Craggers trip to the Cairngorms March 2015
Craggers has had an annual trip to Scotland in the winter for a number of years for mountaineering and winter climbing. This year was notable for the absence of Tony, our most experienced member, due to hip and knee operations (too many hills!) For this reason we decided not to try and do any actual roped climbing but to try and and do some walking and scrambling (although it has been famously said that there is no such thing as winter walking in Scotland – it's all mountaineering).
We were also hit at short notice by the sudden hospitalisation of Malcolm, one of our aspirant winter mountaineers. But we carried on with the trip in reduced numbers.
What you can achieve in winter in Scotland is very dependent on the weather and the changeable Scottish conditions were especially changeable for us. We had very high winds, snow, torrential rain, and beautiful still days of sunshine in rotation.
On our first day we went up over the top of Cairngorm (seeing the slightly spooky sci-fi weather station on the top) to Loch A'an – the little hidden lake behind the mountain – and then back up by a little snow-filled stream gully.
Apparently climate change is making Scottish winters more windy and the high winds that we experienced had changed the high mountains of the Cairngorms in interesting ways. All the snow had been scoured off one side of the hills and dumped over the other, so half the landscape was bare of snow, while every hollow and hummock in the lee of the wind was filled with hard snow.
Monday was a very windy day, forecast for 70 or 80mph on the top of the hills, so we stayed low and did a big walk through Rothiemurcas forest to Loch Eilean where a ruined castle sits on an island in the loch. We took a detour to find a good bothy hut I had discovered on my trip to Scotland last year. After reading the graffiti left by lots of teenagers doing Duke of Edinburgh expeditions, we returned back to Glenmore, where we were staying in the youth hostel.
The next day we headed up on a longer walk to the summit of Ben MacDui ¬– Britain's second highest mountain (and until they managed to more accurately measure it in the Nineteenth Century it was thought to be bigger than Ben Nevis). Despite its status, MacDui is less impressive visually than Ben Nevis. Because the whole Cairngorm mountain range is essentially a high-level arctic plateau, many of its highest peaks are basically hills atop this windswept and largely barren plain. However, as we got to the summit, the clouds cleared and we got a 360¬º panorama of snowy mountains stretching to the horizon.
Wednesday and Thursday were both forecast to be even more windy with gales up to 90 or 100mph on the summits of the mountains, so we decided Wednesday was a rest day and a day off. For Thursday and Friday we had a plan to do a long (relatively) low-level walk to a bothy (a basic rustic hut available for use by those going up the hills) and then come back over the tops on what was forecast to be a good day Friday.
However, we had underestimated the wind and after struggling along with heavy rucksacks (including logs for the fire!) at a 45º angle and experiencing difficulty walking along a flat level path without getting blown over we decided to abort the mission for the day.
So Mission: Bothy became a Friday/Saturday plan. Both days were beautiful sunshine and blue skies. We successfully got to the Corrour bothy, walking along the Lairig Ghru – the giant valley that cuts right through the Cairngorm plateau. After we had settled in a bit we started getting a bit cold and decide to walk up the mountain that sits right behind the bothy which is called the Devil's Point. This is apparently because when Queen Victoria rode up Ben MacDui on a pony she asked John Brown “what's that one over there called?” and he tactfully amended the original Gaelic name which means 'Devil's Penis'. So after having perched on the Devil's Penis and watched the sun go down, we settled in for the night at the bothy.
Unfortunately we were maybe too concerned with sorting out the bothy, getting the fire going and getting dinner cooked and then just went to bed. It became evident in the morning that if we had wanted to complete our original plan of walking back over Braeriach (Britain's third highest mountain) we should have left earlier! So perhaps we weren't the slick and efficient, fast-moving mountaineers we would ideally have liked to be – there was probably a bit more faffing than the best Alpinists engage in... It's all a learning experience!
Anyhow, we got to walk in stunning mountain scenery, we went up two or three of the highest and most iconic mountains in the country, saw some beautiful ancient woodland, lots of ptarmigan and black grouse, the odd red squirrel, and evidence of mountain hares and arctic foxes. Not to mention the comedy experience of struggling really hard to walk along a flat level path, which wasn't exactly what we thought we'd be struggling with on a mountaineering trip!