Skip to main content
Adventure

Climbing the Scottish Cairngorns

Adventures

REGAINING CONSCIOUSNESS TO discover you're buried alive in a hole in the ground is not everyone's idea of a good time.

Once the sleepy fug has cleared sufficiently for you to remember that you dug the hole yourself, however, and your brain realises that the snug snowcave is offering fantastic protection from the savage elements outside, your predicament assumes a much rosier hue.

And this is exactly how my Saturday in the Scottish Highlands begins.
With the pre-dawn temperature outside the snowhole hovering at around -15°C, and my companions still slumbering, I’m in no rush to start unpeeling myself from the layers of sleeping bag and bivvy that surround me until my bladder absolutely insists I get up from my goosedown and Gore-Tex nest.

The odd thing about sleeping in a snowhole is the sensory deprivation that comes with the experience. Inside, everything except your kit is pure white. Walls, floor, ceiling, everything. It’s utterly surreal. And so very quiet. Outside there could be – and most probably is – a gale-force wind roaring, but ensconced in your little white womb, silence reigns, bar the odd crunch of snow crystals compacting when one of your companions fidgets in their frozen bunk.

Eventually the bodies around me start to come back to life, and I’m forced to give in to the increasingly urgent call of nature. Rather disturbingly, as I prepare to get up I notice that the ceiling is an inch or two closer to my nose than it was when I went to sleep. But this, I’m told, is perfectly normal. When you make a house out of ice, it compacts a bit over time. In a few days our den will be reclaimed altogether by the snowdrift we built it in. This is the ultimate in leave-no-trace camping.

House of the hole

I’m in the Cairngorms, Britain’s highest national park and one of the wildest places in the country, accompanied by mountain guide Ian Stewart and his mountain-leader wife Laura. We’re on a two-day mission to do a winter ascent of Ben Macdui.

At 1309m, Macdui is the second highest peak in the UK and stands just 35m shorter than its big brother Ben Nevis. It could be as tall as Everest, however, and we still wouldn’t see it this morning. I can barely make out the glove in front of my face as we leave the snowhole behind and begin trudging up the incline.

The Cairngorms is one of those places Britain would have sorely missed had the Scottish chosen divorce in the recent referendum. The park is home to five of the country’s highest six mountains, and it is a breathtakingly beautiful spot. I know this, despite the giant white cloak that has descended over the entire area this morning, because during the walk in yesterday, before we built the snowhole, visibility was perfect.

We’d arrived via the Cairngorms’ gateway town of Aviemore. I’m doing a four-day winter skills course, and Ian had spent the previous two days showing me how to use crampons and teaching me self-arrest skills with an ice axe around an area called Coire Laogh Mòr.
These skills were immediately put to good use on the climb from the ski-centre carpark, through the impressive cauldron of Coire an t-Sneachda, where well-wrapped ice climbers clung to the towering walls either side of us, like overdressed spidermen. Tiny, bright-white snow buntings and ptarmigans eyed us suspiciously from their boulder islands in the snow, but I was too busy gazing up at one of the UK’s premier ice-climbing crags to pay them much attention. One day, I thought, I’d like to have a crack at that.

Veering left just before the end of the coire, we’d stomped our way up and through Windy Col. The gradient is relatively gentle here – so no ropes were required – but it was still steep enough to put our crampons on and start swinging ice axes to gain extra grip.
Once atop the plateau, we crossed a wind-swept ice field to Coire Domhain, where Ian suspected that conditions would be good for building our snow cave. He was right. The drift we selected was a good four-metres deep (the avalanche probe confirmed this), and we spent the remaining three hours of daylight digging and carving out our home for the night. 

By the time the last of the light had disappeared from the sky, leaving just a faint ethereal glow emanating from the snow, we had ourselves a proper ice palace. It was barely 5pm by the time we clambered inside, leaving plenty of time to add some decorative touches, like a kitchen shelf for cooking on, some recessed light alcoves and a storage area for the bags.

Mountains and monsters

Dig it: The shovelling and burrowing involved in making a snowhole is warming work even when it's well below zero.

If waking in a snowhole is an utterly disorientating experience, walking across the Cairngorm plateau in a whiteout is even more confusing. With spindrift flying into your face and the sky scarcely distinguishable from the floor, it’s hard to know what way is up and what way is down (and in the Cairngorms, there’s little in between those two options).

