Cold in the Cairngorms
In February I had my first taste of the Cairngorms. They did not disappoint.
I have joined the London Mountaineering Club. This, as far as I am concerned, was a stroke of genius. All of a sudden, Snowdonia is as accessible and as afforable as going to the cinema (though a much longer drive). I am meeting other people who are as enthusiastic about the prospect of sharp mountain ridges and challenging winter days as I am! Who knew? There are meets to Scotland, Norway, Morocco, The Alps! The only problem is choosing which ones I can afford and making sure they do not clash with, y’know, life. Weddings and birthdays and family gatherings and people visiting us in London, these kind of things. If you are reading this, join a mountaineering club. Simple.
So after dipping my feet into two great weekend meets in Snowdonia, my first meaty meet with the club was the annual Scottish Winter Meet. This year the location was the Cairngorms National Park. When I first got wind of this, I was sceptical. The Cairngorms were not top of my Scottish mountain bucket list, despite containing five of the highest six mountains in the UK. This is because they are not the spiky, pointy, ridgey mountains that you get in the west, but huge, undulating, rolling hills lacking in “distinctive features”. More Carneddau than Glyderau. More Skiddaw than Scafell. More Mont Blanc than Matterhorn. I immediately emailed the meet steward. “Will groups be looking to drive to other parts of the Highlands?” I asked. Please be Torridon. Please be Torridon. “Potentially, some of us might be up for stuff in Glencoe or Torridon.” Say no more! Meet booked.
However, my skepticism of the Cairngorms was soon proved to be not only misguided but downright foolish. An Ill-fated attempt aside (more on that later), we did not leave the Cairngorms all week and boy was I glad of this. As I quickly discovered, the Cairngorms are breathtaking, ethereal, staggeringly beautiful, savage, vast and like nowhere else in the UK.
Saturday morning in Greenwich. I have just met Sadie (driver) and Paul and we have a monsterous, twelve hour journey ahead of us. We pass the time by sleeping (not Sadie, for obvious reasons), discussing route options, discussing what we do for a living, reading and comparing mountain escapades. Sadie tells us if the time she summited Mont Blanc. It is inspiring to chat about such feats and all of a sudden such an accomplishment becomes more feasible to a mountaineering novice like myself.
The Cairngorms are not known for their scrambler’s ridges my guidebook tells me. But, there are two! The north ridge on The Angel’s Peak and Fiacaill Ridge in The Northern Corries. Paul suggests Fiacaill Ridge might be a good one to start with tomorrow and we agree just as the sun sets, making any more guide book reading impossible. It is not long before we pull into our accommodation for the week at the Lagganlia Outdoor Centre in Feshiebridge, near Aviemore.
Meeting fourteen more people in the space of a few hours is as good a memory test as you are likely to come across. I mention the Fiacaill Ridge and there is plenty of interest from those inclined towards ridges rather than corries and crags. Many of the group have their eyes on the technical climbs of Corie an t-Sneachda, which is next door to our ridge. Ordinance Survey maps, beer cans and guide books litter the table, as we discuss route options. Before long talk turns to recount deeds done in Scotland, the Alps and even further afield. Hearing tales of distant summits conquered and of grand mountains is an inspiring way to kick off the week.
Day One - Fiacaill Ridge
The morning is bright and the mountains are white. I'm not talking about white like the dustings of snow that you get in the Lakes and in Snowdonia, but white. White like the Arctic. White as though the mountains are actually made of snow. As we drive past Loch Morlich, I get my first view of the Northern Corries. It is one of the great scenes of the Highlands. It’s a wide expanse of high mountain with a glorious, craggy slash down the middle. I am not yet aware that this is the very ridge for which we are headed. From here the Cairngorms look like a different world to the horizontal one we are all so familiar with. Okay Cairngorms. Good start.
Our approach starts from the ski centre car park, which is already bustling at 9:00am, mostly with skiers rather than mountaineers. I am surpirsed at how extensive the ski set up is here. It all feels rather alpine. This must be the highest car park in Britain at about 600 metres above sea level. Stepping out of the car is surreal at this kind of height and the cold hits instantly. Straight away the gloves, hats, snoods and layers are on. We stop short of getting the crampons out at this stage, it does not seem right to do this whilst perched on the boot of the car. Chris, Chris, Sadie, Paul and I set off into the white.
