Friday 4 January 2019

Hoar Frost & Freezing Fog: First Hill and First Camp of the Year

On the summit of Sgor Gaoith

My year in the hills began with an ascent of a favourite in the Cairngorms, Sgor Gaoith, and a camp on the vast expanse of the Moine Mhor plateau. I love the huge views, the sense of endless space, the dizzying depths falling to Loch Einich, the feeling of an arctic wilderness. This trip only the last occurred and not in the usual way.

The forecast was for high pressure but in the depths of winter this can mean dull cloudy weather rather than clear skies and sunshine. There was some brightness in Glen Feshie as I set off  but the hills were shrouded in grey. The air was cold but still and as I climbed towards the clouds I was soon warm and off came hat and gloves and sleeves were rolled up.

As I reached the plateau I entered the cloud and a brisk chilling wind. Reverse the clothing changes, quickly. Then stride off fast to warm up. Crossing the plateau I dipped in and out of the cloud. Reaching the Allt Sgarnich I left the path and followed this stream upwards over frozen peat bogs, eventually camping on crisp icy grass not far from the water.

Camp on the Moine Mhor

The ground was white with frost. Old banks of snow lined the stream. I couldn't see far but the sense of vastness was there. Inside my little tent I settled down for the night. Water boiling on the stove filled the air with clouds of steam. Cuppa soups, a pasta 'n sauce meal, hot chocolate, writing notes, reading about Colin Fletcher. A quiet cosy evening.

During the night the wind picked up and rattled the tent, waking me a few times. The cloud of freezing fog was damp and the tent was slick with frozen condensation inside and out. Opening the door to look out at dawn brought a shower of ice crystals on my face. There wasn't much to see other than frost so I quickly closed the door again and retreated inside for breakfast. The water in my pots had frozen solid. The temperature was -4C.

Comfortable in the tent

Full of muesli porridge and coffee I ventured outside. The wind was bitter, the landscape frozen and bleak but also starkly beautiful. Nothing stirred, the only sound the wind rustling the icy grasses.

A cold world

I packed up all my gear inside the tent, wishing I had a roomier one for ease of movement and organisation. The tent itself went in an outside pocket where the frost and ice on it wouldn't soak into other gear when it melted. My trekking poles, left standing outside overnight, were white with frost.

Heading for Sgor Gaoith I checked my position on my smartphone map then used my compass for a bearing, a combination of old and new navigation technology that works well for me. I knew roughly which way to go but also knew I could easily turn the wrong way in this minimal visibility.

The best view of Sgor Gaoith

Eventually I came to the rough, well-used main path and followed this to the summit. Occasionally I had glimpsed of rocky aretes falling away into the mist. On the top the wind was bitter. My beard was wreathed in frost and ice and once I stopped I quickly felt chilly and realised I was quite damp from the wet freezing fog. A brief glimpse into the depths of Gleann Einich and I turned and headed for Carn Ban Mor and the track down to Glen Feshie.

View into Gleann Einich from Sgor Gaoith

A walker approaching the summit greeted me. 'I guess it cleared for great views on top', he said sarcastically. I shook my head, amused. 'Thought so'. He asked if I was going across the plateau to Mullach Clach a'Bhlair, the second Munro above Glen Feshie. I shook my head again. One Munro was enough for today. This year there will be more, maybe a hundred for the hundredth anniversary of Munro's death.

Carn Ban Mor

A snack on Carn Ban Mor, where the summit stones were intricately patterned with frost, and then down the track into Glen Feshie. As I dropped out of the cloud I also dropped out of the wind. Suddenly it was calm and I could see the glen below and the land reaching out into distant greyness. People coming up were hatless, one in a t-shirt. That would soon change!

Frost patterns on Carn Ban Mor

Down in the glen I looked back up at the hidden hills. The trip had not been as expected, though I always know this may be the case. It had been satisfying though. And challenging. And It had taken me into a unique world of frost and cold. A good way to start the year.


  1. Dramatic! Dark, grey, yet clear!

  2. Cold and scenic. Happy new Year Chris and enjoy the hills.

  3. A wee bit driech! Best wishes for 2019

  4. Thanks for sharing Chris. Sounds rather a contrast to my sunburnt bald patch here in the Canary Islands!