From failure to magic in the Cairngorms

Snowy view from Carn Crom in the Cairngorms

The magic. The view from Carn Crom

In the Cairngorms even the failed weekends can turn out to be memorable – and for all the right reasons too.

I’d set out from work on Friday, heading up to Bob Scott’s Bothy with the intention of going out to Corrour on Saturday to change the toilet bag. My mood wasn’t improved by the Glenshee road being closed with the snow and me having to go all the way up to Aberdeen and then up Deeside. From Braemar to Linn o’ Dee the road was white and slithery and I made it only by the skin of my teeth round the rising bend after the Linn o’ Dee bridge. Tired from the start, the increasing depth of the drifts on the Derry track were taking their toll and I was glad to see Bob Scott’s, even if it was in  darkness.

Great. Three folk in – in their beds and it only 10pm! Well I was pretty hungry by this time so I unpacked my sack, laid out my mat and sleeping bag then sat down to make my dinner, and to hell if they couldn’t sleep. 10pm? In Scottie’s?!!!

Come morning the outlook was brighter. The guys seemed right enough blokes despite their sleeping habits and we chatted a bit over our various breakfasts, then I threw some stuff into my rucksack and set off for Corrour.

The going was heavy from the start, varying from fresh powder to soft drift. The ground underneath wasn’t very well frozen, so I had to be careful crossing the bogs in the Derry Flats. The tree across the track in the Luibeg Woods was a nuisance rather than a hazard, but once I was out of the woods the depth of the snow increased, with an average of just above the knee in depth and that infuriating consistency where you sink slowly into it only when you put your weight onto it. At times I was down to five to six seconds per double step. Going through the young trees in the Robbers’ Copse was worse, forcing through crotch-deep snow at times.

Snowy trees in the Robbers' Copse, Luibeg, Cairngorms

Like a scene from Narnia. Forcing a way through the snow-choked woods at the Luibeg ford

The ford, at first sight, didn’t look too bad. The river was fairly well iced, with the flowing water restricted to a few channels. I put on crampons for the iced-up stepping stones and started to cross – only to discover the ice wasn’t properly formed: some was slush and some of the sheets broke as soon as I put weight on them. It took about 20 minutes to get across, although on the plus side the only time I went in over my knee I was out again so quickly the water didn’t have time to penetrate the gaiters and waterproof trousers.

It was time to look at the clock though. As I sat down up the bank for something to eat I calculated I’d already taken a little over two hours to get to where I was, with maybe another two hours or so before I reached the bothy. Give me a ten-minute sit down to recover, then probably another hour or more to change over the toilet bag and burn the ppe suit and gloves. It would be dark before I even got back to the ford, let alone reached Scottie’s.

So enough. All this travelling and effort for nothing. I should have gone to the ceilidh with my mates that I knew would be on at Glas Allt Sheil that night. It was a low moment: so low that I couldn’t even face going back across the ford, and headed up the glen to use the bridge.

Luibeg Burn in the Cairngorms, in winter

Looking down the semi-frozen Luibeg burn from the bridge

But on the way up there, having resigned myself to failure, I started to enjoy just being there again and, by the time I crossed the bridge I was looking at the beckoning slopes of Carn Crom. It’s a steep hill from this side, but I’ve found myself tempted up there on a few occasions over the years, and today it had the added temptation of being on the windward side of the hill, so with very little drifting. It would, said I, making excuses for yet another daft ploy, possibly even be easier than wading back down through the glen.

And that moment was when the failed duty trip turned into a cracking day on the hill. Yes, it was a pech taking the steep slopes head on, but where you climb steeply you gain height quickly, and I was enjoying the rapidly expanding views. Cloud was plentiful, and down over the higher tops, but Carn a Mhaim was mostly clear and humble Sgor Mor was offering some ephemeral but stupendous views as the cloud was broken and reformed by the wind. Shafts of gold would strike out of the grey lift and spotlight their way across the snow, bigger rents would render a whole hillside golden for a tantalising second or two before the lights would once more go out as the cloud closed, whole ridge lines would suddenly be fringed with an intense gold halo as the sun caught on the spindrift blowing high in the wind.