Initally, our hike is rather flat, along the well trodden route to the ridge. I am perfectly snug in all my layers, despite the cold air outside. As the snow gets more and more compacted, we decide it is crampons-on time. This is when I get my first reminder of just how cold it is. Having sorted out my crampons and readied my ice axe, I go for a sip from the water tube running from my hydration pack. It's completely frozen. Completely frozen. I have been into the mountains countless times in winter and have never had this issue. It is cold out there.
As a matter of fact, the Cairngorms hold the record for the lowest ever recorded temperature in the UK: -27.2 degrees centigrade. It is nowhere near that cold today but the wind chill factor was set to reach -23. Speaking of the wind, as we begin to climb the relatively broad shoulder of the Fiacaill Ridge, gusts drive spindrift across our path, making progress all the more challenging. And all the more epic feeling. This is adventure.
However, my enthusiasm is momentarily dampened by a reminder of the need to be fully alert. Paul asks me to fish his ice axe from his pack. To do this, I have to take off my right glove. I successfully liberate Paul's ice axe but - at some point in the process - the wind also successfully liberates my glove. "Where's my glove?" I ask confused. Despite no recolection of where I had put it for safe keeping and without bearing witness to it blowing away, I am still no doubt as to what had happened. Fortunately, I am in possession of a spare pair, as all compentant winter mountaineers should be.
The ridge is suddenly upon us as we crest a rise. It is beautiful. It narrows to a broken platform of rock and ice, before arcing upwards towards the summit of Carn Lochan. Already above 1100 metres, the ridge feels higher than most in Britain. For a moment, the sun catches and highlights the route, illuminating the plumes of spindrift blowing from the crest. It is as if the mountain is alive. It as at once intimidating and alluring.
The most serious scrambling is the very crest of the ridge, which comes in at a winter grade two. Some would recommend a confidence rope for such situations. To the left of this is an immense drop to the corrie floor below and to the right are gentler slopes that come in at a winter grade one for those who want to take it easier. I am somewhere in between, finding my way along the ridge when I can but skirting to the right when the rock towers look a little too serious for a man equipped with just one axe and no rope. Across on the headwall of Corie an t-Sneachda, we can see the black specks of climbers battling their way up the snow gullies like ants. This is a mountaineering arena of great atmosphere.
It feels great to be swinging my ixe axe into the solid snow above and using it to propel my upward momentum. Even better are the short sections of exposure on either side where things feel serious. Sublime. It is that feeling of walking through the air on a snowy, rocky tightrope. My only criticism (of what is a superb ridge) is that it is all over too quickly. After a quarter of an hour we top out onto the Cairngorm Plateau. Fiacaill Ridge done.
A quick conversation ensues between the five of us and we decide to make for the distant gentle dome of Cairn Gorm as our Munro summit for the day. To our right is the vast, white expanse of the Cairngorm plateau rolling into the distance and mingling with the oncoming cloud. A glance back reveals the Fiacaill Ridge in profile: a dramatically arcing crest.
The Cairngorms are a very serious mountain arena. The cold here is more savage than anywhere else in the UK. The wind is more brutal. Due to the vast, rolling, white expanses, navigation can be extremely challenging, particularlty when visibility wanes. The weather can change in a instant. You have to be self sufficient if commited to a route in the Cairngorms. You have to have respect for this environment.
Such a weather change occurs en route to Cairn Gorm. Heavy clouds sweep in and the temperature plummets as the bitterly cold wind rises. Snow drives across the landscape and visibility is reduced markedly. The summit is probably only twenty minutes away, but what's the point in conditions such as these? We decide to the descend the broad spur that leads down to the ski centre. As we progress, the cross winds are so ferociously cold that I grow an ice beard on the left hand side of my face. I liberate my new beard just as we arrive at the car.
