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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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]
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.