Explore Britain's Arctic: Cairngorms National Park

Brave the Cairngorms in winter to experience the beauty and brutality of this vast frozen landscape – it’s an extraordinary spectacle, says Chris Townsend.

4th January 2016
Cairngorms

Vast snowfields sweep to the horizon, covering the great, rolling, tundra-like plateaux. Icy cliffs, frozen waterfalls and huge, steep-sided, snow-filled corries ring the mountain. Lochs and lochans are frozen hard.

It’s winter in the high Cairngorms. Deep glens and passes cleave through the mountains. These can be as wild and wintry as the summits, great clefts through which the winds roar and the snow blasts. Below the high tops lie magnificent Caledonian pine forests, part of the subarctic boreal forest that rings the globe. Here the snow lies quietly, settling on the trees and whitening the forest floor.

Bit chilly out? Coated in a thick blanket of snow and ice, the Automatic Weather Station on the summit of Cairn Gorm provides the temperature and wind data every half hour
Bit chilly out? Coated in a thick blanket of snow and ice, the Automatic Weather Station on the summit of Cairn Gorm provides the temperature and wind data every half hour

The scale of the Cairngorms is massive. The area above 800m alone covers some 260 square kilometres, the largest area of high ground in Britain by far. Five of the six highest mountains in Britain are found in the Cairngorms.

In winter, this is an Arctic landscape. Snow lies on the tops for more than 100 days a year and the heaviest falls in Scotland occur here. In winter, blizzards are common, often brought in on very high winds that can reach more than 100mph. Britain’s highest-ever wind speed – an astounding 173mph – was recorded by the weather station on the summit of
Cairn Gorm.

The area has record cold temperatures, too. At Braemar, -27°C has been recorded twice. That is exceptionally cold, but temperatures below -10°C are not uncommon and in a strong wind any sub-zero temperature feels bitter and can freeze exposed skin.

Along with the high winds and freezing temperatures, white-out conditions, where mist and snow combine to reduce visibility to almost zero and in which the ground and the sky merge into one white swirling mass, make conditions very difficult and potentially dangerous for hill walkers and mountaineers. Fighting into the wind and even standing up can be almost impossible.

But when the snow eases and the sun shines, the beauty of the white, frozen mountainscape is breathtaking. And the mists, which are often damp, condense and freeze on rocks, forming long, delicate frost feathers or overlapping plates of white ice. This is a very special place.

Winter Safety

To enjoy the winter conditions safely, hillgoers need mountaineering skills – the ability to navigate in a blizzard, to judge the snow conditions, to use ice axe and crampons, to know when to turn back. Walkers need to plan routes carefully and note ways off the plateaux – there are only a few safe routes out and being able to find them in poor visibility is crucial.

Mountain weather forecasts should be studied and plans adapted if big storms are predicted. Avalanches occur in the Cairngorms every winter, so wise mountaineers always check the avalanche forecast before heading out and amend their plans accordingly. 

There are no built shelters on the mountains, but down in the corries and glens there are unlocked bothies and howffs such as the Shelter Stone, a huge boulder at the head of Loch Avon.  Beneath this boulder is a space big enough for several people to sleep out of the wind and rain. These offer a respite from storms and knowing their locations is important for safety.

High on the plateaux, far from these shelters, mountaineers can build their own by digging snow holes or making igloos. Once inside the snow, all is calm, peaceful and surprisingly warm. Being able to construct a snow shelter is an important and possibly life-saving skill.

Though many days are stormy, there are others where the air calms and you can stride across the mountains, revelling in the beauty and majesty of the wild landscape. That’s when the winter Cairngorms are at their most spectacular.

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Ryvoan bothy in the Cairngorms

Life on ice

Down in the straths and glens, the weather can still be severe, with high winds, hard frosts and sometimes deep snow. Living here means adapting to the conditions. ‘Winterising’ vehicles is an autumn ritual. Snow tyres make a big difference when driving on snowy roads. Keeping a survival kit in the car – sleeping bag, warm clothing, torch, food, flask with a hot drink or a stove and pot for melting snow (bottles of cold water may freeze) – means that if the roads are closed, then waiting, perhaps for hours, for a snow plough to clear the way ahead need not be too unpleasant. Watching the weather forecast and trying to arrange long journeys for times when blizzards aren’t forecast is sensible, too. People need to know how to drive on snowy and icy roads.

Braemar locals brave the main street in winter
Braemar locals brave the main street in winter

At home, having heating that isn’t dependent on electricity means you can stay warm when there are power cuts. Candles and lanterns and a camp stove are useful, too. Power cuts aren’t common but on a freezing night when one does occur, it’s good to be able to keep warm and make hot drinks and cook meals. Keeping a good stock of supplies means there’s no need to venture out in a blizzard to buy food.

The weather is a constant topic of conversation and here it’s not just a convention. It really matters. People have a mixed attitude to winter conditions, though. Tourism is of major importance and the snow brings skiers, snow-boarders, mountaineers, wildlife-watchers and those who just enjoy seeing a white winter landscape. Snow is needed for business. At the same time, no one wants blizzards and deep snow that disrupt getting about. The ideal winter, people say, is when there’s snow on the hills but only a light covering down below with roads quickly cleared. The worst winter weather for many is when it rains for days and the world looks dull and grey. That’s not good for visitors or locals.

Living here, people quickly become used to the winter. You have to. Outdoor clothing is worn by many who never venture high into the hills. It works just as well walking down a high street in a bitter freezing wind. Stories of the chaos caused by an inch of snow down south, whether in Edinburgh or London, cause an amused shake of the head. Up here that would not be enough to be noticed.

Whether born here or an incomer, everyone is influenced by the winter, even if they’re not conscious of it. Learning to prepare for the short days and cold nights, snowfalls and hard frosts cannot but affect you. Of course, many people are here because of the snow and the area is full of skiers and mountaineers, some instructing others in winter skills. Those of us who love the snow wait impatiently every autumn for the first snowfall.

 

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