Frozen Tents and Ptarmigans: a wintry backpack around the cairngorms

Total distance 46km with 2701m ascended

cairngorms routeInshriach Forest was a pure vision of autumn, the deciduous conifers had turned golden against their evergreen neighbours and red squirrels darted back and forth across the track and up into the canopies. There was a thick course of moss growing up the centre of the road leading out from Feshiebridge, the fallen yellow needles that dusted the edges gave the impression that the forest was reclaiming the ground. It made for a tranquil introduction into what was expected to be a challenging backpack, four days and three nights approaching Cairngorm mountains from the west in the middle of November. With short dark days and freezing temperatures on the tops I was expecting scenes of a more wintry nature beyond the treetops.

SONY DSC

There were several miles of walking along the quiet track before breaking off onto a muddy path up into the forest. The burns were roaring, churning white and frothy from the heavy rain and autumn storms. There was a dampness in the air and a feeling that it had rained much of the day, a small group of walkers returning home for the day were all wearing waterproofs that looked to be soaked through. The trees began to thin out and the landscape opened up into a grand swooping hillside, the purple heather and yellow grass looking more colourful after the rainfall.

SONY DSC

I was hoping to be able to gain a little more height before camping but with night already setting in and the promise of more rain in the air I decided to cut things short. The drive from Nottingham to Aviemore at the crack of dawn had left me tired and the prospect of an easy camp down by the fast flowing stream was appealing, the decision to quit whilst I was ahead was cemented by the drizzle which turned to a shower which turned to a deluge of rain.

By the time the tent was up it was dark and the rain was pouring, the narrow path I’d walked in on had abruptly stopped and I’d set up camp hidden away on the banks of a nameless burn in Coire Ruadh. There’s a pleasure to be gained in camping in the rain, feeling warm and dry with everything you need whilst the weather does its worst outside. I was nestled away with a mugful of chickpea dahl, naan bread and rice, washed down with steaming cups of tea and huge slabs of chocolate shortbread. A full belly and tired head did wonders to reduce any anxiety of being washed away in the night.

SONY DSC

I woke to a full moon and completely clear skies, a light frost had formed on the grass, frozen dew drops clung to brittle heather whilst an inversion blanketed the valley far below. It was damp and chilly but I could already see the sunlight touching the tops of the hills to the west.

SONY DSC

With short days there’s little point in hanging around and I was keen to get some distance from the valley and to see what lay over the edge of the plateau, the ridge above was now clear of cloud and wore fresh snow. Any weight in the pack that had been shed from last nights indulgent meal was reimbursed by a soaking tent heavy with rain, dew and frost.

SONY DSC

The walk to the ridge of Sgòr Gaoith (the peak of the winds) and Càrn Ban Mor (big white peak) was broken with frequent pauses to look back and see views of the rest of the highlands to the west, several snowcapped summits rose up in the distance. The ground was still hard with frost and flecked with fresh snow, a few deep frozen solid drifts had settled into hollows where the sunlight couldn’t reach, no doubt they’ll grow larger and remain in place until next April.

The ground evened out into the broad ridge that overlooks the western edge of Loch Eanaich, the grass was still pushing up through a thick coating of frost and snow. The small pointed summit of Sgòr Gaoith  perched over the deep blue loch and was faced by the enormous snow capped bulk of Braeraich (brindled upland). The sun warmed the air enough to wear just a few layers, aside from the snow it felt like a perfect summers day. I stopped for a coffee and briefly pitched the tent to dry off the dew in the sunshine.

SONY DSC

SONY DSC

SONY DSC

The conditions were incredible, the sky above was completely clear and the low sunlight brought a brightness that brought out the details of the immediate and distant and expansive landscape. Though it was deceptively cold, if I stood still for too long or took my gloves off to take photos I was given a reminder that it was definitely November. Smaller puddles remained frozen over and the flowing streams were icy cold. After leaving the summit I stuck to the edges to keep the view of the loch and saw the first ptarmigan of the day it’s feather not yet fully white. A small herd of deer, the only one I saw on the entire trip were gathered above the southern edge of the loch.

