Thursday 11 January 2024

First Camp of the Year: In the snow in the Cairngorms

Before sunrise

First camp of the year, first snow camp of the winter, first camp since October. So many firsts for this overnight trip! The last was the most significant, the first time with a big pack for nearly three months and the first since my operation in early November. With snowbound hills and a pack full of winter gear it wasn’t the easiest way to return to wild camping. But the forecast was for sunshine and I was excited to go.

On the ascent: dusk over Strathspey

I wasn’t planning on a long first day with the big pack. A strong, cold south-easterly wind discouraged me from heading up to the Cairngorm Plateau, so I stayed a bit lower and camped at 950 metres below a bank that gave some protection from the wind, though a few gusts were enough to have me closing the tent doors.

Frosted tent by lamplight

With over twelve hours of darkness ahead I went for a short walk in the dark after supper. That’s too long to spend inside a small tent. Stars shone overhead, bands of mist raced past. The temperature was well below freezing and the wind bitter. Maybe the hours in the tent weren’t that unattractive after all. I was soon back inside.

Pre-dawn light

I woke over an hour before sunrise but the sky was already beginning to lighten. At this time of the year there’s only seven hours between sunrise and sunset this far north. However an hour or more of twilight either end of the day extends the time when a headlamp isn’t needed to nine or ten hours.

Coffee soon!

The overnight low was -7°C. There was frost inside and outside the flysheet. But the inner tent was dry and my sleeping bag warm. The stove fired up first time and boiled water fast despit having stood on the snow all night. Coffee! The combination of the MSR Reactor and Primus Winter Gas is always excellent. I’d brought it because I thought I would probably need to melt snow. Higher up that would have been the case. Here a stream was just flowing, oozing through frozen moss.

Another use for an ice axe

Venturing out into the cold world I realised the sun would not reach here for many hours as it was rising just where the wind was blowing from. The bank that kept off the latter also kept me shaded from the sun. The tent was frozen to the ground. I had to use the ice axe to dig and lever the pegs out of the ground.

Sunny but cold

I only reached the sunshine after I set off, crunching fast through the snow to warm up. The brightness was welcome though there was no heat in it. The cold wind saw to that. Looking down the deep cleft of the Lairig Ghru I could see thick mist blanketing the glens to the south. No sunshine there.

View down the Lairig Ghru

On the first steepish slope I had one slight slip then stopped to don crampons. The day before I’d kicked steps across some slopes thinking I should have had them on. I wasn’t making that mistake again. I ended up keeping them on all day. I didn’t need them all the time but repeatedly taking them on and off was just too much hassle. I got the ice axe out too. The snow was firm and crisp in places, soft and deep in others, with some breakable crust, making for reasonably easy walking.

Winter essentials

I saw no-one until I reached Cairn Lochan where climbers were packing up their gear after finishing a route on the cliffs that abut the summit to the north. I’d guessed that in these freezing conditions and sunny weather there would be many climbers in the Northern Corries. Later I was to see even more on Stob Coire an t-Sneachda, which is more accessible. The cliffs were plastered in snow. The view was tremendous, the air sharp and clear.

Cairn Lochan

Half a dozen ski tourers arrived, and Cairn Lochan started to feel crowded, very unusual on this hill, which I usually have to myself. I hadn’t considered bringing skis as I didn’t want to carry them to the snow on my already heavy pack. I also hadn’t realised just how extensive the snow cover was.

View to Sgor Gaoith and Sgoran Dubh Mor

I’d considered going to Ben Macdui but time was slipping away and I could feel the effort of carrying the pack. For this first overnight trip for so long and with the snow and the winter gear as well over the Northern Corries – Cairn Lochan and Stob Coire an t-Sneachda – would be enough. I saw no-one else with a big pack though I guess some of the climbers’ loads were as heavy as mine.

Cairn Gorm viewed over the Fiacaill Coire an t-Sneachda with the tiny figures of mountaineers on the latter

I reached the big cairn on Point 1141 at the top of the Fiacaill a’ Choire Chais with just enough time to descend to the car before darkness fell. In summer the start of this descent is on stone steps through a fairly steep boulder field. In winter hard snow and ice builds up between the rocks and ice on the steps makes them dangerously slippery. I’ve often put crampons on for this section in both ascent and descent. Today I was already wearing them but could probably have got down safely without them. For the first time I can remember the top of the ridge was a simple broad snow slope, the rocks and steps completely buried, making the descent easy.

Beinn Mheadhoin

After the trip my legs told me they weren’t used to this level of exertion and my feet told me they weren’t used to walking for hours with crampons on. They ached! But it had been a successful trip in glorious weather and a great start to the year. 

Cairn Toul



  1. Great read Chris. I am looking forward to my own winter adventure on Sunday night Monday morning in the Peak District.

  2. Good read.Whats the tent please Chris

    1. Nortent Vern 1.