On the overnight sleeper train from London to Aviemore, I’d read about an experienced walker who – just a few days before, in a similar whiteout – fell through a cornice on nearby Coire Sputan Dearg and tumbled nearly 300m. Incredibly he’d survived, but the thought of inadvertently taking the express route down is not an appealing one, and I glance over to see what my trusty guide and instructor makes of the situation.

Fortunately, Ian is a highly experienced MIC-qualified mountaineering instructor who has been working in these Highland hills for more than six years, and if he’s worried about the conditions, he’s keeping his concerns well hidden under his hood.

He appears to be navigating almost in a void, picking out barely discernable features to ascertain our position and direction. A hint of a boulder here, the merest suggestion of a stream running below the ice there. It seems incredible that he is going to get us to the top of a Munro – the name given to Scottish mountains above 3000ft (914m) – in these conditions.

Up ahead a dark shadow suddenly looms out of the great white. What the hell is it? Surely no one else is daft enough to be up here in this weather…? Besides reading hiking horror stories, my recent research into the area had introduced me to tales of Am Fear Liath Mòr, the Big Grey Man of Ben Macdui – a legendary Yeti-like monster that is said to haunt the Cairngorms.

This fearsome spectre has spooked several climbers around the peak we’re now approaching, including an army climber, who was so freaked out that he fired several shots at the beast before hightailing it down the hill, and the likes of Professor Norman Collie, a highly respected mountaineer.

My imagination goes into overdrive, but as we get closer the silhouette reveals itself to be the summit cairn, disfigured by multiple layers of wind-sculpted rime ice. Ian has done the impossible and brought us to the top of Ben Macdui in near whiteout conditions. All he has to do now is get us back down again, via our little snowhole, where we’ve left all our overnight gear.

In the time it takes us to stuff a congratulatory snack into our faces, however, the weather decides to come to the party. The white cloak lifts, and I’m suddenly treated to an eyeful of the vista that Ian has been trying to verbally paint for me most of the way up here. Turns out he wasn’t exaggerating, not even a wee bit. It’s absolutely stunning.
Blessed with new and friendlier conditions, we descend via a different route, taking in a cracking view of the famous Shelter Stone rock, with a partially frozen Loch Avon shivering in the background.

Ingeniously, Ian left his avalanche probe sticking out the top of the snowhole, so it’s easy to locate. Already we have neighbours – a team of students from Glenmore Lodge are busy building a snowhole just a few metres down the snow drift from our former home (although I bet theirs doesn’t have a fitted kitchen or recessed windows – and I seriously doubt that their instructor will pull out a hip flask of single-malt whisky for a nightcap, as Ian did yesterday).

We bid them farewell and begin the hike out. During the descent of Fiacaill a’ Choire Chais, Ian shows me how to do a seated glacade, and we slide the last few hundred metres to the bottom of the ski lift.

Postscript

Nightcap: telling tall tales over a dram, in the warm white womb of the snow den, protected from the roaring wind and plummeting temperatures outside.

I spare a thought for those students, buried in their holes up there on the haunted hill, as we tuck into a hearty feed in Aviemore’s Ben MacDui Inn that night. Swilling pints from the local brewery, we toast the completion of our Munro mission. But this is dangerous. Flushed with the success of our mini-expedition, and with a belly full of bravery juice, the embryo of another adventure starts to form.

I have a couple of days up my sleeve before I have to catch my train back to London, and Ian has been talking about introducing me to ice climbing on one of the more forgiving routes in Coire an t’Sneachda – which currently I can’t even say, let alone climb. We clang glasses on it and the whole thing is settled.

And Sure enough, the next morning I find myself halfway up Goat Track Gully, with two ice axes in my hands and a helmet on. My chance to ice climb had come a whole lot sooner than I’d expected and, under Ian’s tutelage, it’s not half as ridiculously hard as I thought it might be.

Topping out, elated with success, I’m treated to a panoramic view across the plateau. I can even see our old house from here… and it looks like the neighbours have moved into it.

The Essentials

Cairngorm Capers
To go on a snowhole adventure in the Cairngorms, or to learn a multitude of winter skills in the Scottish hills, contact Ian Stewart on 07901 684 579, or visit stewartmountainskills.com to check out his full range of guiding services.

Getting There
Scotrail’s Caledonian Sleeper Train, which runs overnight from London Euston to Scotland six nights a week (Sunday to Friday), stops at Aviemore, the gateway town to the Cairngorms. Cabins cost from £155 return. www.scotrail.co.uk

Staying There 
For those nights when you don’t have a snowhole to sleep in, Aviemore offers several good B&Bs. An excellent choice is the Ravenscraig Guesthouse. www.aviemoreonline.com