SONY DSC  SONY DSC

The plateau above the southern tip of Loch Eanaich was dotted with streams and lochans all feeding into the loch below. The land to the south stretched into a remote vast plateau surrounding Monadh Mor (big hill) all above 800m high, within a few weeks I supposed it would be transformed into an Artcic landscape frozen deep for the Winter.

Most of my backpacking trips involve questioning my rationale if not my sanity, I work full time and I’m a single parent so time and money are fairly stretched. When I occasionally get a few days to myself I know my time would be far more sensibly spent spending time resting, watching HBO box sets lounging on the sofa and and recuperating…..

but then I wouldn’t get to do this.

SONY DSC

The climb up to Carn na Criche was a route into a different world, beyond the cairn the snow was thick and pristine. A perfect high frozen landscape illuminated by a low winter sun. The streams that fed the Falls of Dee brought the only movement and sound to a land otherwise silent and still.

SONY DSC

The views from the edge were simply magical, soft rounded cornices hung over the edge with sheer drops below to Garbh Choire. Ben Macdui,  Cairn Toul and Sgor an Lochain Uaine (the angels peak) cut up into the sky towering like giants above the Lairig Ghru below.

SONY DSC

SONY DSC

SONY DSC

SONY DSC

It was only late afternoon but the chill of an advancing night was in the air, had there been more light I’d wanted to double back and make my way down into the pass by the Devils Point, at a guess this would have taken at least a couple of hours. I’d been reminded that going is slower in Winter and for once I took the sensible option and opted to camp above the Lairig Ghru below the summit of Sròn na Lairige.

I camped high, about 900m, overlooking the deep mountain pass of the Lairig Ghru, a stream flowed a few metres from the tent. Whilst I was still up on the snowy tops I’d found myself feeling slightly frustrated that I hadn’t been able to take the longer route over and cover a few more miles but now as the light quickly faded it was clear that this would have been far too ambitious a plan. Looking out in the evening light with a steaming hot cup of miso soup I had no regrets at all.

SONY DSC

It was only about 5pm yet it felt like midnight, plenty of time to enjoy the virtues of winter camping, hours free to read, drink hot chocolate, listen to music, drink tea, listen to a few podcasts, drink more tea, then for a while lay with my head out the tent and looking up at a stars until it got too cold, I saw a few satellites and the odd shooting star streak across the night sky.

Unsurprisingly it was one of the coldest nights I’ve ever slept out, the droplets of water in my cup had turned to ice and frost had formed on the tent before 9pm. I found myself wearing every layer I had to the point where I couldn’t move but felt wonderfully warm in spite of the weather.

SONY DSC

The only time I woke in the night was when the moon rose over Ben Macdui bringing with it a pale ghostly light. I unzipped the tent briefly to look at the world outside and was taken aback by how much I could see with the eerie moonlight (there was no sign of Am Fear Liath Mòr). Several hours later I was woken by the unusual call of ptarmigans, I remember thinking that it sounds like a cartoon bullfrog, low and guttural.

SONY DSC

Water had frozen solid in the bottle, a thick frost covered the tent and the ground was frozen hard, as I sat up and moved the tent move a shower of ice particles down onto me. I shoved a gas cartridge into the warm depths of the sleeping bag to get a cup of tea on the go and ate a frozen peanut butter wrap (it’s nicer than it sounds).

