The beauty and the treachery of the Cairngorms


Knee-deep snow fields, frozen waterfalls and the warmth of a fire at the end of it all — Jo Bennie shares an account of traversing the invitingly hostile winter Cairngorms

In early March, a weather window finally opened up here in Scotland.  I’d watched with frustration as week after week of 2023 rolled by with gales hurtling across the country.  After careful consultation with the Met Office app and the Mountain Weather Service forecast I decided it was safe to kit up and head out on my second winter hike on the hills.  

The Cairngorms in winter are lovely, but also very hostile to us humans

Scotland’s winter mountains are beautiful, but also treacherous. These hills and mountains require suitable footwear and equipment on even the best of gentle summer days.  Winter walking here is tough, often over ice or through snow. Temperatures are sub zero, days are short and the weather can turn fast. In the cold conditions, the body needs more food and mobile phones drop their battery.  Navigation aids are buried, visible paths are iced.  The Cairngorms in winter are lovely, but also very hostile to us humans.

A salutary lesson had been provided to me through a previous venture in Glen Prosen a couple of weeks earlier.  I had to call out Mountain Rescue.  I had become dangerously exhausted when I climbed down a hill knee-deep in snow to a forest which turned out to be impassable, and having then to climb back up in the snow, my energy sapping away as the daylight faded.  

I also completed a Winter Mountain Skills course at Aviemore, through one blue sky day and one day of whiteout, driving snow and ice forming on our gear and clothes, both in thigh-high snow.

Into the unknown

On this Slow Ways day, I headed on a partial reverse of CloAuc.  I’d long wanted to walk over this spur of the White Mounth, from Glen Esk up round the top of Glen Lethnot to Glen Clova. Instead of taking the CloAuc route to come down on Loch Brandy, I planned to come down on the closer Loch Wharral, stay in the private bothy, and the next day, walk along the road to Clova.  

The other half dropped me at Auchronie. One of my major bugbears walking the Angus Glens is that they aren’t accessible by public transport; I strongly dislike using a car but the only option is a 15 mile walk in from Brechin or Kirriemuir.  

I finally got moving at about 10.40, later than I would have liked.  I stopped to put on my microspikes: small sharp metal spikes that fasten to the bottom of your boots, a bit of a fight to get on but worth it for the amazing traction.

Winter walking in these hills is an equipment-heavy venture.  The only bare skin is my eyes.  Thermals go under winter trousers and jackets.  Buff up over my nose, hat on my head, thermal gloves and gaiters over my boots. Tent, sleeping bag and sleeping mat on my back, along with plenty of food, spare gloves and hat, compass and map and emergency survival bag. Personal locator beacon on my belt.

I crunched my way up the iced track running along the north side of Loch Lee.  Blue skies, gentle ripples on the loch surface, mercury around minus two. Craig Maskeldie taking a great bite out of the Mounth ahead. I stood on the bridge over the Water of Lee for a moment watching it run under plates of ice. Beside the farm, I began the climb out of Glen Esk through the trees alongside the Burn of Inchgrundle.  Just before the track ended, the Burn of Tarsen provided a spectacular sight: a waterfall, maybe ten feet high, with a rowan clinging to the edge of the flow at the top.  Part of the burn still ran, and was cascading down noisily. The rest was frozen into sheets, lumpy hummocks of ice and curtains of icicles, some of which had melded to form corrugated curtains.

Off the beaten track

The track gave out, and this was the last path I would see for many hours.  Navigating around Skuiley and Wester Skuiley was torturous, often ending up with me climbing steeply up through snowy deep heather.  Finally, I got up onto Easter Cairn, which gave me a great view.  The conical form of Mount Keen was at my back; to my right was the mighty summit and corries of Lochnagar, both pure white.  The Mounth spread out before me in soft white hummocks.  

I confidently strode off in the wrong direction twice after deciding I knew better than my compass, then sat myself on the stile with my map, put Loch Lee and Mount Keen behind me and realised the correct direction wasn’t to my left or straight on but to the right.  Here on relict Dalraidan sandstone there are only spot heights: hills gently roll to a summit maybe only a few metres above the rest of the ground and roll away again: difficult to orientate and locate oneself in.

Now the sun began to lower and catch the field of drifts beyond, a purple blue and purple white sea of drifts studded with black heather and peat 

My compass bearing had been right, but my brain had other ideas. I tramped on in the correct direction along the fence line.

