusts that shook the tent. I could hear the roaring as the wind approached before each wave hit. Light snow began to fall too; cold, dry snow that was picked up by the wind and blown through the tent’s mesh vents and under the edge of the flysheet. Soon most of my gear was covered in white. I dozed and slept fitfully, repeatedly woken by the noise of the wind.

Terry sheltering from the wind and spindrift

Come dawn and it was as windy in camp as it had been in the mouth of the Lairig Ghru. I ventured out to see the rear of Terry’s tent flattening in each gust then springing back up. The wind was still growing in power, one gust sending me staggering sideways.

Back in my tent I was packing my gear when a really ferocious blast hit the tent. Three pegs ripped out of the ground on one side and the fabric tried to take off. As it did so the pole bent. Before the whole tent collapsed on me I managed to replace one of the pegs and adjust the pole. I was very glad this had not happened in the night or before I was dressed and up.

In this storm we were not venturing back up into the hills. Instead we walked out to Loch Morlich and a welcome second breakfast in the Glenmore Café. The trip was over a day early. But that’s winter in the Cairngorms. Sometimes it’s just not wise to continue.


  1. Bailing out is a wise mans choice. Glad your all ok, and storms pass. You can go again soon I hope.

  2. I feel for you guys! But Terry must be mad to go to the 'Gorms with a Solar Competition/Photon! I have the Photon version and the T-shaped pole is rubbish in high wind. I bet he didn't sleep a wink...

    1. Ha. Slept like a log Andy. The tent came away with a minor curve in a pole and that's it. We were supposed to be bothying. I intended on using the tent a couple of days later when the weather improved. Either way it stood!

      Lovely pics Chris. Love the mean and moody Lairig Ghru one! Excellent.

    2. You're a brave man, Terry! And you even slept through it all! I'm impressed.

  3. You're fortunate that you both got through the night without having suffering major tent failure and having to bail out in the dark.

  4. I bet that breakfast tasted good! There can be a great sense of satisfaction having come through an adventure like that. A great piece Chris - you certainly capture the mood of the winter mountains with the photos.

    I've also recently experienced tent pegs being ripped out of the ground by a sudden strong gust - I was pitching my tent (Nallo 2)in the dark and it was ripped from my grip and sent spinning away only to finish up being wrapped around the sheep fence at Lyn Anafon, Carneddau.

    Dave Porter

  5. Glad you managed to get some filming done.
    It could show how savage nature can be when it really goes for it.

    A "must" for inclusion in the film - no matter how fogged or snow covered the lens may have been!

    Anticipation building!

    1. Having reviewed the footage shot and sound, Alan....I'm pleased to say it all came out spectacularly well!

      I'm shocked to be honest. Was horrendous conditions. Even the shots with ice forming on the lens in seconds looks cool (no pun intended!).

      So, it wasn't a wasted trip at all thank goodness. At least it shows how even with the best of intentions retreating was a wise decision. And helps (unplanned of course) how folk should not take the Cairngorms lightly in winter. Or at least I hope so!

  6. Glad you're all ok.
    Close shave and an honest account.

  7. Great adventure! Great tents as well. So cool! Thanks for sharing!

  8. You were wise to retreat. But what an experience!

  9. Great stuff, and just having bought a Terra Nova SC2 (on Terry's recommendation) I'm pleased to see it performing so well.

  10. I lived in Nairn for my first 29 years... The Cairngorms will always be a special place in my heart... Hoping to visit next year for Christmas.