Friday 6 March 2020

Stars & Frost & Snow: A Winter Camp in the Cairngorms

Light snow trickled down, gentle, soft. An evening in the tent would be restful but I had hoped for stars. I half-closed the tent door to keep the snow, drifting on a breeze, from entering. Soup, dinner, a book to read. The soothing trickle of the nearby river.

Looking out I could see a solitary star and brightness behind the clouds that must be the moon. Not much later I heard movement, footsteps. My companion, Alex Roddie, was outside taking photographs. The sky was clear. I soon joined him. Orion, the Plough, Cassopeia, Venus, the Moon; all sharp and clear. The hills white and black and silent and calm. The universe vast.

Frost and cold and peace. I wandered around slowly watching the sky, the silhouettes of trees, the pale snow. Beautiful and alien. I loved it. I wasn't really there. Not consciously. I felt absorbed into the wild world. Time passed. I was reluctant to return to the tent but eventually tiredness persuaded me. I left the door open so whenever I woke I could see the stars.

Dawn came with a pink glow and a hard frost. Alex wanted to be away early, hoping for summits and another camp high up. I was only out for the one night. Our camp was packed away before the sun reached us.

Heading up Bynack More we soon needed sunglasses. And snowshoes. The deep snow was still quite firm but did break underfoot occasionally. The snowshoes made progress easier. Deep boot prints showed how difficult walking was when the snow was softer, as it would be later in the day.

Ahead the final summit pyramid of Bynack More rose steeply, the rocky hill of summer looking alpine. The snow was glazed and hard here. Climbing in the snowshoes became more awkward and it seemed the place for crampons. And ice axes. How stable was the snow? Alex dug an avalanche pit. A top block broke away quite easily. Not this way then. A walker passed not far away on a gentler slope. Maybe that was a better way. We traversed across and Alex made another pit. The snow here was much more stable.

I paused and decided this was far enough. I was coming back the same way anyway and wondered how stable the slope would be when the sun had been out several more hours. I was also feeling the effort of climbing with a big pack for the first time in several months and whilst still regaining fitness after being ill most of January. I could have left the tent up and most of my gear in camp. But down there I'd thought I might do a longer route and not return the same way.

I watched Alex climb to the crest above and then disappear from view. Late the next day I heard he'd had a superb high camp and two great days. I'd like to have had more time but overall I was content with my overnight trip. I couldn't not be after that camp. Heading back down I stopped for lunch by some rocks and swapped crampons for snowshoes. Away to the east lenticular clouds were building over Ben Avon.

Once past the camp site I was soon in the woods, walking through shadows and brightness. My mind was back the night before, still entranced by the beauty, mystery and magnificence of that camp under the stars.

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