The Big Walk: winter adventure in the Cairngorms

A Cairngorms winter offers some of the most challenging walking to be found in the UK. Why not test yourself on a guided adventure – and for the ultimate experience, spend a sub-zero night in a snow cave…

Words and photography by Paul Glendell

It was the most welcome meal I have ever eaten, and the view from my bedroom window was incredible. A huge halo crowning an almost full moon bathed the snow-covered mountains in a monochrome hue, as the Cairngorms national park stretched into the distance.

Winter hillwalking in mountains such as these should not be undertaken lightly. It requires specialist skills, and the safest way to learn these is by taking a training course with a guide as part of an organised trip. A number of independent guides now run winter expeditions in the Cairngorms. This is Britain’s biggest national park, encompassing four of the five highest mountains in the UK, along with a wealth of wildlife, from eagles, ospreys and capercaillie to mountain hares and even reindeer. It is a truly wild place to visit. I’d joined a guided mountain walking expedition to get my first experience of seeing these mountains in their full winter glory.

After being kitted out with stiff, four-season boots in Aviemore, day one of our trip was set aside for teaching us how to use an ice axe and walk with crampons; essential if you are venturing into snow-covered mountains. The weather wasn’t looking good as we left the shelter of the minibus, but our party of four soon settled into a steady pace on the well-marked path, stopping only to admire the view and adjust our hoods against the increasing wind and snow.

Eventually our guide, Andy, led us off the main route. Progress slowed as we sank up to our knees in snow. With the wind gusting up to 70mph, spindrift beat against our hooded faces. ‘We’ll drop into the valley – the slope will be perfect for what we want’, shouted Andy. I knew it would be calmer lower down and I looked forward to the end of the incessant pounding that almost drowned out our conversation. ‘Before you do anything, put on another layer’, said Andy as we stopped for a break. ‘Every time we stop, you must be sure to keep yourself warm’. The wind-chill made it feel well below zero.

Ice axe training was fun, if at times a little scary. Andy showed us how to break a fall if for any reason we ended up sliding down a steep, snow-covered slope. Initially it felt just like being a child on a slide, and as long as you did the right thing with the ice axe it was easy to stop yourself. Then we moved on to more complicated techniques, sliding downhill head first on our backs. But by bringing your body up towards your legs and holding the axe across your chest it was still easy to stop. The afternoon spent training was to prove very useful for me a couple of days later.

Walking back we disturbed a mountain hare, its white fur making it virtually invisible before it bolted. Stopping on a ridge before our descent back to the minibus, we spotted a herd of reindeer way below us in the distance.


On the plateau

The next morning we set off once again from the bottom of the Cairngorms funicular railway. The snow gradually deepened as we climbed, the path soon disappearing beneath our feet. Half an hour into the walk we paused, scanning the white expanse for a glimpse of the ptarmigan Andy was pointing to, less than twenty feet from where we stood. Its white plumage camouflaged it so well amongst the snow-covered rocks that even at this distance it was tricky to spot. 

The wind had dropped to a manageable twenty miles per hour. Intermittent snow showers alternated with patches of blue sky that illuminated the green valleys below, drawing our attention from the cluttered paraphernalia of the ski lifts. Walking through deep compacted snow, we crossed the Cairngorm plateau and headed east to the sheltered side of the mountain. The wind disappeared, the clouds lifted and we were rewarded with an amazing view of snow-covered mountains and valleys, with the frozen waters of Avon Loch just visible far below. No-one spoke, and the silence of the mountains was broken only by the crunch of our feet through the virgin snow. We climbed on, working hard as we pushed ourselves forward and thinking ourselves fortunate to experience the unique beauty that is only accessible in wilderness like this.

Some time later, we found one of the few exposed areas of rock and pulled out our lunch and thermos flasks. Andy soon set off along the hillside with an avalanche probe to find a suitable area for digging. He came back with both good and bad news. ‘This place will be fine’, he said, ‘but because of the wet snow I don’t want to dig into the steeper area where we normally build snow holes. This is a much shallower angle and safer, but it means more digging than usual to get deep enough’.

