Almost PHOTO: DAVID LINTERN.
Could the Cairngorms in winter be the ultimate test of hill walking skills? David Lintern finds out on a winter weekender.
R Winter camping at Loch Avon. 42 | S U MMI T # 7 2 | WINT E R 2 0 1 3
Alpine SU MMIT#72 | WIN TER 2013 | 43
R 'Walking on the wild side of Cairn Gorm.
he original plan was for a weekend of cross-country skiing in the forests around Aviemore – or rather, for my girlfriend to swish gracefully down the trail whilst I tried desperately not bruise a kidney and give myself a black eye. Thankfully, a distinct lack of snow below 600m put paid to that idea. But above the treeline, winter reigned, and so we changed our plans: pitching up for two nights at the Coylumbridge campsite on the edge of the Caledonian forest, before heading off into the wilds for a brief taste of the arctic, UK style.
Our first day on the hill was accessed from Loch Morlich, near Glenmore Lodge, which also happens to be the base of all things mountain sport in Scotland. I was last here two years ago, taking part in their excellent introduction to winter skills course, and since then I’ve been fine-tuning those skills whenever possible (not so easy from London; easier now we’ve moved to Edinburgh). A year later, we made our first attempt on Bynack More, and were beaten back by over 30 mile-per-hour gusts and ski injuries. The hill shrugged off our efforts without so much as a sneeze then. Today we were trying again. Conditions were surprisingly stable for Scotland, and this lasted the whole weekend. Cold, clear, with bright sunshine, it almost felt like the Alps – less pointy maybe, but ideal winter conditions and blue-sky days. We arrived on the plateau without incident and made our way slowly up the broad ridge dotted with boulders to the summit. Lunch was the usual brisk winter affair as body temperatures plummeted. I cursed myself for not bringing a flask, but the air was icy clear and so were the views: far across the Abernethy Forest and right into the heart of the Cairngorms. We head north west for the subsidiary top of Bynack Beg, and then down steeply into Strath Nethy. We’re aware of the SAIS forecast, and the wind is easterly, so our approach at the top of the slope is slow and careful. But after a little traversing to avoid an icy section, the snow hardened to neve again and we feel assured enough to continue. It’s late in the season and the snow is deep and consolidated, but it’s also a timely reminder
that all three of us need to gen up on our avalanche awareness skills. I’ve a vague recollection of how to dig a ‘hasty pit’, and I do know what to look for in windslab, but it could all use some revision. The following day we headed out to our rendezvous at the Choire Cas car park with Paul and Helen, who run the redoubtable Walk Highlands website. They were to join us as far as Ben Macdui, at which point we would head off for a wild camp at Loch Avon. This was only our second time on the plateau, and our first time to this summit, so there was a lot of new ground for us, if not for our fellow walkers. Once on the plateau, the wind quickly sliced through my layers and extra gloves and hats were rapidly donned. It really is deadly cold up here. Immobilised and not under cover, death would surely follow in a few thin hours. I learnt a lot on this trip, and on other trips in the season. Pack weight (more annoyingly, bulk) had crept up with winter sleeping mats and camera gear – it needs a proper audit before next winter. I was moving incredibly slowly on the plateau, burdened by ineffective, non-breathable layers and too much of the wrong sort of food. We needed fat rich, ready-prepared pies, pasties and noodles, not fiddly pitta, cheese and gorp. Also useful would have been snowstakes for the shelter and a softshell jacket. Gas fuel is touch and go at these temperatures unless the canister is full, and I’ll be looking to a petrol stove for the extreme cold in the future. I even carried wood for a fire we didn't use (again, too much fuss), and our floorless, high-sided shelter that meant ice and spindrift covered
I still have the residual mentality of a three-season hill walker, which is not always practical in Scotland. 44 | S U MMI T # 7 2 | WINT E R 2 0 1 3
PHOTO: DAVID LINTERN.
Nothing should be assumed: not our own experience, nor our fellow mountain traveller’s ignorance. And most of all, not the mountain.
David Lintern grew up in deepest South London but has landed in Edinburgh after two months in the Pyrenees. He currently splits his time between working for the John Muir Trust, and outdoors writing and photography. See www.selfpowered.net.
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R Ascending the broad rocky ridge of Bynack More.
We cast around for a sheltered camp, but where the wind subsided the snow was shoulder high, loose and prone to drift, so we pitched a few hundred yards from the edge of the lake. Despite being only three kilometers from the ski-top café on the other side of Cairn Gorm itself, this is an isolated, wild and desolately beautiful spot. It would be a deadly place to come unprepared. Night fell, the wind rose, and Phil settled down to eat his own weight in mashed potato. I spent the latter part of the evening with one eye open, staring at the centre pole bowing under heavily tensioned silnylon, catching just a fraction of what the Cairngorms can offer up. “There's always the Shelter Stone,” I muttered to my girlfriend after returning from guy-line adjustments for the third time. Eventually I gave up, got tired and got some sleep. It was still standing in the morning, but the noise! Next time, I’m bringing a freestanding tent, not a pyramid tarp. The morning brought calm, and a warm sun. We crossed over the loch, and ascended toward Cairn Gorm itself, the frigid air scorching our lungs. Later, the morning sun turned thinner snow to mush on the easterly slopes, and so we opted for straighter lines over the zigzags of earlier. We reached the top of the mountain and suddenly were surrounded by people and the machinery of a busy ski Sunday, only serving to emphasise that remarkable feeling of remoteness we’d experienced down near the loch. The weekend had been a small window into something like alpine conditions. The Cairngorms in winter feels like another country.
PHOTO: DAVID LINTERN.
us in our sleep. Sun cream should definitely have been taken (although we can hardly be blamed for not carrying this!) and we all needed to drink more, a lot more. These little details matter a lot more in the winter, where the margins for comfort are slimmer. I still have the residual mentality of a three-season hill walker, which is not always practical in Scotland, even in those same seasons, and definitely doesn’t work in this relentless cold. However, we are learning, and learning is good, especially in bite sized, manageable pieces with escape routes planned in. A simple overnight trip like this is a perfect way to test gear, technique and stamina without pushing too hard and too fast for our skill level, or worse still, putting anyone in an unsafe place. The deaths on the hill this past winter figured heavily in our conversations on the way to the summit. No one took the tragedies lightly. If there was one lesson to take from the media surrounding the issues, maybe it is that nothing should be assumed: not our own experience, nor our fellow mountain traveller’s ignorance. And, most of all, not the mountain. Back in the moment, the plateau was majestic. Fat, powdery ice crystals sloshed under our crampon points. We stopped at some snow caves to duck out of the wind, and marvelled at the speed and grace of those moving on telemark skis. The plateau is, and remains, a beautiful and imposing matt white no-man's land, and we were its humble guests. Paul and Helen left us at the top and turned for home, we continued on for camp. Although this was only an overnighter, it felt like a real expedition in miniature. The ease of access from the Choire Cas car park puts an interesting slant on that safety question, given how serious the weather can be here. Then, as we descended gently east near the surveyor's ruin, it became difficult to match ground to map, which lead to a minor navigational error before we corrected for Loch Etchachan. Again, another timely reminder that winter is a game changer. Ridges are softened and the monochrome effect of the snow can easily lead the eye off course. Loch Etchachan was frozen solid – indeed it was hard to picture the same lake here that I’d seen a few months before on a rainy August weekend. Paul had earlier warned that those easterlies would mean deep snow on the descent to our camp by Loch A’an, still at over 700m, but the snow, whilst deep, was consolidated and not dangerous.
PHOTO: DAVID LINTERN.
S Winter on the Cairngorm Plateau: unforgiving.