Back at the lodge, talk turns from what everyone got up to today to what everyone is getting upto tomorrow. The climbing junkies want more of Corie an t-Sneachda and its nearby crags. Not for me. There's talk of Sgor Gaoith, a dramatically situated Munro to the west of the Northern Cairngorms. Could be a go-er. But then Andrew and James are planning something more audatious: a long drive into Lochaber to scale Aonach Mor, Ben Nevis' huge next door neighbour. The weather forecast for the Western Highlands was not as promising as the Cairngorms, but then it was not dreadful. Sometimes, you've gotta be in it to win it. It was to be an early start but that did not put me off in the slightest. I'm in!
Day Two - Cairn Gorm
It is well below freezing outside. James, Andrew and I meet around the table for breakfast. It is that kind of early-in-the-morning feeling one normally gets before going to catch an early flight for a holiday. The early bird catches the worm and we are off to catch an enticing worm in the form of winter mountaineering in Lochaber. As it transpired, we never made it out of the Cairngorms. Sometimes the early worm gets eaten by the bird. With Andrew behind the wheel, we pull away from the outdoor centre and onto the treacherous B roads that will lead us to the sanctity of the A86. Progress is agonisingly slow on the slippery surface. The road glistens and sparkles in the headlights. The tension in the car is palpable. Then we come to a downhill bend. “I’ve got no brakes, I’ve got no steering,” Andrew points out with remarkable calm. He manages to guide the car to a bank, where it comes to a stop just short of a brick wall that follows the perimeter of the corner ahead. Phew! We figure we are halfway to the A86. Despite our close call, if we continue at a slow, careful pace, we will make it soon. The next close shave occurs as we round a bend and come face to face with an oncoming van. The van is exercising far less caution than we are and comes flying through the middle of the road. We manage to pull over to the left as much as possible. The back of our car swings into line just in time to miss a bump with the van. Strike two. But the trials are not over yet. We finally make it to the A86. But there's a catch. To gain the A road, we first have to turn right up a steep, snowy bank. Too slow and we will roll back down. Too fast an we could go flying out into the oncoming traffic. Andrew judges pretty well, but not quite well enough to make it all the way up. James and I spring from our seats and give it that last little push it needs to get to the gritted surface of the A86. Now we are in business.
But as we progress along the road, the cloud drops and drops and darkens and darkens. Fresh snow begins to fall. Somewhere past Newtonmore, the road gets more and more treacherous. Andrew makes the point that, even if we make it to Aonach Mor, we are leaving a mountain arena where good weather is forecast for a mountain arena where the forecast is dubious. As the snow continues to fall and road conditions worsen, we turn around and head back towards the Cairngorms. After a calming breakfast bap and coffee in Aviemore, we find ourselves back at the ski centre. It is 9:30.
James and Andrew have a route on Corie an t-Sneachda in mind but I still have summiting Cairn Gorm at the forefront of my thoughts, having turned back the previous day. We agree to keep in touch and potentially meet later. I set off up towards Cairn Gorm with the ski slopes on my left.
There is an exhilaration in the freedom of being alone in the mountains. Today this feeling is particularly acute as I make my ascent through fierce cross winds that whip up the recently fallen snow. The sun is illuminating the scene brilliantly. As I look around in awe, I count myself as one of the luckiest men in the World. The scene is so dynamic, like nothing I’ve experienced in Britain. I mean look at it. Look where I am!
Though the ascent is fairly unrelenting, I continue in a sort of blissful haze. With my many layers, I am insulated from the severe cold outside. It is as though the mountains are putting on a performance and I have been invited into their midsts to spectate. It is not a technical ascent, it is not a sublime airy ridge, I can’t even really see many other mountains around, but this is one of the most remarkable journeys up a mountain that I can remember.
Things just keep on getting better. As I reach the top of the spur the Cairngorm plateau is laid out before me in all of its white glory. Visibility is much improved in the day previous and I can see for some distance across towards the giants of Ben Macdui and Breariach. That’s not to say there aren’t clouds intermingling with the plateau, giving the impression that I truly am in the sky. I watch a cross country skier progress into the distance, into that magical world, and I feel a pang if envy. Soon he/she is dwarfed by the immensity of it all, just a tiny black speck in the distance.
