Tuesday, 29 November 2016

Cold, Snow & Treacherous Heather on Sgor Gaoith


Sgor Gaoith & Loch Einich

Sometimes the weather and underfoot conditions conspire to make a walk a little harder and more challenging than expected. Such was the case a couple of days ago when I headed up Sgor Gaoith from Glen Feshie. The forecast suggested light winds, a little sunshine, a bit of cloud, good visibility, no precipitation, freezing temperatures. The last was correct. Underfoot I had no idea what to expect other than some remaining snow after a couple of days of a slow thaw.

The temperature at home was -5°C and there was a thick frost as I set off for the Cairngorms. There’d been no change in temperature when I arrived in Glen Feshie. The tree-shaded parking area in the glen was slick with ice and a thick ribbon of the stuff covered the track through the trees. Reluctant to put on crampons – micro spikes would have been better – I hugged the edge of the ice, my trekking poles stopping the occasional slip from becoming a fall. Higher up the ice turned to crunchy snow and the going became a little easier.

The track in the forest

Eventually the track became a path and the path grew thinner and thinner until it faded away altogether on a snow and heather covered hillside. More snow and it would have been crampons and ice axe but although there were extensive patches there were also big sections of heather with only a little snow on top that I broke through with every step. Crampons would have been a liability here. Zigzagging erratically across the slope I linked the heather, where a fall wouldn’t have meant a slide, with smaller snow patches where I wouldn’t slide very far. 

Extensive snowfields remain after the thaw
 
Once the terrain eased off and I reached the broad ridge south of Sgor Gaoith the snow was just about continuous. It was quite firm and walking was now easy, the easiest of the whole day in fact. However the bitter wind made it feel extremely cold and bands of damp cloud swept over me, adding to the chill. Most of the peaks were shrouded but Sgor Gaoith itself was cloud-free and I was thrilled yet again with the tremendous view 600 metres down the shattered cliffs to Loch Einich. I will never tire of this view.
 
Sgor Gaoith

I didn’t linger though. There’s no shelter on the tiny summit and the wind was strengthening. The Peak of the Winds was living up to its name. I headed north for Sgoran Dubh Mor but on reaching the low point between the two peaks decided climbing it in the cloud and wind wasn’t worth the effort. Instead I turned off for the wide rocky ridge that runs over the two subsidiary tops of Meall Buidhe and Geal Charn. The stones were slippery with frost and ice and the patches of snow a mix of breakable crust that wouldn’t hold my weight and icy refrozen snow that was as hard as rock. The south-west wind was strengthening and pushing me sideways as I stumbled over the unforgiving ground. On Geal Charn I was in the densest mist of the day, a grey cloud that hovered over the grey frost and refrozen-snow covered rocks, an eerie scene.

On Geal Charn
 
Descending from Geal Charn I plunged into the most difficult terrain of the day. Deep heather and soft snow made the walking arduous and treacherous. I never knew how deep each step would go. Despite trying to avoid hollows and channels that might hold water I suddenly plunged in over my knee with one leg and felt the cold icy water rush into my boot. I stumbled on as darkness fell, heading for the relief of the outward path. My wet foot didn’t feel too cold until I reached the car. I had dry shoes but had neglected to bring dry socks. By the time I reached home my foot was painfully cold. I won’t forget the socks again!

Dusk

Despite the weather and the tough terrain, or maybe because of them, it had been a satisfying day. A familiar walk had become unfamiliar and a surprising test. It’s always good when that happens.

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