Coire Boidheachcamping, hike

With the Cairngorm Club’s annual snowholing trip imminent, I thought it best to go for a recce and see if snow conditions were suitable: there’d been poor levels until one of a string of storms had dumped, sentinel hub was looking good and the forecast was great: 3 of us set off to camp overnight and explore.

Heading up from Keiloch through Ballochbuie and out into the open: snow ahoy
Crossing the burn carefully with a heavy rucksack
Looking to Carn an t-Sagairt Mor
Spindrift tendrils working their way across the snowpack

First site we tested for snow depth and snowhole suitability was a gully between Carn an t-Sagairt Mor/Beag, it had some reasonable depth but probably not quite enough to build a full cave.

Old snowpack that has thawed and refroze with a layer of fresher snow on top that has been scoured by the wind
New snow probe: decathlon cable one. They do a ‘rope’ one too: lighter but wobbly, this one is more robust and better when there’s layers of icey snow deep down.
Looking back from the col between Sagairt Mor/Beag was our ‘fallback’ option to camp: a large flat area but possibly a bit of a ‘wind funnel’
Heading around Carn an Sagairt Beag, looking across Dubh Loch glen
Heading towards Carn an Coire Bhoidheach – there’s a burn to cross there somewhere, looks like it’s buried
Across the Allt an Chraobh Bheath, stream of the 2 birch trees

We headed straight up the side of Carn an Choire Bhoidheach rather than follow the buried white mounth path around. When heading there from Lochnagar it is barely prominent and one wonders why it has munro status, from this way with a heavy rucksack on, less so.

Up to Carn a CB, we followed some ski tourers out enjoying the conditions
They swooshed past heading back down

From the top of Carn a Choire Bhoidheach we took a bearing to intersect the burn of Coire Boidheach – it shows on aerial photography as having a late snow patch, and back in January I’d seen it from a distance appearing to have a large cornice. With good visibility I could just use Cuidhe Crom as the bearing. After walking across very gently sloping terrain, I made out a slight wrinkle about 100m to the right – by now the failing evening light was very flat and so perfectly monotone white, that we were barely able to discern slope or drop, and crept towards it resorting to throwing a few snowballs ahead to create marks to visually gauge the surface.

It became apparent there was a really good nook here, just enough drop to provide shelter from the icey breeze and clearly very deep snow forming a large cornice on the windward side. It’s only about 50m long, so we were lucky to find it: a few degrees off to either side and we’d have passed it invisibly and carried onwards, having rejected the area as not much use.

The coire with tents pitched and hole dug

With not much daylight left we set about probing and digging a test hole into the side, plus platforms for the tents so we’d be sleeping horizontal. There wasn’t enough time to dig a full snow hole, but nonetheless we made a ‘snow cafe’ with just enough room to cook and have a seat.

Snow cave with 3 alcoves for each of us to have a seat

Shelter sorted for the night, I headed out of the coire to catch sunset: Lochnagar was glowing, with odd whispy clouds flowing overhead. It was getting brutally cold: we’d be glad of the extra shelter of the coire.

Lochnagar lit by sunset
Zoomed in to the top
Sunset towards Carn a Choire Bhoidheach
Returning to the coire, hands now stinging with cold
Bike light illuminating the snow cafe. It’d be used as a test beacon later. Tents required platforms dug to make them sit flat.

The evening meal consisted of a Decathlon spag-bol (pretty decent) with a packet of powdered spuds for extra body and calories, and a powdered custard for dessert. The pièce de résistance was however a fine ale: the very appropriate “Snowed In” by Burnside brewery, a hearty winter ale with a bit of kick at 7.5%. It didn’t require chilling..

Before turning in an experiment: previous snowhole trips had shown that glowstick tubes weren’t much cop as ‘beacons’ to home in on if you went for a night stroll, they’re not nearly bright enough. Heading up out of the copse again, the spindrift made visibility poor, maybe 10m: the 100 lumen bike light flashing and stuck aloft an avalanche probe could be seen well beyond 100m. Why’d you need such a thing? perhaps a moonlit stroll, some night nav practice, aurora/astro photography: you don’t want to make it any harder to get back to your shelter than necessary.

