Monday 13 January 2014

And the Wind Came Early: Harsh Conditions in the Cairngorms

Dark clouds over Bynack More

A promising forecast lured me out for a first venture of 2014 into the high Cairngorms. Sunny skies - the Met Office gave a 'medium' level warning of strong sunlight - and fairly light winds until mid-afternoon sounded enticing. However a pink dawn quickly gave way to grey skies as the sun sank into ominous, fast moving, dark clouds. I went anyway, hoping these early clouds would soon clear. I hesitated just once, on leaving the car and being hit by strong gusty winds. If it was like that in the car park what would it be like on the tops?

There was no snow on the lower slopes, just hard frozen ground and patches of ice. I set off with snowshoes strapped to my pack, having decided that these would be better than skis given the rather thin looking patchy snow higher up. Snowshoes act less like sails in the wind too, though I could still feel gusts tugging at them. Struggling up the icy, rocky ridge I needed my trekking poles to avoid being blown over. Gradually the patches of ice grew and hard snow replaced the frozen ground. Skittering over one piece of bubbled ice I decided it was time for the snowshoes. Wearing them I was able to make better progress though they still skidded occasionally on rock-hard ice despite the metal studs in the base.

Winter equipment .... and a boulder for shelter

Soon there was more snow than ice and the wind was scouring the surface and lifting tiny fragments into swirls of spindrift, some more than head high. The blasted old snow was hard and sharp, stinging my eyes. Time for snow goggles, for the first time this winter. Down below in the snow-filled corries to either side I could see groups of people digging snowholes and practising winter skills.

Finally the slopes eased as I reached the broad crest of the north ridge of Cairn Gorm. A great sweep of wintry mountains opened up before me. Above them bands of clouds in varying shades of grey covered the sky. There was no sign of the sun. I could see other walkers heading for the summit of Cairn Gorm. I wandered over to a subsidiary top, 1151 metre Cnap Coire na Spreidhe, and a dramatic view over the deep trench of Strath Nethy to Bynack More and Beinn Mheadhoin. 

The winter Cairngorms

Turning away from the southerly wind I followed the ridge northwards, my snowshoes barely leaving a mark on the hard snow and ice, the wind roaring and whistling round me, though at least the spindrift was now at my back. In places the drifting snow had filled in shallow hollows and my snowshoes slid on the loose snow. Much snow build-up on the steeper icy slopes and avalanche danger could be high. Nothing would stick to this refrozen, rutted snow. On the steep slopes above Strath Nethy I could see cornices.

Cornice build-up

As the ridge rose to a slight bump the snow vanished, leaving just frozen gravel and ice-covered vegetation. I removed the snowshoes. But on the far side of the rise a steeper snow slope led down to boulders. I donned crampons for the descent. Another rise with sketchy snow amidst stony ground. Having learnt I kept the crampons on and linked bits of snow and tried to avoid blunting them on rocks or catching them in the heather. Sure enough beyond this rise was more snow on a longer, steeper slope. I swapped a ski pole for the ice axe before this descent. It was the last one on snow, now there really was only heather and frozen ground. With patches of ice hidden in the vegetation and glazed rocks I still had to take care as I descended to curving Lochan na Beinne. The little pool looked unusual. Half was frozen and smooth and pale, half was dark and surging with wind-driven waves.

Essential snow goggles

Leaving the lochan I had just a kilometre to go to the car. It was the most difficult walking of the day as the wind, as forecast, was strengthening rapidly. Hitting me from the side it blew me off the path several times, sending me staggering down the slope trying to keep my balance. Without trekking poles I'd have fallen many times. Just once as I fought against the wind I was forced down onto my knees by a fierce gust. In the car park the car was rocking.

Five hours in the winter hills, five hours of intense concentration and physical effort. What a great day!


  1. That will get your legs in shape for bigger walks later in the year Chris. One harsh place at times but what a place to hike. Enjoyed that.

  2. Great stuff Chris. Still waiting for the snow further south!

  3. Enjoying reading your ice journey Chris. One of the rare adventures in life is to travel snow. It’s an honor to read one of your stories. I will be here for the next issue!