Tuesday 27 February 2024

A Wander In The Winter Cairngorms

Stag Rocks, Loch Avon, & Beinn Mheadhoin

Winter made a return of sorts to the Cairngorms last week with lower temperatures and a few falls of snow after many days of thawing and warmth. With a forecast for fine weather I headed up to the Cairngorm Plateau hoping to wander around without having to fight high winds or navigate through the mist. The air was warm and still enough on the ascent to soon see me stripped down to a baselayer, for the first time since late last summer. Once I reached the Plateau it was a little colder and I donned a light fleece jacket, though I still didn’t need a shell jacket. It felt more like May than February.

Cloud crossing Stob Coire an t-Sneachda

High thin clouds floated across the sky, occasionally descending to brush the tops. The sun shining through them creating a slightly unusual brownish tinge to the air. The snow cover was very mixed. On east facing slopes and in the corries there was total cover, in places quite deep, while on ridges and tops there was just a few inches of soft wet new snow scattered about, with much heather, grass and rock showing through. In places under the fresh snow lay hard and slippery old snow and on one traverse across the side of a corrie I had my ice axe out for security. Mostly though trekking poles were all that I needed to stay upright.

The Cairngorm Plateau with Hell Lum's Crag on the right

Along the edges of the Northern Corries there were many walkers and climbers enjoying the calm weather. Once I headed away from there I was soon alone and only I saw a few others in the distance until I returned. My plan was to visit the cliffs above Loch Avon and follow round their tops, as far as possible, to where the Feith Buidhe stream begins its crashing descent, and then maybe further before crossing the Plateau back to the Northern Corries.

Stag Rocks & Loch Avon

Big snowfields in Coire Raibert led to Stag Rocks and my first view of Loch Avon. The contrast between the warm brown cliffs just next to me and the cold blue-white snowy eastern slopes across the loch was extreme. Two different worlds.

Stag Rocks, Loch Avon, & Beinn Mheadhoin

Contouring round into Coire Domhain I watched a party descending to the snow holes built here whenever there’s snow. Over the top of Hell Lum’s Crag and down to the Feith Buidhe through a chaos of snow and boulders – care needed here as holes between the rocks were hidden by snow that often wasn’t solid. A thick band of snow hung over the steeper slopes below. I stayed off that, unable to see how much of it was a cornice.

The Feith Buidhe

I could hear the roar of the Feith Buidhe as it began its thundering fall to the Loch Avon basin far below, the force of the water breaking through the ice and snow that hid the stream in the much flatter ground to the west. Here the terrain looked harsh and Arctic, a wasteland of snow and rock.

Beinn Mheadhoin, Carn Etchachan, & the Shelterstone Crag

This rim above Loch Avon is a favourite place, a dramatic mountain fortress. I spent much time looking, ambling about between viewpoints, going as near the edge as I dared, taking photographs.

The upper basin of the Feith Buidhe with Braeriach in the distance

As daylight would now be gone in a few hours I turned up the Feith Buidhe and then cut across to the path traversing the eastern slopes of Cairn Lochan, today a trench in the snow made by walkers going to and from Ben Macdui.

View across the Cairngorm Plateau to Cairn Toul & Sgor an Lochain Uaine

On Stob Coire an t-Sneachda climbers were coiling their ropes. I was back amongst people, the last ones of the day heading for the Fiacaill a’ Choire Chais and descent to the Coire Cas car park. Clouds were rolling in now but out to the west the sun was sinking below them, a searing gold and orange.

Approaching sunset

I reached the car just before it was dark enough to need my head torch. When I turned on the car headlights I was momentarily puzzled by white streaks falling through the brightness. Then I realised. It had started snowing.

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