Cairn Gorm summit itself is the antithesis of the classic mountain form. This is no pointed Sgurr or Stob, no Catstycam, no Steeple, no Tryfan or any other British Mountain with steep sides and an airy summit ridge. However, like Skiddaw in the Lake District or Carnedd Llewellyn in Snowdonia, Cairn Gorm has a noble summit who’s height demands reverence. Getting to the 1244 metre summit - the sixth highest in the UK - is like a gentle walk up a snowy, domed hill. But, as you do it, turn around occasionally and just look! A group of ten mountaineers is following me, casting faint shadows on the porcelain surface, menaced by the distant profile of the Fiacaill Ridge. Superb.
I gain the summit, where a small weather station is prisoner to the cold’s icy grip. First, I wander to the east and look out over Bynack More and its satellites. Next, I find my way to a cairn offering shelter from the now bone deep cold. I am, after all, in the one of the coldest places and officially the windiest place in the UK. On March 20, 1986, wind speeds of 173mph were recorded on this summit, the strongest ever recorded on our island.
Today I have left my hydration pack at home. It would have frozen by now anyway. Instead, I have brought my monster Thermos flask that I had gifted to my sister for her birthday, only for her to give it back to me for Christmas on account of its immense size. As I pour probably the most welcome cup of tea I have ever had, I strike up conversation with a Scottish man who has trekked up from the skier’s restaurant Ptarmigan with his hardy dog. We exchange our enthusiasm for the conditions and he reliably informs me that Torridon is his favourite part of Scotland. This year I tell myself. I’m coming for you Beinn Alligin. I’m coming for you Liathach. I share my tea with the man and my McCoys with the dog. It is amazing how quickly the hot tea turns to lukewarm up here.
With numb fingers, I search for Andrew’s number in my phone and give him a ring. They have just topped out on a route on Corie an t-Sneachda and we arrange to meet. Gladly, I get moving again. Only whilst stationary do I realise just how cold it is up here. My descent is quick and within twenty minutes I come across two familiar faces enjoying shelter from the wind. We decide to venture further into the plateau.
The plateau is a magical place. Like a fairytale. There is simply no sign of human influence. Every footstep is into fresh, pristine snow. There is a constant susurrus, the sound of the loose snow gliding across the consolidated snow beneath. The sun is illuminating it all. It is a feast for the senses.
We make for two obvious but nameless high points on this part of the plateau. The first is a glorious platform overlooking the crags of Carn Etchachan, an impressive squat pyramid that puts me in mind of the Buachaille Etive Mor, only on a smaller scale. What strikes me here is that this is a mountain that no car borne enthusiast would ever lay eyes up. This is a mountain beyond the reach or road or rail. This is a mountain as mountains should be. A secret mountain.
After posing for photos, we head for our second high point, an outcrop around the back of Cairn Gorm summit. From here we get a great view across Beinn Mheadhoin, another of the Cairngorm’s giant Munros. There are a series of rocky protrusions along its summit ridge which we can’t tell whether they are cairns or natural tors. An investigation for another day perhaps. In any case, the wind is picking up and the clouds look more menacing than earlier. We begin our retreat.
The day had one final spectacle to throw at us. Where earlier the spindrift had been blowing with a gentle susurrus and ethereal beauty, now it is a violent tide of swirling particles. The closer we get to the top of the spur that leads down to the car, the stronger the wind is and the more it appears that we are not walking on solid ground at all. It is as though we are walking on cloud.
Another surprise awaits as we crest the spur and see that the wind has whipped away all but the hardiest of the snow from the wide ridge. Where this morning all was white, now wind scoured naked rock is all that is left. The wind is ferocious and we grasp our ice axes to use for support as we carefully descend. Further down, the ridge looks as though it is erupting, as misty snow is launched into the sky by the wind. The hills are alive, indeed. Who knew such sights were possible in Britain?
Eventually we make it back to the sanctity of the car and, after a short drive, back to our lodgings. At the time we were not aware that some of our fellow club members were at the beginnings of an epic. An epic, in Mountaineering terms, is where things start to go wrong, the conditions turn, you are on the mountain longer than you intended and you have to battle against the elements, the mountain, the dark, navigation problems and your own deficiencies just to get back down. The four-strong team would eventually get back to the lodge after midnight. A difficult pitch on Corie an t-Sneachda had meant they had not topped out until long after dark. They had then had to navigate their way off the mountain in horrendous conditions whilst tired and in the dark. After their return, conditions worsened and a collosal amount of snow fell through the night.
