Sunday 4 November 2018

Stars & Snow & Clouds: Changing Conditions On A Walk In The Cairngorms

Lochan Uaine

One of the joys of darker nights is the return of brilliant starry skies. With such a night forecast a few days ago I decided on a short walk followed by a camp, allowing plenty of time to stop and gaze at the heavens. The sky was already dark when I set off for through the woods towards Ryvoan Pass. Above the dark silhouettes of the trees the stars sparkled. At Lochan Uaine they were reflected in the gently moving water – bright insubstantial streaks of light. I love being outside on nights like this – the world feels magical and mysterious, full of possibilities and subtle beauty. 

I camped by the River Nethy where Strath Nethy widens out, on the edge of two worlds. On one side lay the mountains rising dark into the sky, on the other rolling terrain stretched out to Abernethy Forest, whose outliers have already reached this spot now the forest is regenerating and spreading out under the auspices of the RSPB. 

The air was crisp, there was frost on the grass, and the sky was a mass of bright stars when I fell asleep. By dawn though, clouds covered most of the sky and temperature had risen. Leaving my camp to be collected on the way back I went up anyway, heading for Bynack More, its head still below the greyness, and was rewarded by the clouds fading away. 

I soon had the sun in my face and snow underfoot, snow that was becoming crisper and firmer now it was several days old. Not quite enough to need ice axe or crampons though there were a few places where I wondered about using the former. I was glad I had them with me. If the snow was only a little harder I’d have been wise to use them. The walking was wonderful with the vast mountains spreading out before me, seeming so much bigger and pristine under snow, as always.

On the long rocky summit ridge – after many ascents over many years it always seems longer than I remember – a bitter wind cancelled the weak heat of the sun. The granite rocks glowed gold but were freezing to the touch. Up here it was winter. Looking into the heart of the Cairngorms all was white. To the west clouds were building. I wandered over to the collection of tors known as the Barns of Bynack then turned and headed back down. The clouds were thickening now, shading the snow and removing its brightness.

By the time I reached camp the clouds covered the summits. Back in the forest the autumn colours were deep and rich, bronze and gold, under the shadow of the dark clouds. Soon after I reached the car rain began to fall. 

That night the weather changed. The temperature rose, the rain thrashed down, the wind blasted leaves off the trees. And in the hills the snow melted away. When the clouds lifted enough to see Bynack More, just two days after my walk, there were only streaks of whiteness left. The first touch of winter was over. There’s more to come.


  1. Yep, it was quite a thaw, Chris.

  2. I hope the snows return soon.. as I'm en route to the Cairngorms via Great Gable Armistace and KMF, and feel a bit silly carrying an ice axe/crampons right now! Lovely photos Chris.