A Veritable Ice Palace

The last few days have been pretty busy, with the highlight being a few days spent snow holing up in the Cairngorms. The snow holing trip had originally been my mate Chris’ idea. He runs his own photography studio, and wanted a chance to get some sunrise and sunset pictures over the Cairngorms. Disappointingly, he had to call off at the very last minute thanks to some plumbing problems; house, not personal, which meant he was understandably reluctant to disappear off and leave his wife looking after a toddler and a bathroom in need of repair.

I met up with Wendy, who was also coming along, at Glenmore Lodge on Wednesday night for some food and a final check of the weather forecast and the SAIS reports. My original suggestion to Chris had been to make our way towards Ben Macdui, giving the opportunity for some sunrise photography over Garbh Coire. However, I noticed that there was a WML assessment group out from the Lodge and, as they often use the Ben Macdui area for snow holing, I suggested an alternate plan; we’d walk down Glen Feshie to the bothy at Ruigh Aiteachain, stay the night there, then head onto the Moine Mhor and have a look at some of the potential snow hole sites up there. If time and snow conditions permitted, we thought we might head as far as Monadh Mor and Beinn Bhrotain, the two Munros out on the eastern edge of the area.

Walking down Glen Feshie towards the bothy was an atmospheric experience; it was a cold, clear night with an awe-inspiring panorama of stars in the night sky above us. The path is well-maintained by the estate, but it’s suffered badly in this winter’s storms, with a couple of sections almost completely obliterated by the erosion of the river bank, and we had to tread carefully as we made our way across the damaged areas with heavy packs on.

Right Aiteachain is often referred to as ‘Landseer’s Bothy’; an allusion to the famous painter’s association with the area during the period when he was having an affair with the Duchess of Bedford. His time in Glen Feshie also provided him with the inspiration for several of his most iconic paintings, including The Monarch of the Glen; a painting which I hate with a passion, as a copy of it hung in the hallway of the little council house I grew up in for years. Landseer had a long-term struggle with depression, and it’s apparently possible to detect a much darker turn in Landseer’s work when his affair with the Duchess came to an end, and he was no longer able to spend time in the Highlands. As someone who has an ongoing ‘professional’ interest in the therapeutic benefits of being outdoors, I find the theory an intriguing one, although I’m not familiar enough with Landseer’s work to verify it’s accuracy.

Turning up at a bothy is always a bit of a lottery, as there’s no telling who you’ll find there, but on this occasion, the place was in darkness when we arrived, and we set about getting the fire going with the wood which the local estate helpfully supplies. After a quick brew up, we got our mats and sleeping bags sorted out and got our heads down, ready for an early start in the morning.

The temperature dropped well below freezing during the night, making it a real effort to drag myself out of my cosy down bag in the morning and get the stove going for breakfast. We packed up and got on our way a little before eight. If Wednesday evening had been atmospheric, Thursday morning was breathtaking; we were greeted by bright sunlight in a cloudless blue sky, surrounded by white mountains as we walked through the mature pine forest towards the track up to the Moine Mhor.

An hour’s steady plod took us up onto the plateau, where we were greeted by the sight of a ‘white desert’; rolling, snow covered hills stretching out for miles in all directions, with no tracks or trails to be seen anywhere. Conditions underfoot weren’t ideal, with a soft covering of snow that made breaking a trail fairly hard work. We were making slower progress than I’d hoped, and I began to recalculate objectives for the day, as it became obvious that travelling as far as Beinn Bhrotain had been overly optimistic.

As we stopped for a bite to eat we noticed movement over towards the western slopes of Braeriach, where two groups of 5 people were moving around. I guessed that they were the Winter ML course from the Lodge, which meant they were snow holing somewhere in the area; an additional little complicating factor in the decision making process. After some careful scrutiny of the map, I opted to head over to the east side of Tom Dubh, in the hope that the little reentrant there would be holding enough snow for our purposes. The cloud was beginning to come down around us, and I was relieved to arrive at our destination and find a nice chunky bank of snow all the way down the gully. My avalanche probe went to it’s full three metre depth horizontally and vertically, confirming that we had enough snow to work with, and I got to work digging out our home for the night.

With just two of us, it was always going to be a long process, and it took nearly two hours to get the initial tunnel dug to give enough room to start work with the snow saw. Once we could get the snow out in large blocks, everything began to move much more quickly, and we were finished within another hour. As it was Wendy’s first experience of snow holing, I’d opted to make the hole a bit bigger than necessary, to avoid it feeling too claustrophobic, so we now had a fairly spacious shelter. We got some extra layers on,  mats and sleeping bags sorted and then started up the stove to melt snow and get some food going. I love my MSR Reactor for winter; with the 1.5l pot, it melts snow and heats water for simple cooking really quickly, and is completely unaffected by draughts, making it a fantastic no-nonsense tool for getting hot food and drink into your system.

Wendy was still struggling with cold feet, so I warmed up some more water, popped it in her Nalgene bottle and, after popping it in a dry bag for additional security, she was able to pop it into her sleeping bag as a makeshift hot water bottle. After a bit of chat, fuelled by some extra-dark chocolate and Talisker Storm (for me at least – Wendy is off the booze for Lent), we settled down for the night. The weather forecast indicated the wind might pick up from about 3am onwards, and just to be on the safe side, I set my alarm so that I could check that the entrance to our shelter wasn’t filling up with drifting snow.

After a fairly restful night, we were awake and getting organised at 6.30am. By the time we were packed and ready to move, the cloud had dropped down across the plateau, and I was required to do some micro-navigation from the door of the snow hole, pacing a bearing back onto the summit of Tom Dubh, then setting off towards Carn Ban Mor. It was Wendy’s first time ‘in the white room’, and we chatted about navigational strategies in white out conditions as we went.

Thankfully, the cloud lifted enough to let us get our bearings, and we were able to pick up the pace. As we arrived at the base of Carn Ban Mor, we came across 5 or 6 snow holes, neatly dug into the side of the reentrant that runs down from the summit, and stopped to have a wee peek in at what we guessed were the Winter ML trainees’ handiwork.

Carrying on, we made good time over the top of Carn Ban Mor and dropped down towards the path on the western side that would take us down into Glen Feshie and back to the car. The temperature had risen significantly since the previous evening, and it began to rain as we made our way off the hill, through soft snow that made for frustrating travel, continually allowing us to sink to our knees in the deeper patches of snow and slipping and sliding away beneath our feet. It was a huge relief to finally drop below the snow line and reach the reassuringly firm surface of the estate path down through the woods and back to the main road.

All in all, a great trip, with the chance to experience the full range of Scottish winter conditions, from clear skies and bright sunshine to a windy whiteout and dreich sleety rain. It was a pity that Chris had been unable to join us, as Thursday in particular was a landscape photographer’s dream, but on the bright side, at least it means I have an excuse for another trip if the snow hangs around for a bit longer!