Cairn Gorm Snowholecamping, hike

I’d been on the Cairgorm Club’s annual snowholing trip previously, but we’d not made a snowhole having not had enough snow depth, but it was useful practice in extreme camping. I hoped for second time ‘lucky’ – who doesn’t want to spend a night deep in the mountains in sub zero conditions, buried ‘snugly’ under ‘ground’?

This trip had had a bit of reconnoitering occurring in the weekends leading up to the date, and some ‘inside’ info from winter-skills teachers who’d been out, so the 7 of us thought it possible to find deep snow.

We headed off the short but steep climb up Cairn Gorm from the Coire Ciste car park, heavily loaded as a winter night out demands, but also with snow-shovels, saws, and fuel for our plan-B (head to Faindouran bothy)

Heading up to the snow line
Wind picking up as we get higher
Down the east side of Cairn Gorm. Hmm not much snow around
We head over to Ciste Mhearad, a hollow on the side, not expecting much, but it’s held on to plenty snow
The bank of the hollow rises 30 feet and we can see small holes – it’s clearly been used for snow hole training fairly recently as there’s a few partially collapsed holes there of differing states. This ones looks retrievable
Stage 1, entrance tunnel cleared

Snow shovels deployed, we have at it. We split into two groups, mine is just the two of us, the other 4. One chap is going to pitch tent. Excavating is really good fun, the snow is just right in texture, and after digging out the tunnel, move on to creating 2 raised platforms either side, and creating more height in the main chamber.

Another group arrive outside
A winter skills training group up from Glenmore. They waste no time in creating a very large chamber with two entrances
The sunlight streams through the translucent snow creating blue hues

I’d been a bit worried that the hole might be a bit claustrophobic, but right now it’s a joy to be in, glowing blue and surprisingly ‘warm’ from both the digging effort and shelter from the wind chill. Also very quiet. The game is on and everybody is happy to stay here tonight and abandon the trip to the bothy.

Hacking out more space, little cubby holes too for storage.
The other group’s hole

I have a nosey in the other half’s hole, and am unconvinced with their different build strategy. They’ve not bothered creating more headroom, they’re going to sleep head towards the entrance tunnel, crammed in like sardines with the snow a foot above their head. I definitely prefer my more palatial accommodation.

Job done.
I get my pad set up and sleeping bag fluffed. Temperature outside is about minus 5, so we don’t have to worry much about melting. View down towards my feet.
Everybody happy with their hole, we’re going to go for a walk while there’s daylight
The training group head off – they’re not staying overnight – yay we can use their big cave as an extra – we’ll use it for cooking and socialising before bed
One of the group has decided not to stay ‘inside’. As conditions here above 1100m are likely to be harsh overnight, he builds a shelter wall for his tent. A regular wood saw is great for hacking out blocks
Tent is ready
Team snow hole 2019
We’re off down to Loch Avon
Ski tourers out on the mountain
Loch Avon

We decide to head north up Coire Raibert. Some of us stick with the right side of the burn, steep and gravelly, some cross over, also steep and more snow.

The other side seems quite far away

Sunset approaching we head back to the hollow
Harder snow on this slope

Crossing this slope, the snow steepens and is quite hard.. half way across we decide to don crampons (should have done that earlier). One person briefly lets go of his rucksack while fastening, which sails off downhill for a few hundred metres. Whoops.

Back at the hollow we use the extra cave to get our cook on. Cold nights need a solid meal to keep heat-generating energy up throughout the night
Outside the wind picks up. Pretty baltic
Spindrift picks up. Note the glow sticks to assist finding the entrances in low visibility

Myself and another head out on a night mission: we’re going to travel a few hundred metres to the top of Cnap Coire na Spreidhe to get a view north and hopefully see the forecast northern lights. We’re perhaps a bit blase about such a short trip. Reaching the top, conditions are brutally cold, and visibility poor so we quickly abandon to head back down. Having not taken a bearing accurately we get back but can’t see the snow hole.. we’ve diverged and are heading in the wrong direction. A brief clearance in the spindrift shows the glow of the cave to our right about 100m. As we head towards it the light goes out.. somebody else has switched it off heading to bed. The glow sticks aren’t bright enough to penetrate the visibility. We’re now back but could have ended up wandering about for ages, more care needed in navigating in these conditions, no matter if a short stroll.

Back in my hole, the difference in chill is immediate, and the howling wind muffled to nothing. Nonetheless it’s still by no mean toasty, the occasional change in wind swirls spindrift inside and on to my face.

In light of the possibility of roof collapse (though I have deliberately pressed my back up against the roof to smooth and compress the snow when we were excavating) I’ve slept with my clothes on inside my trusty vango venom 600 in case of emergency evacuation. It’s also free extra insulation (as long as dry), I don’t subscribe to the unscientific ‘sleep bare is warmer’ bullshit.

I’ve stuck a emergency foil over the top of the bag to catch drips and reflect a bit of heat [ turns out not a great idea: a lot of condensation forms on the underside ]. After a reasonable if sporadic sleep, morning approaches and the white glow turns pink at the now quite small opening. Too cosy, I ponder too long to get up, fortunately somebody else a bit less embedded manages to catch the brief beauty.

Awaken to a half blocked entrance
Mountain sunrise photo courtesy of Jamie
Now I’m up for a very cold morning pee
The blue sky disappears and wind picks up. My cold face
We’d though about another expedition but the weather is now closing in
Mr Tent had a rough night. The other cave wished they’d excavated more
Kit packed, time to make it down off the heights, goodbye cave. The holes in the roof are extra air ways we poked through. Gonna be a googles kinda descent it’s now wild outside
Out on to the plateau, time to get a good march on
In minimal visibility and high wind we descend following the ski lift. Steep and powdery going
Below the cloud level, and thence below the snowline. Down at the car park quite a reasonable day

A stop at a cafe in Aviemore much savoured before the journey home, all told a great adventure. It’s shame there’s not enough snow consistently to be able to go out and rely on being able to build one.

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