Under the summer snows

View out of entrance of ice tunnel on Feith Buidhe slabs, Ben Macdui, Cairngorms

The Shelter Stone Crag and Stacan Dubha from inside one of the Feith Buidhe ice tunnels

At last – the fabled ice tunnels of the Feith Buidhe slabs.

It was a long journey. About a month ago I’d been over in that area with a friend and climbed from Loch Avon to the plateau and Carn Etchachan via the steep slopes to the east of the Garbh Uisge. Then, just after, I was reminded of the Feith Buidhe snow and ice tunnels when that chronicler of Scotland’s summer snows, Iain Cameron, posted some pictures of tunnels formed by meltwater streams running under the the large snow patch on the Feith Buidhe slabs.

So two weeks later I was back again, this time descending onto the slabs from the plateau. I saw one collapsed tunnel but nothing I could get inside without a very tight and claustrophobic crawl between wet rock and tons of ice, a prospect as unattractive as it was unsafe. It was a fascinating visit all the same, and I wrote about this summer snow on Macdui in my last blogpost… and within days heard back from Iain Cameron with a link to some photos someone had just taken of the snow tunnels I’d missed. There had been two parts to the snow patch on the slabs; I’d explored the larger, upper section, but hadn’t descended the slabs far enough to look along the smaller section on the right, which appeared to be just a wee tail to the main event. (Although a photo I took as I walked away shows quite clear indications, in retrospect, that there were probably tunnels there.)

Feith Buidhe snow patch, Ben MacDui

Zoomed in on a distant view of the right hand side of the Feith Buidhe snow patch. You can see clearly the tunnel mouths along the bottom edge

So here I was, the following weekend, after a wet walk up Glen Derry and over by Loch Etchachan, heading down towards the Shelter Stone in the Loch Avon basin and coming into sight of a distant patch of snow high up  on the headwall to the left of the Hell’s Lum Crag. Even from that distance I could see tunnel mouths fringing the bottom edge of the right hand section. It was a long walk though, to get down to the glen floor and then climb back up, first following the Coire Domhain path then breaking away for the steep, rough, boggy climb up below Hell’s Lum and alongside the Feith Buidhe, crossing the stream just level with the foot of the cliffs onto a level tier of the slabs on the south bank. Bizarrely, though the Hell’s Lum cliffs were several hundred feet higher, the stepped slabs ahead of me now were the ones which made me feel small. Perhaps it’s the very fact that they are stepped and that the steps are four or five feet high, with 20 foot high walls, that gives the feeling of being a midget in a world made too large.

It’s easy to make progress on these slabs though: set at an angle that allows hands-free walking, the steps are angled into each other so that you can traverse from side to side and  zigzag upwards – which I did to reach the higher tier where the snow lay, with a row of half a dozen or more tunnels, the largest of which was up to six feet high, though steady melting meant they were only about 20 or 30 feet in length, with a bergschrund that was maybe 15 to 20 feet (which vagueness tells you I didn’t have any measuring device with me).

It’s an interesting experience entering one of these tunnels. You can put your hood up to fend off the constant dripping from the roof but you do become very aware of the mass of rock-hard ice arched over your head. I was even more aware of this natural engineering feat as I entered the largest tunnel and, halfway through, looked to my right and realised that there was a great gap through to the next-door tunnel, making a worryingly large area of unsupported roof. I couldn’t help it though – I had to crouch and crab-crawl through ‘next door’, where I was rewarded with the sight of a translucent blue skylight where the roof had grown almost thin enough to open into a hole.

Inside snow tunnel on Feith Buidhe slabs, Cairngorms

Inside the largest tunnel

Bergschrund behind snow tunnel on Feith Buidhe slabs, Ben Macdui

Looking up out of the bergschrund at the back of the snow patch – maybe about 15 feet deep.

Polygonal tunnels and blue translucence in one of the Feith Buidhe ice tunnels, Cairngorms

Near the entrance of this tunnel the roof is so thin it glows a translucent blue. This photo shows well the polygonal hollows which characterise the tunnel and overhang roofs. Near front and back of the tunnels the crests between the hollows are outlines in black plant debris

tunnel mouths in snow patch on Feith Buidhe slabs, Cairngorms

Like a row of hobbit doorways

Lots to see and wonder about – not least how those polygonal hollows outlined by plant debris form in the tunnel roofs – but eventually it was time to go. The fun was prolonged with a scramble up the slabby ramps and broken boulders beside the Feith Buidhe, then it was out onto the plateau, into cloud and the windblown rain I’d been sheltered from on the slabs, wandering near blind to the summit where there were the usual crowds despite the weather.

I’d half wondered if I’d see my pal Jim Wright up there. He was doing a charity walk taking in Braeriach, Sgor an Lochain Uaine, Cairn Toul, Devil’s Point, Carn a Mhaim, Ben Macdui and Cairngorm, all in a day. I wasn’t totally surprised not to see him (it turned out he didn’t reach Macdui until after 7pm) but did see his name in the Corrour Bothy visitors’ book the following day, when I was out there to change the toilet bags. That job was made considerably easier by the assistance of Dave from Stroud, an occasional visitor to Bob Scott’s who turned up on Saturday night and foolishly volunteered to come out with me on Sunday and give me a hand, then helped carry out some rubbish. Good effort, Dave.

View into the Loch Avon basin from the Feith Buidhe Slabs, Ben Macdui

And finally, despite the cloud, a part of the view that makes this area so special.

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7 Responses to Under the summer snows

  1. piper says:

    Great snaps Neil . Amazing to think that,s us into Aug now , and 15 ft depth of sna still lying around .Wonder if the sna will survive through until our first fall of sna this coming Winter ?
    Thanks again for changing ower the toilet at Corrour , would have ment a long day for me otherwise .

    • Cheers Ian. I don’t think that snow will last – it’s melting fast – but there’s always the Garbh Choire. Too misty to see across there at the weekend, but the last time I looked there was still an awful lot of it.
      As for Corrour, that was a two-man job, and the next one will be too: big heavy weight to be trying to carry in a confined space.

  2. Reblogged this on heavywhalley and commented:
    Really enjoyed that thanks Neil.

  3. Those photos are stunning! Really enjoyed that. Very sorry I went up to Ullapool this week instead and wish I’d gone there. The weather was so awful, and everywhere so flooded and the burns so spatey up at Ullapool, I just slept in my car and then came home next day getting nothing done at all! 😦 What a waste of 1000 miles on my poor old car!

  4. piper says:

    Should have cheered yerself up mountain coward….., by having a Haddock super from the chip shop in Ullapool , , better than … anything !

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