Sunshine and shade on Sgor Mor, Cairngorms

Sunbeams shine out from the cloud and illuminate Sgor Mor

On my own hill, too, the wind was picking up as I gained height, snow smoking across the ground and whirling up into the sky. By the time I was nearing the summit it was probably blowing at about 50mph: enough to give me the odd buffet but not to knock me off my feet, and I was thoroughly enjoying just being there and being at ease in those conditions. When I stood at the summit cairn taking in the view and the sensations I reflected how I’d last been there just fortnight previously with a friend, the wind almost as strong but then driving a penetrating rain so heavy we were soaked to the skin and didn’t even pause as we touched the cairn at fled back down to the bothy. Today, even after I left the cairn, I was finding excuses to stop on the way back down towards Derry, pausing once to admire and ponder on the exquisitely sculpted patterns in the snow. We think of the wind as a battering, tearing force, and we think of snow as so soft and formless, yet all over we can see how the wind, using its own force and the abrasion of blown snow has etched the snowpack, one unsuspected layer at a time, into contoured patterns which speak of delicacy rather than the brute force of extreme weather.

Wind-sculpted snow on Carn Crom, Cairngorms

The delicacy of the gale

I once wondered, on reading Nan Shepherd’s account of a stream in the act of freezing, how anyone could have the patience to sit in such cold and watch this process, but this day, so comfortable and at home, despite the cold and blast, I could have sat and watched such a thing myself. A day that had at one point seemed such a failure and disappointment had turned into one of magic. For I had remembered why I was there at all.

(And as an added bonus? In a bothy full of strangers that night, we were all best of friends and had a great night of talk and banter in front of a toasty stove. What a bothy’s all about.)

Sunshine in winter from Carn Crom, Cairngorms

Envoi. The sun goes and so do I.

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12 Responses to From failure to magic in the Cairngorms

  1. I’ve got to say that the wind is my least favourite of all weather features – I just find it pretty scary and find it so destructive. Maybe the early nighters in the bothy were at the stage I’m at nowadays – so tired after a walk I just end up doing nowt all evening, eating little and collapsing into bed very early for me. But I’ll be warned that late nights are more the norm when I finally get to visit Scottie’s.

    At least the road was more passable than last year!

  2. piper says:

    Aye Neil …the weather was great this weekend . Was expecting you to come through the door at Gelder on Friday nicht ?…I walked up in the dark , did not even need my head torch on , due to the full moon ! The toilet change…weather permitting , i could go oot in twa weekends time and do the change over .

    • I was tempted Ian, but just had in my mind to stretch the legs, and didn’t see much chance of Lochnagar being clear. That would be good if you could manage in two weeks. I can’t manage next weekend and I think Neil Findlay is doubtful, but we might manage a joint visit in a fortnight. Will keep in touch. 🙂

  3. Neil reid says:

    Well it was a pleasure meeting my name sake. Thanks for you insight and history into this awesome place. A truly memorable night thanks neil

  4. Dave says:

    Another great tale of derring do Neil, the usual good read after a failed trip in wet and misty Mournes 👍

    • Dunno about this derring do business Dave. It was hard going through the deeper snow in the glen, but once up on the hill I was perfectly happy – didn’t feel very derring at all. Or am I just hard as nails and don’t realise it? 😀

  5. Hi Neil, I was one of the three sleeping beauties you referred to in your blog. Just to confirm I slept much better the following night having consumed the bus drivers single malt delights.
    A splendid evening and some excellent tales of the hills. Cheers dear sir!

    • Aye, it was good company all round for a cracking evening. I always reckon folk who refer to bothies as ‘stone tents’ are missing the point – it’s not the facilities you go for as much as the company and the craic.

  6. Enjoyed that…….I never have a ‘failure’ just a change in plan.

  7. Kenny Ferguson says:

    Another fine piece of mountain writing. Great story very well written. Well done again Neil and thanks again.

  8. Shane says:

    Love the pictures here. There’s just something really magical about places that are claimed by the mountains, the winter. Your second picture actually reminds me of my time in Alaska, gives me a feeling of homesickness. Love the content I’m seeing, keep it coming!

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