A ghostly mist flowed up through the Lairig Ghru, a thin film at first passing below. As the hour passed it came in thicker, up and over the tops until it covered everything around and visibility was reduced to no more than a few metres. The mist brought a shocking chill to the air, cold enough to have to get back in the tent and zip up the bag to stay warm. When I got back out an extra layer of frost covered the tent, the melted frozen dew had frozen again with the damp of the mist frozen on top of it. The thick double layer of frost almost looked like a warm coating of down.

frosty tents

I unpitched and shook the tent on the hillside for several minutes creating a series of miniature blizzards of ice crystals. The mist looked like it was well and truly set in for a few hours. There was some relief in dropping low down to the glen where the mist hadn’t quite settled in. It made for an atmospheric morning which left me with a dilemma, after a summer of long mountain days I was used to having light on my side and could cover a good 20 plus miles a day without worrying about nightfall. With a heavier winter pack, mountain boots, no visibility over 700m and night settling in just after 4pm the choice was to stay low and head up the pass and take a long detour over the lower hills to Loch Eanaich. The riskier plan was to head the other direction down the pass towards The Devils Point and head for the loch via higher ground and try and navigate over the tops in the snow and mist.

SONY DSC

Garbh Choire Bothy was marked on the map and it felt like a good idea to head to the comfort of a building to have breakfast and make a decision about a route. It took longer than I expected to get to the bothy a reminder if I ever needed one that I wasn’t moving as fast as I was used to. Crossing the river also presented a few problems, it wasn’t a particularly wide crossing but it churned fast and was fairly deep, plus all the rocks that could have served as stepping stones had a treacherous coating of ice. I made several attempts and had to backtrack before making a ‘bambi on ice’ crossing on all fours getting some icy water in my boots in the process (it would have been better to take them off).

I was then presented with the bothy and realised I’d confused the relatively upmarket A Corrour Bothy with the somewhat more ‘basic’ Garbh Choire bothy. This must be how people feel when they book a holiday in the mediterranean expecting luxurious infinity pools and a 5 star hotel and they arrive to find a half finished building site and a condemned swimming pool.

SONY DSC

It was a bit of a fixer upper, an igloo of rocks and boulders with a broken down door, no doubt it would serve as a palace if the weather did turn apocalyptic. A sorry looking untouched bottle of beer graced the porch of the shelter, I thought it best to leave it for someone who needs it….and it looked like it had been there a wee while. I sat and drank coffee and ate porridge and shortbread and stared at the map.

Both options now seemed over ambitious as there was only five hours of light left, either would have left me walking in the dark and mist leaving a really long day to get all the way back to the car. After some slack jawed pondering, option number three came to mind. Cross back over the river and climb the steep but just about manageable side of Braeriach to the left of The Great Couloir and rely on map and compass for a mile or so to get to Loch Coire an Locahan. A bit risky due to the sheer drops, featureless terrain and near total lack of visibility but I went for it, I was keeping in touch with a friend and kept them up to date as I went along.

The climb back up was tough enough, unforgivingly steep with icy rocks and clouds of freezing mist blowing over. Occasionally the mist would break, the sun never shone through as such but the mist would thin out, the surrounding munros looking somewhat dark and fearsome all cloaked in fog. I was more less level with Lochan Uaine as I passed the snow line, the rain that had been falling turned to snow and the mist again grew more dense and much colder.

SONY DSC

It took near enough an hour to climb out but eventually the ground levelled out, the visibility was not only shockingly poor but there was the added issue of how snow can radically alter the sense of perspective. The snow wasn’t yet so deep that it covered everything so I could take a bearing and pick out particular rocks to head to before repeating, rocks that I thought were a minute away were no more than ten seconds away.  Not quite time to panic but I found myself speaking aloud what I could see on the map and talking myself through the landscape. There was maybe about half an hour spent in a whiteout of a world that looked more or less like this.

SONY DSC

I had a sickening hunch that I was walking off course, the direction of travel on the compass just felt like I was veering too far off to the right, it felt wrong but I trusted it and kept to the plan and found myself speaking aloud “The ground should rise slightly higher to your left and there should be a drop to the right any minute”.

SONY DSC

The compass of course was right, the sight of the sudden drop to the lochan was at once reassuring and terrifying. The best part of an hour walking, stopping, checking over and over had paid off I was exactly where I expected to be. Leaving the mist behind was no shame, a steep clamber down to the glen just in time for the sunset felt like rejoining another world. I joined the easy track in the warm sunlight made up for the absence of colour that had defined much of the day.

