Cairngorm and Winter Skills

Cairngorm, Ben Macdui and Winter Skills, 4-6 January 2019

A blog post from one of our mountain adventures in the Scottish hills and mountains. Two days hiking up Cairngorm and Ben Macdui and practicing Winter Skills John King was leading.

Cairngorm, Ben Macdui and Winter Skills

Day 1 - Cairngorm and Ben Macdui

Looking at the MWIS forecast prior to Friday’s walk, there was a hint that, while a thick layer of cloud would envelop most hills, there would be a temperature inversion in place and the highest summits of the Cairngorms may well poke out clear of the cloud into the inversion layer. It isn’t all that often that you get a forecast like that, so it was an exciting prospect. I met our group for the day at the Cairngorm Mountain Carpark and we got everyone sorted with ice axes before setting off just before 9am. It was grey and overcast with no views of the summits, surprisingly warm, with little wind. Our route took us along good paths below the Northern Corries of Cairngorm and, keeping with the theme of unusual conditions, the path was free of snow and we didn’t encounter any ice until near the outflow from Coirean Lochain.

As we ascended onto the plateau round the flank of Cairn Lochain we entered the cloud and crossed our first few snow patches. These were bullet hard and gave us a taste of what was to come. Between these patches of older snow the ground was frosted and there was a minimal dusting of snow. We passed Lochan Buidhe (the highest named body of water in the UK) and wandered out over the vastness of the Cairngorm Plateau with little visibility. The benign conditions and lack of snow cover kept navigation relatively routine and soon we were ascending the steep slopes below Ben Macdui’s North Top. Here there was more continuous cover of old snow that had now been through several freeze-thaw cycles and was well consolidated. The icy surface meant that boots were making minimal impression, so some step cutting was required! We were soon through this patch and onto easier, bare ground again and all of a sudden the sun started to appear above us. Within five minutes, we could see the peaks all around us, and streams of cloud were draining into the valley below.

We continued onto the summit of Ben Macdui in glorious sunshine. From the summit, all the high peaks of the Cairngorms were visible and the views across the Lairig Ghru to Braeriach, Cairn Toul and Sgurr an Lochain Uaine (the 3rd, 4th and 5th highest Munros respectively) were spectacular. There was almost no wind and it felt quite pleasant in the sun, so we ended up spending around 40 minutes here. It’s not often you get to spend that much time on a summit in winter! It was a busy place too with plenty of others out enjoying the conditions. Eventually we dragged ourselves away and headed back across the plateau towards Cairngorm. Some care was required back down the hard, icy snow but then it was easy walking round to the head of the Goat Track of Coirean t-Sneachda and up to the top of Stob Coire an t-Sneachda. We were in and out of the cloud all the way and got to see some very clear Brocken Spectres. The edge of the Northern Corries dropped away steeply into a sea of cloud, with the low winter sun behind our backs providing the perfect conditions for the phenomena to be seen.

The final climb to the summit of Cairngorm went quickly, with just a few stops for photos of the incredible views. From the summit of Cairngorm, the view west was like that from the window of an aircraft, with a sea of cloud stretching away into the distance. Our descent route took us down past the Ptarmigan Restaurant and onto ‘Windy Ridge’. As we descended we passed back through the layer of cloud and into the gloom below, but not before we got a few more views of Brocken Spectres. If anything it was colder back down in the car park than on the top and it must have looked weird to anyone who hadn’t been up high to see sunglasses on people’s heads! Many thanks to everyone in the group for a great day that will live long in the memory.

Day 2 - Winter Skills on Cairngorm

Sunday morning I met our group in Rothiemurchus. We sorted out kit, doing the important job of fitting helmets and crampons before we headed out. Although it was another mild morning, there was a fine drizzle falling so we headed off up to the Day Lodge at the Cairngorm Ski Centre where we spent some time going through understanding the format of the avalanche forecasts and looking at aspects of planning our winter mountain days, focusing on the Be Avalanche Aware Guidelines - all with a nice warm cup of coffee in hand!

Around 10am we headed out onto the hill. My trip on Friday to Ben Macdui had given me a good idea of where snow was to be found given the current lack of it! We followed the path along under Cairngorm’s Northern Corries, which was now almost completely free of ice and headed up to the side of CoireanLochain. By this time the weather had cleared up a bit and we got some nice atmospheric views as we walked along, with the sun making a brief appearance. At just over 1000m there were a few decent snow patches and we set about using the closest one, with a nice run-out onto grass and moss. It was a popular spot with a few other teams using the other patches around us. Here we looked at footwork on snow, cutting steps and walking in crampons. Although the temperature was above freezing, the snow was still icy from the previous colder weather so it was pretty good for the purpose. Finally, we squeezed in some sliding, practicing ice-axe arrests in all the various positions before a late lunch.

After lunch we went for a bit of journey round the mountain, which took us up over Cairn Lochain, linking a few snow patches where we could, and then down into Coire Domhain. Along the way we saw a few ptarmigan darting about, their white plumage standing out pretty clearly just now. There was a decent amount of snow remaining in Coire Domhain so it provided a nice chance to get the crampons on again and head onto some steeper snow. By this time the snow had softened slightly and the slopes here are a little steeper, again with a friendly run-out, so we got back to practicing ice axe arrests, this time with a little bit more speed. It was a lot of fun! By the end everyone was looking comfortable on the snow and there were some textbook arrests being performed.

At around 3.15pm it was time to head out, so we gathered our things and headed back via Stob Coire an t-Sneachda and Fiacaill a’ Choire Chais. It was grey and damp, while the warm temperatures meant we barely crossed any snow. It felt like summer conditions! There were some nice views to be had though with the plateau clear of cloud sandwiched between layers of mist above and below. We reached the car park just as the sun was setting, amongst the last off the hill. Thanks to everyone in the group for their enthusiasm in the not so wintery conditions. Hopefully the coming weeks will provide us with some colder days to put the newly learnt skills into practice.

More photos by John King are here on Flickr.

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