The Cairngorms: A Winter Immersion / by Joe McCarthy

We checked the mountain weather forecast daily, wishing for snow, wishing for winter. The climate of the British Isles is incredibly variant and the freakishly warm January weather continued to cast doubts on our plans of a multi-day snowshoe trip. It was not until we crossed the border that our uncertainty began to ease as a typically wet snow splattered upon the van windscreen; dancing into the full beams from the Scottish night. Our winter immersion had begun.

We set off through the deathly quiet of a native Scots Pine forest, weighed down with 6 days of provisions as well as layers and equipment for winter travel. The chosen destination was Garbh Coire Bothy: an uninsulated mountain shelter nestled in a small, upland glen in the heart of the Cairngorms. Even as the forest thinned the silence was all powerful, with just the muffled crunch of each footstep and the uninterrupted tapping of a million snowflakes falling to the ground. There was a noticeable lack of wind and the snow clouds hung heavy. Time stood still.

Snowshoeing is an ideal method of travel for beginners to winter exploration. It does not require the same level of knowledge and technical skill as mountaineering, ice climbing or cross-country skiing. The winter landscape poses certain risks, ones that the 3-season hiker need not consider. Avalanche, white out and the greater risk of hypothermia were all to be considered as we made steady progress towards the Lairig Ghru. As we left the forested glens behind we were confronted with our first test as the visibility dropped and we found ourselves navigating in a featureless landscape.

Once in the Lairig Ghru the snowy mist lifted to the tops, allowing us a clear view of our refuge for the night: Corrour Bothy. The bothy was a mere spec next to the sheer granite bluffs of one of my favourite mountains: The Devils Point. Its Gaelic name 'Bod am Deamhain' literally translates to 'Penis of the Demon' but was anglicised to a less graphic 'The Devil's Point' by famous ghillie: John Brown upon the royal visit of Queen Victoria to the area in 1865.

Charged by the prospect of warmth we stupidly began to plough through deep snow in a straight line in what proved to be a long and agonising hour. The sighting of shelter tired us, always a taunting beacon on the horizon. We observed the tracks of mountain hares and various birds in the snow alongside our own. Soon after we sighted some black grouse, standing as sentinels, looking side on from rocky vantage points along the valley bottom. Their calls of "coo" and "glug glug glug" followed by a frantic beating of wings and an uncoordinated take off became common place en route to the bothy.

Black Grouse by Edward Lear

Black Grouse by Edward Lear

After a night spent under four walls and a roof we continued further into the Lairig Ghru. The gradual rise in the valley floor brought with it a severe drop in temperature along with a stronger wind and the visibility worse than the previous day. For the goggle-wearing trail blazer it was a struggle, with nothing but white in front you begin to lose perspective of your surroundings. Incline, decline and flat merged to leave us stumbling into ditches and moraine like drunkards. Each step forward was preempted with a sharp stab of a walking pole to give some sort of inclination as to what we were walking into. We mistook every dark boulder under the snow blanket for the bothy, until finally we sighted the doorless front ahead of us. We kicked in steps at 45 degree angles as we ascended the last part of the steep slope, the aching sensation of lactic acid in our legs increasing with each step.

As we approached the bothy our eyes began to adjust to the gloom inside and we noticed a corpse like shape in the doorway. The whistle of the wind whipped snow into the darkness, piling up against what we soon realised was an abandoned sleeping bag. Upon entry we discovered further items including crampons, climbing axes, rope, a smashed helmet and the empty packet of a foil lined blanket. What happened here? A failed climb in the corries above us maybe? The mysterious circumstances of the neglected climbing hardware was a sobering reminder of the unmerciful landscape that we were immersed in. After shovelling out most of the snow and reinstalling the door we soon relaxed, ready to enjoy the shelter of this bothy. Or so we thought.

It is a constant fight to stay warm in what would be best described as a stone-walled freezer. First we layer up with all of our insulated clothing. We use our roll mats as cushions to insulate our feet and arses as we sit, taking our boots off in the process. A big mistake; for within half an hour they have frozen solid. My gloves are the same; each finger chilled into a miniature freezer of its own. As I leave the blessed ‘warmth’ of the shelter Matt battens down the door using an assortment of wooden slats, reminiscent of the Tarantino film: ‘The Hateful Eight’. Angry swirls of spindrift sting my exposed face from the dark valley floor below. We drink one smouldering drink after the other. Hot chocolate, tea, coffee, soup. For each drink another trip outside is needed to relieve yourself and the vicious cycle is complete, for you are as cold as you were in the first place. The candle dies and the winter’s night is upon us. The snow casts the inky blue of the sky into the bothy and with sudden gusts of wind we feel euphoric; as if flying through space in our sleeping bags, relishing the cold that we have so sought after.

With our main destination reached we now had to make the long journey back to our starting point. We unbarred the bothy door to find ourselves surrounded by a foreign sight: a cloud free Ben Macdui and blue skies! It was much welcomed after 3 days without sun. There was now a glazed sheen to the snow and this crust made for much better snowshoeing than the soft powder of days before. After making quick, crunchy progress down to the valley head we were finally walking in direct sunlight. We basked. We walked in t-shirts. We put on suncream; the smell taking me back to school ski trips in the French Alps. We cut through streams and corniced snow, through a maze of lumpy moraine, pretending that we were in fact traversing across the crevasses of polar glaciers. We saw not a soul, not a footprint. The Lairig Ghru was ours.

Gnùig - Pejorative for slope with a ‘scowl’ or ‘surly’ expression.
— Robert Macfarlane - Landmarks

As we neared our lunch stop at the Corrour Bothy the Devils Point loomed large. I thought of the Gaelic word: Gnùig. It seemed an appropriate word to describe the mountain's east face, for it certainly scowled as it became silhouetted by the sun, casting us into shadow. The temperature plummeted and within seconds my uncovered arms and hands burned bright red with cold. I picked up the pace and as I reached the bothy threw on my extra layers in an attempt to warm up again. Winter had returned in an instant.

We left the snowy wilderness of the Cairngorms, content with the solitude and simplicity that the winter landscape had shared with us. Our circadian rhythm was reset away from the modern distractions of phones, television screens, and the artificial light that disturbs our sleeping patterns daily. Removed from these we had entered a timeless place where the weather rules supreme; for what appeared to be simple at a first glance was not so. The range of conditions that we encountered each day transformed the landscape. From oppressing pinewood, to the subarctic, to brilliant alpine. The cold Scottish winter truly has it all.