SONY DSC

SONY DSCThe shore of the loch made for an ideal place to spend the night, it was more or less dark half an hour after pitching, it would have been nice to wander the shores a little longer whilst it was still light but after a fairly trying day I was happy enough just to have got to there and sat on some rocks with a meal of tofu, noodles and biscuits on the loch edge whilst the colour of the sky brought a little warmth to the cool evening.

SONY DSC

SONY DSC

I attached the crossing poles for the night thinking that a night on the shore of a loch had the potential to get a little gusty. I wasn’t wrong, as soon as the light went the wind blasted the tent relentlessly for the whole night, I should have pitched head on to the loch as the gusts were hitting side on. It made for a pretty uncomfortable and restless night as the noise of the howling wind, constantly dropping and picking up and howling into the Glen.  Even with earplugs and a hat it woke me up over and over.

At least the wind gave me an early start, the buttresses of Sgoran Dubh Mòr above still hung with mist as the morning came in. A huge bird of prey left its eyrie before soaring off high above the glen, even after a sleepless night the beauty of such wild landscape  can only be seen as inspiring magical, I’d trade an uncomfortable night in the mountains for a warm comfortable mattress anytime. I left Glean Eanaich walking up past Lochan Beanaidh meandering around dark black pools thick with bog wood.SONY DSC

SONY DSC

By midmorning I’d passed back over the ridge and joined the track that drops back into Inshriach and the River Feshi, I followed the stream into the thick forest and mused over the last couple of days. The conditions had changed so drastically it had felt like several trips rolled into one, each day and each night had been so completely different and unique and by virtue of that each day and night brought a different character and atmosphere. There had been views that stretched out far into a distant horizon and then there had been views that didn’t extend beyond a few metres. On Sunday the tops were windless, so sunny and dazzling bright I needed sun cream and sunglasses and wore only a base layer and jumper whilst walking, the same night I wore every single item I brought hunched up in a down bag as frost formed on the tent.

Backpacking alone in the Cairngorms at the dawn of Winter was a reminder of the necessity to make safe sensible decisions in the face of ever-changing and unforgiving sudden shifts in light, temperature and visibility. The limitations of walking slower in less light was of course made worthwhile by being able to walk amongst such a vast wild landscape at its most beautiful and inspiring time of year.

SONY DSC

Advertisements

26 thoughts on “Frozen Tents and Ptarmigans: a wintry backpack around the cairngorms

  1. Crikey, there were bits there that made me feel cold just reading it!
    Magnificent looking trip though, and superb photos. The worst ‘true’ whiteout I’ve ever been in was up on the Cairngorm plateau. Just a day walk, but I can remember how long it took us to make progress, whilst checking every move you made, just to make sure you’d got all your navigation right!

    1. I had my first whiteout in the lakes a few years ago and resolved it by going back the way I came and retracing my steps, it felt good to press on this time and put a bit of belief in my navigational skills, which can’t be too bad based on the fact that I’m still here 😉

    1. Thanks so much Nick. Yes there was a sense that in a couple of weeks that it was all going to be a lot whiter up there, as with most of the trips I’ve done this year, I didn’t want to leave and am planning a return trip as soon as I can arrange it. Torridon next though…

  2. Also my first visit to your blog and after this it wont be the last. A great trip report on what looked to be an enthralling trip. I was up there in September in much different conditions but its a place to be enjoyed anytime of year. Like Martin I’m envious of your experience on this trip.

  3. Wow Rich I have just come across your blog fantastic stuff. There is a Robert MacFarlane in you. I am sure you could write a book on adventuring into the wild places. So evocative for me it really creates an adventure. I do walk but have never been over night in the wild. Great stuff

    1. Thanks a lot, that’s quite a compliment as I love Robert Macfarlane. Might not be an ideal time of year to spend your first night out in the hills, but maybe when spring comes you should give it a go…

    1. Thanks a lot. That cairngorms trip was great, but 4 days just didn’t seem long enough, it’s a hard place to leave behind all the more reason to head back right? Thanks again for reading and your comments

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s