Beacon in the distance

I headed back to the tent and dozed fitfully, it headed well below zero and I was a bit cold but stuck on my jacket and was alright. A few hours later I needed to head out to relieve myself as the beer had worked it’s way through – the wind had now dropped to zero, and the sky was stunningly clear. It was intensely cold (reports from other campers that weekend stated -10c) and I wimped out of staying up to do some astro photography and go look if there was aurora (later checks would show there was aaargh). I’m not sure the batteries would have lasted very long in the cold.

Quick phone snap using night mode of huawei p30 pro – not a very good capture – hands were likely shaking too much

I awoke in the morning to a faint glow, and made it outside (after struggling with frozen solid boots – should have kept them inside the sleeping bag) just in time to see the sun break the horizon: whew, gotta love the hues of a mountain morning amongst snow. Stunning.

Coire Boidheach at sunrise
Sastrugi sunrise
Our chilly snow copse lighting up
Further down the coire

On the January Lochnagar trip it had been mentioned that this coire was inappropriately named, as when they’d passed through one summer it was a bleak and boggy place, but today for sure it was indeed Boidheach – beautiful.

Soon the sunrise was over, and breakfast cooked we decided to partially pack, then leave the kit and travel light for a wander around the plateau

Some other beast has passed this way.
Breakfast view. Gonna be a ‘scorcher’ today
“Sunbathing” while awaiting faffing of others to cease, and to make ready to move off
Sun now fully up and hues heading all to blue

We followed the coire ‘downstream’ curving towards cliffs above Dubh Loch, occasionally testing snow depth, and then headed uphill on to the Eagles Rock’s unremarkable top.

Bottom of the corrie with Cairn Bannoch ahead on the other side of Dubh Loch glen. Some spots of good snow depth here
Almost at the top – great panoramic views of mountains south and west
Is this the top of Eagles Rock?

We then headed over to overlook the huge crags across Dubh Loch, the water was till mostly frozen

Next destination was the location of the last snowhole trip – Coire an Lochan Bhuidhe. When we got near we decided against a direct descent into it and went around to the top where it was less steep.

Looking over Coire an Lochan Bhuidhe to Creag a Ghlas-uillt
Decided against a descent down the side: a thin layer of wind-slab at this point, fracturing easily, but could have been deeper as the curve steepened
On the side of the coire towards the top. Plenty deep snow – 2m at least on the west side

We took a break here, had some east, then practiced some rope techniques, working either up or down using snow and buried tools as anchors.

More ski tourers. A nice gully to descend
Down they go.. we spotted them skinning back up later
Looking past Little Pap to Mount Keen
Waves of sastrugi
The Stuic peeps above the plateau

We took a look across to Corrie an Daimh Mhoile but didn’t descend or test snow depth: I suspect the steepish bit on the 1000m contour would be quite deep, perhaps forming a snow tunnel later into spring.

Heading back towards Carn an Choire Bhoidheach we can see the nook that was last night’s home in sharp relief
Crunching through sastrugi. The going was quite firm – this would be a tough place to navigate when the snow wasn’t consolidated and visibility great
Further than it seemed in the very clear visibility

We had lunch, played around a bit with a saw cutting blocks to experiment with creating snow walls, then it was time to heave on the full weight and head back: 10km to go. We decided to follow our exact route back in an effort to find an ice axe that had been mislaid yesterday, our footprints were still visible, the spell of spindrift at night not enough to cover them over. [update June 2022 – axe found outside snow tunnel]

Frosty rock, Carn an CB
Down to the stream of the 2 birch trees. It’d be nice to see some trees back there one day
Across the burn, newer snow spattered on old
Between Sagairt Mor/Beag
I’d not seen a ptarmigan recently at all, but they’re here somewhere
With the snow very consolidated we headed down the gully between Sagairt Mor/Beag
Down below the snowline, looking up at Lochnagar
A snack stop at the pony hut, then downwards, feet beginning to burn.
Looking back at Carn aSM
A quick look at the Falls of Glas Allt
Beinn a Bhuird and Ben Avon above the lush green of Ballochbuie
Down to Keiloch and back across the old Invercauld bridge

A cracking trip out – found another great snowhole location, got some great conditions and will hopefully head back there at some point to make a fully slept in snowhole, though running out of winter to do it this year. I do like the recce trips in that you go places that other than looking for deep snow deposition wouldn’t typically be visited. Coire Boidheach may contain our still missing ice axe and a summer visit may be needed to retrieve.

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