Day Three - Creag Dhubh
We are snowed in. There is no way of getting a car out of the car park, let alone to within striking distance of any Munros. After all the excitement of the last two days and the epic experienced by some of our number, everyone is slower to rise today. Breakfast is more like brunch by the time people gather in the communal area. But look outside, it is a glorious, blue sky winter’s morning. I shake myself out of my stupor and start opening OS maps to come up with a plan.
It’s just about midday already, so we are not going to get too far. Studying the maps, I can see a route towards Sgur Gaoith from our lodge and Chris, Dan and I decide to see how far we get. We impose a 3pm turn around time, as we are in no mood for our own epic. It is nice setting out from our lodgings, knowing that there would be no return car journey at the end of our hike.
The initial stages are a delight, a gentle stroll through a quintessentially Scottish pine forest. We share stories of previous mountain adventures and our ambitions for the future. Compared to the 600 metre high starts from the last two days, it is positively balmy along the forest trails. We cross a lovely little stream as I consider that this element of mountain walking - the ascent from the valley - had been missing from the last two days.
After the best part of an hour, we begin a rough ascent up a narrow path through the forest. The bushes and trees are heavy with snow and branches droop into our ascent path, meaning we have to push through them to progress. I am thankful of my waterproof attire at this point. Before long, we break through the tree line and make our way up a steepish snow slope.
Within twenty minutes we go from the Narnia-esque forest to the ethereal beauty of the Cairngorm plateau. Today, it has a blueish hue that’s makes the mountains melt into the sky and gives a real impression of immense vastness. After passing what looks like a meteorological science experiment, we stride out across the desert of white. Well I say stride out, in reality it is more a case of sinking with every step. The snow is knee deep at best and progress is extremely arduous. Points on the horizon that seemed relatively close we now realise are much, much further away. As I had suspected, there would be no chance of getting as far as Sgur Gaoith if we wanted to be getting back before sunset.
Instead, we slowly trudge our way to a shelter at 834 metres, to the south of the summit of Creag Dhubh. The reward for our efforts is a gargantuan panorama of the Northern Cairngorms. From the Cairn Gorm ski slopes, Cairn Gorm itself, Ben Macdui, The Breariach group and ridge that eventually meets Sgor Gaoith, the landscape unfolds in front of us. I try to take a photo to capture it all, but the scale is too massive and the mountains too distant for a single photo. We drink in the view and drink in some tea from my Thermos, before setting off back the way we came.
As we start to descend towards the tree line, the Rothiemurchus pine forest spreads before us like a carpet. Beyond are yet more snow capped mountains of Cairngorm character. These are the Monadhliath: the white mountains, as opposed to the name that the Cairngorms used to go by, the Monadh Ruadh: the red mountains. Further to the west, I wonder if I can make out the likes of Creag Meagaidh but I am not familiar enough with the landscape to know for sure.
Our descent is much quicker than the ascent. We take a direct line through the rapidly defrosting forest, bounding down the uneven surface. As the sun sets and the temperature starts to plummet, we are back at the lodge for the home comforts of tea, biscuits, pizza and good company. We have a look at the Mountain Weather Information Service and I realise that this was probably my last foray up into the high Cairngorms for a while. Wind speeds tomorrow are supposed to be brutal...
Day Four - Ryvoan
The wind howls through the lodge all night. When I wake in the morning, it is still howling. One look outside confirms my fears. There would be no mountain summits today. There is a blizzard outside. Paul, Sadie, Leo and Will are game for a low level walk and I recall Andrew telling me that there is a lovely, atmospheric hike from Glenmore Lodge up the Ryvoan Pass to the Ryvoan bothy. We decide to go for it. After all, it's better than sitting around the lodge. I pack up my things, layer up and we drive to Glen More. The blizzard is so fierce that goggles are needed once out of the car. I feel as though I am in a space suit in all my layers and attire, with a small part of my nose the only skin exposed to the elements.
