Sunday, 7 April 2019

Deep Snow in the Cairngorms

Cairn Lochan

Finally, the snow came down on an easterly wind, filling the corries and gullies. After a winter in which the snow has been sparse and short-lived early April has brought some of the deepest snow I’ve seen in the Cairngorms for many years. 

In a week of stormy weather with much the same forecast for many days to come just one afternoon and evening promised a respite from the low cloud and fierce winds. That there would be deep snow in the mountains seemed certain. Two backpackers had been rescued from Faindouran Bothy the day before, having given up trying to walk out after struggling less than a mile in four hours through thigh-deep snow. The Scottish Avalanche Information Service reported similar depths in Coire an Lochan.  I packed skis and snowshoes in the car, leaving a decision on which to use until I reached Coire Cas. 

Arriving in the corries and seeing the white hills there was no doubt. It would be skis. Snowshoes are great when the snow cover isn’t complete – you can just walk across bare areas still wearing them – but skis are faster and more fun. 

Coire an t-Sneachda

I peeled climbing skins onto my well-used skis, donned my somewhat battered ski touring boots, and set off with the idea of climbing to the Cairngorm Plateau and skimming across the snow to Ben Macdui. Half an hour’s slogging uphill through the soft snow and I abandoned that idea. Even on skis this was really hard work! The strong gusty wind blowing down from the tops and the white clouds racing overhead didn’t encourage me to make the effort either. 

Instead I decided  to visit the two great corries that lie on the north side of the plateau, Coire an t-Sneachda and Coire an Lochain. Under snow these rocky bowls scooped out of the mountainside by glaciers in the last ice age are particularly impressive and always worth visiting.

Coire an t-Sneachda

The clouds were thinning and the blue of the sky deepening as I climbed into Coire an t-Sneachda. The Corrie of the Snows was appropriately named today. The snow was deep and only at the head of the corrie had the wind stripped the snow off the boulders. Stopping to admire the huge cliffs and revel in the wild atmosphere I felt alone in a vast mountain land even though my car was less than three miles away. Here there was no sign of humanity. I’d crossed some snowshoe tracks but they turned and descended before reaching this far into the corrie.

In Coire an t-Sneachda

I wasn’t completely alone though. As I gazed at the cliffs a skier appeared on the far side of the corrie, slowly heading down, followed soon afterwards by a snowboarder. Then the corrie was  empty again. Rather than pick away through the rocks on my skis I removed them and set off towards the base of the cliffs. I didn’t get far. The snow between the rocks was deep and walking extremely slow and arduous. I wasn’t surprised no-one seemed to have ventured into the corrie on foot.

Ski tracks and boot prints. I'd never have reached here on foot!

Coire an Lochain really was empty. No tracks, no people. Just snow and rock. And wind, a strengthening wind that made progress hard. The biggest gusts knocked me sideways, one even sending me sprawling on my side. High above clouds of spindrift blew over the cliffs of Cairn Lochan. I could almost see the cornices forming. Below the crags a series of sharply defined avalanche crown walls ran across the slopes above much avalanche debris.

Cairn Lochan
Descending from the corrie I tried to link patches of wind-hardened smooth snow and avoid the areas of sastrugi (ridges of snow) and wind-scoops. I was partially successful. It wasn’t stylish skiing – the combination of wind, mixed types of snow, and rusty ski legs and skills ensured that. A series of traverses and crude turns took me out of the corrie without any painful falls. 

Wind-sculpted snow
 
Out to the west the sky was turning red and orange as the sun sank to the horizon. Looking back Cairn an Lochain looked placed and peaceful in the fading light. On the flat land below the corries reindeer grazed. Mountain hares darted across the slopes, their movement catching my eye.

Sunset

After six hours I was back at the car. In distance I’d gone just six miles. But in spirit I’d gone into another world, an elemental place of snow and rock and wild nature. I’d reached no summits, just wandered round the corries, but in these conditions it had felt an adventure and a cleansing of the mind. Up there I’d thought about nothing other than where I was and how wonderful it was to be there.

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