This took me round Muckle Cairn and White Hill. I kept to the fence line, stepping where I could see the depth of the snow either by spotting heather or grass poking through or the depth of snow hare prints.  Although they are a lot lighter than I was, their prints were with me all the way, with the occasional burn print where they had settled.  This slow careful picking of my way meant I only occasionally sank into knee-high drifts, with only one knee-high encounter with a hidden burn or marsh.  Whatever it was, it was wet.

The microspikes made such a difference on the icy areas, but the snow did compact around the connecting chains, which put an extra inch of ice (both height and weight) on my boots; hence lots of stopping to kick my boots and jab the ice loose with walking poles.

The snow and ice were endlessly beautiful and multiple in form.  A clear pane of ice with translucent shards stuck onto and into it, flakes of clear ice laid on top of the snow catching the light, and every kind of snow. Drifts against peat hags and fence posts.  The forms were like the shore, with air instead of wave, snow in place of sand.  Hoar frost was welded to the top bar of a stile.  Now the sun began to lower and catch the field of drifts beyond, a purple blue and purple white sea of drifts studded with black heather and peat.  

Ice and fire

I was more than thankful to see the curve of the Craigs of Loch Wharral come into view as the sun was inching down behind the far side of Glen Clova.  I skirted my way round the corrie head and gullies and traversed the side of Ben Tirran.  The sun touched the horizon and a clear golden path stretched before me, the first since Inchgrundle.  And Loch Wharral had a beach.  Weird.  Loch Wharral doesn’t have a beach. Too tired to care.  At 6.57pm the pack finally came off.  7 hours 37 minutes to walk about 8 miles, about a third of my usual rate. 

Thankfully the code for the bothy padlock was right and I staggered in across a small drift of snow that had been blown under the door.  There was plenty of kindling and logs which took  quickly in the stove with my fuel tablets as firestarters.  A quick hop out to fill the water bottle at the half frozen burn. Food, and settling down.

There is something hypnotic about flame, and satisfyingly primal about making a fire, that sweet soft relief of warmth and dancing flame

The night was a long one. Initially I let the fire go out, thinking I’d stay warm curled up in front of the stove. I was wrong.  Relit, made a cup of tea to heat myself, and eventually dozed off; beginning a cycle of dozing, the fire burning low, waking with the cold and stoking it up again.  When I put logs on top of the stove to dry out, the resin softened and bled, going up like kerosene. There is something hypnotic about flame, and satisfyingly primal about making a fire, that sweet soft relief of warmth and dancing flame.  Temperatures dropped to about minus eight that night.

Finally, the light came though the shutters, and I walked out to the sun rising over the far side of Glen Clova. I got warm fighting to get everything back into the rucksack. Coffee and crunchy nut cornflakes for breakfast; the milk was a little slushy.  

Journey’s end

Still wrapped up, I went over to investigate that ‘beach’ Loch Wharral doesn’t have. Before me stretched the loch, with a huge white curve of ice between me and the black water.  It looked like it had been formed in subzero temperatures by the wind coming down from the corrie wall above, driving waves against the corrie lip.  On the bank stretched a fringe of strange long columns of ice, thick as a finger, rounded at the one end, anchored to the ground at the other, some piled up in glistening heaps. At the centre of each was a single blade of straw coloured grass. And at the water’s edge there was a snow topped rock with icicles hanging beneath, imagination conjuring some arctic monster: the snow for fur, the icicles for teeth, the bare rock for lips as if it would open its eyes at any moment and lunge.

I didn’t put my gaiters or spikes back on, the 4×4 track down to the glen was easy enough with just my walking poles.  A quick change, peeling off all but a single layer in the warming sun, then a road walk to the Clova Hotel, a joy to be walking on solid ground after all the slow picking across the Mounth.  

The hotel was unfortunately closed for refurbishment so I couldn’t get into the bar. Oh well. At least my lift turned up.

Jo Bennie

Born in Cambridge, Jo has lived in or near Dundee in the north east of Scotland since 1993 when she went to university there. The last three years have seen Jo “take to the hills” (literally) in Scotland, and she credits them as her teachers.

“I began by climbing the Sidlaw Hills above Dundee close to my house in Carnoustie. Next came overnight solo camping in the Angus Glens. I will continue to return to their quiet loveliness and find new sanctuaries among the ‘big hills’ of the Cairngorms. The wild camping and the movement forward in solitude brings me respite from a life complicated by autism, bipolar and long covid. For the only thing of concern to be the next step forwards. Through heather and bog and forest in the glories of the Scottish weather, consistent only in its mercurial changeability.”

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