The five of us set off through the blizzard, strangely isolated from one and other by the situation. However, the blizzard does not last more than another half an hour, as suddenly blue sky and sunshine are upon us. Layes are shed and goggles stashed away. Any thoughts of turning to a mountain are squashed by the wind, which is still very strong. A look towards the higher ground confirms this, showing plumes of spindrift being blown around in gale force winds. We continue towards the bothy.
I have never been to a bothy before, so today would be a new experience. A bothy is a building or a hut that is free for anyone to occupy as shelter from the elements. Many hillwalkers and climbers in Scotland plan bothies into their itiniary for sanctity or even a night's sleep. However, a hotel this is not. Nothing but the most basic comforts can be found in a bothy. In fact, the Mountain Bothies Association say that "When going to a bothy, it is imporant to assume there will be no facilities." So the main function is one of shelter. Neverthless, they have an appeal and a charm that no hotel can match, as I would find out today.
My companions today were the team that had experienced The Epic two days previous. Leo and Will regale me with some of the details as we make our way through a landscape that I can only define as half pine forest, half wind tunnel. In truth, we are in the narrowest part of the pass between Meall a' Buachaille and Creag nan Gall and this has the effect of funnelling the gale. There is a charming little frozen loch, which we marvel at for a while and then we stride out once more. We emerge from the forest onto an open, undulating plain. The shelter of the trees, we realise, had been a blessing. On the open plain, the gale is cheek stingingly fierce. Fortunately, the Ryvoan Bothy is just ahead. Oh, glorious shelter.
The bothy is busy with others seeking shelter. There is a fire roaring in the hearth, giving the air a smoky tang. There is a large wooden platform by the window, clearly space for several people to huddle up for a night's sleep. For drying clothes, there are lines hanging from wall to wall, which some of the current visitors have taken advantage of. On the walls, there are various written notices: the bothy code, information about other Scottish bothies, notices from groups looking to rewild Scotland and a poem on the door entitled I Leave Tonight From Euston. As a Londoner in love with the Scotland, I can certainly relate to the idea of departing Euston for the magic of the Highlands. I read on about the author, AM Lawrence, and learn that she is from Burgh by Sands on the Solway Coast of Cumbria, a mere two villages away from my home village of Port Carlisle. I realise that the poet and myself have plenty in common.
We eat a leisurely lunch in the relative luxury of Ryvoan. Again I pass around the tea and we swap chocolates for Tangfastics. Before we depart, I take a shot of the wind-blasted plain through the window so that I will always remember my first - if brief - stay in a Highland bothy. When we step outside, we are absolutely tossed around by the wind. I have to lean forward aggresively to make any kind of headway. But as we gradulally descend from the spot occupied by the bothy, the gusts slowly abate, until we once again reach forested land.
Us mountaineers like a goal. Usually it is a mountain summit or a particularly tasty bit of ridge. Today we had decided that we would turn back at a memorial that is marked on the OS map. So we continue onwards to the north east in the direction of Nethy Bridge to find our end point. To the south we can see another one of the Cairngorms' rounded summits. Even from a huge distance, it is clear that the wind across the top is severe, as a sort of ethereal haze surrounds the mountain. It is beautiful and dynamic in a way that a photo can not capture.
We find outselves back in the forest and a makeshift trail winding its way off the main path marks our memorial. We climb up the trail for twenty seconds before coming across a stone monument. It was erected in honour of a local soldier who passed away during the First World War. What a special place for such a tribute.
Today is my last day in the Cairngorms. Once we get back to Aviemore, it will be a pub meal and then the sleeper train home. As we retrace our steps back past windy Ryvoan and into the pass, I consider the last four days...
The Cairngorms had proved me wrong. These are mountains quite unlike anything else in the UK. The sheer vastness and openness of the landscape, coupled with its dynamism and ethereal beauty make them a marvel to savour. Yet, like a siren, this beauty comes with a danger for the unaware, for those thralls lost in a dumbstruck haze. I can recall many moments over the last four days where I had found myself in such a state, losing myself in the beguiling natural performance that the mountains perform, conducted by the savage elements. In this state, it is easy to forget the distances, the cold, the fact you are in the grip of nature should it decide to squeeze. For such rounded mountains, the Cairngorms have some edge.
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