The original plan was marvellous – or at least it was in my head… Between Christmas and New Year I would drive up to Aviemore where there would be the perfect amount of snow for a three-day ski tour. Here I would be travelling from bothy to bothy ticking off as many 4000ft peaks as I could. Or at least that was the theory!
I had seen pictures, Scottish winter looked beautiful… but that was only some days. I knew it could also be temperamental, harsh and unforgiving. Undeterred I set about planning my adventure using ViewRanger to mark out my route and possible overnight stays.
The proposed route:
A Waiting Game
Over December I turned into the Aviemore Webcam’s biggest fan, logging on each day to see if there had been a flurry of snow. Everyone I spoke to said it was unusual for there to be so little snow at this time of year and that they were sure it would arrive – the season just seems to be arriving later and later. Sadly the grainy image remained green and brown.
On Christmas day I woke up to a cryptic text from my friend Laura – just two snowflakes. Could it have finally snowed? Logging on to check the camera I could see there was some coverage. I was so excited! All I could do was keep my fingers crossed that more was on the way and that when I arrived in two days time, there would be enough to ski.
Arrival in Aviemore
Unfortunately, this was a little optimistic, and after seven hours of driving, I arrived in the Cairngorms which was ironically warmer than Sheffield! There wasn’t a snowflake in sight! Luckily I had a backup plan and a few days to wait for the weather to change. So, with Marmot Dark Mountains fast approaching I decided to use that time to get out running.
Each night I plotted my route for the next day on Viewranger so the next morning all I needed to do was gather a generous collection of snacks, plenty of layers and head outside. From twisting forest tracks to narrow rocky descents, the running around Aviemore was incredible. A 22 mile run the first day followed by a 15 miler the day after, I knew I had over done it distance-wise, but it was totally worth it for the views!
The Backup Backup Plan
The arrival of Tom unfortunately also combined with the arrival of the bad weather. It was time to make a decision. The backup plan was out of the window as the rain had washed the remaining snow away, and now it was time for a rethink. Looking at the forecast, it was due to snow, but sadly the current conditions were high winds and driving rain.
If we set out on the original trip, staying in bothies, it would mean if the weather did change we would be unable to pick up skis or our climbing stuff – both of which were the main aim of the holiday. So we made the executive decision to head out hiking and stay local to Aviemore that evening.
The revised shorter route:
A Very Wet Walk
‘Rain’ felt like a bit of an understatement for what the weather was doing. It was torrential, and despite being head to toe in Gore-Tex, the water was still finding its way in through my hood and up my sleeves. Ignoring this, I was happy – it was fantastic to be outside and, unsurprisingly, we had the whole hill to ourselves. The wind made it near on impossible to walk, so we had decided to stick to a route avoiding any ridges or technical scrambling. Looking around, even with no snow I could see how incredible the climbing must be in better conditions.
After a few hours battling the gales, we were stood on the top of Cairngorm. All I could see was a wall of white – so much for the incredible view! Barely able to stand, let alone hear each other over the wind, it was time to find a place for a cup of tea! Back at the car, I looked like a drowned rat! Luckily cafes and pubs in Aviemore don’t seem to bat an eyelid at this look, and I was soon happily drying off in front of a fire.
Given how wet my kit was and that it was New Year’s Eve that night we decided to treat ourselves and check into Cairngorm Youth Hostel. This was an excellent idea as not only did they have the best drying room I have ever seen (no joke!) they also had a Ceilidh on.
After a few beers and suspect dance moves the next day we were up early and ready for an adventure. Best of all it had started snowing. The plan for the day was to head out hiking again, and if the snow wasn’t sticking stay in the Corrour bothy but if it was head back to nearer Aviemore to try and ski the next day.
As we made our way along the Chalamain Gap, I couldn’t believe how much the scenery had changed. For a brief period, the mountains had turned into a quiet winter wonderland. However, this calmness was short lived as the wind picked up turning the soft flakes into a full white-out blizzard. Aware of the rate at which we were able to progress and given the snow was sticking, we decided to go with the latter option and return to Aviemore.
Realising reaching Ben Macdui was ambitious we cut things short taking a very steep hike/scramble directly from the Lairig Ghru to Cairn Lochan. It was tough, my face was stinging, my goggles kept freezing over, and the weather was getting progressively worse, I literally couldn’t see a metre in front of me. It was at this point, about halfway up the climb Tom turned to me and announced:
‘Now this is proper Scottish winter!’
Mad as it seems I couldn’t help but grin. He was right, it was wild, but having heard so much about the infamous Scottish winter, I was just thrilled to be experiencing it. Although what we were doing was physically challenging I was loving it. Believe me, I do not underestimate how quickly things can turn into a dangerous situation, and part of me was nervous. The conditions were verging on frightening, but I felt with the route we had chosen, our storm shelter, survival bags, sleeping bags, multiple GPS devices and extra layers we had the right kit with us.
An Ambitious Attempt to Ski
The next morning we were the first people outside Mountain Spirit ready to pick up skis and boots. The guys in the shop had been fantastic; aside from their impressive range of gear and extensive local knowledge, they had also done an excellent job at putting up with my constant enquiries about the weather and conditions.
Quickly kitted out we headed back toward Cairngorm to have our first go at skinning. Even with the minimal amount of snow and slightly sketchy conditions, I loved it, I felt so efficient. It was like a combination of running and skiing. Having watched so many tutorials of kick turns on YouTube, it was great to get out and try them.
As we approached the summit the weather dramatically worsened. Lower down we had been sheltered, but now we were relentlessly pelted with ice and hail. Underfoot (or ski!) the conditions had also deteriorated; the top layer of snow was completely frozen making it hard for our skins to grip. Soon it became impossible to ski any further up, so the last section was a hike to the top.
Once again stood on the summit of Cairngorm all I could see was white! Everything was covered in about two centimetres of ice. It was bitterly cold. Sensing it was not wise to stick around too long it was time to ski down. As a competent skier, I had not been worried about this at all. However, I now realise skiing in Scotland is an entirely different experience! With the minimal snow coverage, you were fine travelling forward until you hit a thin patch or a rock which stopped you dead but changing direction was a nightmare. I couldn’t make a turn without stacking it – my boot just kept getting caught in the heather or on the grass. It was hilarious!
Confident I had made the absolute most of the limited snow I returned my skis with a big smile on my face. Over the course of a week, I felt like I had experienced every season. Constantly trying to adapt and improvise to suit the weather was not straightforward but I was thrilled to have finally got out on skis.
Yes, I know I may not have achieved the original aim of the holiday, but I can certainly say I had a lot of fun trying. My first taste of Scottish winter was epic and I will, without a doubt, be back for more – and to complete my trip!
The best places for…
- Brunch: Mountain Cafe is the ideal place to refuel. Not only did they have amazing cakes, coffee and breakfast but the shop beneath is a gear geek’s paradise!
- Hiring skis: As said in my post, Mountain Spirit has an excellent range of high-end outdoor equipment. They also had great local knowledge and were keen to help. I’ll be coming back here when I’ve saved enough to buy my own ski boots!
- A pint & dinner: The Old Bridge Inn is a great place to grab some grub. Good food and beer, exactly what you need after a long day out!