Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Cairngorms

I've been back from the Cairngorms for almost a week now, a bit of a sniffle and post holiday blahs this week and it all seems a world away now.

I could write loads about the experience but I won't, it was just utterly fantastic. The snow was simply amazing. We had a pretty painless drive up on the Sunday, avoiding the worst section of the A9 it would seem by coming up from the Edinburgh side. Managed to drive past the turn off for Glenmore Lodge as the sign was totally obscured by snow. Heading up the ski road was entertaining, the road hadn't been ploughed, it had had to have a snow blower to cut through it. There is a four metre high wall of snow near the Coire Cas car park.
Days 1 -4 had pretty much no wind, which is quite frankly rare in the Cairngorms. We also had lots of sunshine and blue skies, again rare. I just hope I haven't had my lifetime's quota of good Scottish winter weather in one week. Soft snow meant slow moving progress particularly being the shortest member of the group, with the shortest stride. It wasn't always easy following others footsteps and as I took a lot of photos I spent a lot of time as the tail end Charlie.

On the Tuesday we were accompanied for the day by cameraman from the Adventure Show, they are doing a piece on people beginning to venture out into the Scottish hills in winter. It was quite odd doing stuff and then having a camera watching or being asked questions. Its only shown in Scotland and probably won't be out til the autumn so I'll have forgotten all about it by then. I will no doubt look and sound like a complete plank!

Ice axe arrest practice was hilarious, crampons and ice axes were seriously confidence inspiring though there wasn't always a massive need for them due to the soft snow. Snow shelter digging was interesting but quite frankly I think I'd rather bust a gut to get off the hill. A snow hole on the other hand might be fun for a night. Avalanche awareness was a hot topic for obvious reasons, lots of attention to the forecasts, looking for wind scoured slopes etc, learning new words for snow....loaded:

Sastrugi, my favourite word for snow:

A good walk around the Northern Corries on the Wednesday with visibility for miles in every direction, not sure if I'll see it like that ever again:

Lots more photos on Flickr if you want to trawl through them.

Just to redress the balance the normal weather closed in on Friday. We wanted some experience of trying to navigate in white out conditions and we got it. Snow shoes and following the pistes up made for fast progress up to Cairn Gorm summit. Sheltering in the Ptarmigan ski station for some food and layer rearrange it was then up to the summit, walking on bearings in pairs using dark patches in the snow to sight off - it was the only detail and using hand signals to correct the lead (voice signals drowned out by the wind). The view from Cairn Gorm summit, the little grey "sighting" patches visible at the bottom:

From the summit over to another feature on a bearing taken and measured by me (gulp) but it worked. I was the lead of our pair, we managed to stay on bearing and I managed to keep counting paces. I found it was a good way of blocking out thinking about the conditions. I had my only real "I'm not liking this" moment across here as everytime I had to turn back to check I was still on bearing I got a load of icy snow driven into my eyeballs, not pleasant.

Still, we found the little tor we were looking for, walking round it I got blown off my feet three times due to the combination of 40mph winds, soft, deep snow and snow shoes. Hiding behind the tor on quite frankly, dodgy windslab (just as well it was flat) I managed to get my ski goggles on and what a difference. Eyes protected, hood up, in my own bright yellow bubble it made a huge difference to things.

We set off back to the Ptarmigan with more bearing walking and pace counting and I was by then really enjoying the challenge. The only slight annoyance was having to carry my walking poles to use the compass and they kept icing to my gloves and making whatever hand was holding them freezing. The compass base plate was ice, all toggles etc were covered in rime ice, jacket hoods etc. It was a good reminder of exactly how serious things can get up there.


  1. Looks like a great trip. Why is snow so exciting? If I had to live with it every day it might lose some excitement.

  2. fantastic!!! we'll have to get some winter plans made :)

  3. That looks like a beautiful break.