Snow business

We unfolded our shovels and, working ten feet apart, dug two holes horizontally into the slope. With spindrift blowing into our faces we were eager to get deep enough to be out of the wind. All was going well until we hit a horizontal layer of ice. By now the snow saws had come out and we cut eighteen inch square blocks and stacked them at the entrance. Around three metres into the hillside, we started to dig towards each other to join up the two holes, feeling a great sense of both relief and achievement when we eventually broke through and met. A short time later, we had a U-shaped tunnel about five feet high and three feet wide dug into the hillside. Andy rounded off the roof to prevent drips and we blocked up one entrance. With a plastic sheet over the other entrance and our sleeping mats laid out, it was quiet and cosy in our underground shelter. ‘If this was an emergency snow hole, you wouldn’t make it this big or elaborate’, Andy told us. ‘But a larger space like this makes it a lot more comfortable’.


An ice axe spiked into the wall acted as a very useful coat hook. The yellow light from the candles placed in snow alcoves gave a warm glow, as steam from very welcome cups of tea and hot food filled our night shelter. There are none of the usual night-time comforts in a place like this – you just make sure you aren’t wearing any layers that are wet before putting on more clothes. In my case, all my clothes. The temperature was just below freezing, but with the hood of my sleeping bag pulled tight around my head and nothing but my nose exposed, I slept remarkably well. The loosely packed but wonderfully smooth snow beneath my sleeping mat made for a very comfortable camp bed.

The final walk out

After steaming porridge with a nip of whisky for breakfast the next morning, we packed our rucksacks and headed out into a dull windy day, with spindrift battering our faces once more. Around mid-morning the sun broke through, giving us a last look at the amazing mountain landscapes of the Cairngorm range. The steep climb into cloud and snow showers, with ice axes in constant use, brought us to the summit of Cairn Gorm in a virtual white out, but Andy knew the route without map, compass, or any other navigation aid at hand.

‘If everyone is happy we’ll descend via the western ridge. Put on your crampons and keep close to the rocks – there is a very steep drop on one side’, Andy told us. After a quick refresher in map and compass navigation, we set off through damp cloud, with visibility down to about ten feet. As we descended, the clouds started to clear and the steep snow-covered drop into a valley became only too obvious. I stopped to snap some photos and broke one of my own rules: ‘Never move in risky situations with your eye at the camera’. I slipped and pitched forward, but the techniques I had learned two days earlier immediately came to mind and I dug in my ice axe. My slide was stopped immediately and I was left looking over the edge of a precipice, wondering how on earth I had managed to fall while wearing ten-point crampons.

Walking out of the clouds, we enjoyed more sun-filled vistas of snowy mountains and blue skies, with green valleys below. It’s not just the sense of achievement and  magnificent views that make winter hill walking so rewarding. It’s also the feeling of being alive, experiencing some of the wildest places that Britain has to offer. Looking out across the white, moonlit landscape of the Cairngorms national park at midnight is a memory that will never fade.


WALK IT!

  • TIME /DISTANCE Paul’s 3-day/4-night Snowholing Expedition with Scot Mountain Holidays started and finished at the Cairngorm Ski Centre. The party walked to the Cairn Gorm plateau, descending from the summit to the south east side of the mountain. After spending a night in a snow cave, they walked north to Cairn Gorm, descending via the Fiacaill a Chore Chais ridge. All transport is provided for clients. The trip costs £475 including meals, guide, tuition and rooms at Fraoch Lodge (01479 831331). Nearest train station is Aviemore.
  • ACCOMMODATION Numerous options in Aviemore and surrounding area, including campsites and hostels. For snow holes you have to dig your own!
  • MAPS OS Explorer OL57, Landranger 36
  • FURTHER INFO scotmountainholidays.com

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