Snowhole 2023camping, hike

Having been on a few Cairngorm Club snowholing trips, I was invited this year to be the trip organiser, and to that end headed out on a few recce sorties to see if there was sufficient snow: there were quite a few folk interested initially, but as the day came closer they got ‘cold feet’ and we ended up being a party of 5 heading up through Ballochbuie, 3 to stay over, 2 just accompanying for a walk. The weather started off poor for both activities: above zero, and rain/sleeting. We gathered at the Bothy in Braemar first, got some breakfast and a warm drink before heading into the gloom.

Gloomy Ballochbuie
Plenty water at the Falls of Garbh Allt
Looked like me might top out above the clouds, hints of blue but not to be just yet

We crossed the stream at the ford point as on the map (lots of people have worn a path short of this, but seems far trickier than the ‘real’ point)

First sign of wildlife

We could hear some peeping in stereo (over there! no, over there) from what I think were golden plover – couldn’t see them but they must have been flying nearby in the cloud.

Around Carn an t-Sagairt Beag

Reaching the burn of the two birch trees, it was instead burn of the two water patches, and we crossed carefully on snow bridges. It had been drizzling steadily and we were uncertain of how the snow would fare at our destination of Coire Boidheach.

Across Burn of 2 Birches
Dreich at Carn a Choire Bhoidheach

We headed to the munro top to take a bearing to the coire, the low visibility would mean it’d be easy to miss, and sure enough once we were back on snow we could see very little except shades of grey and not much visual info to see slope

A few snowballs were thrown heading down into the coire as visual markers, and the doubters who having seen bare patches of ground had thought there’d not be enough snow depth were soon pacified within the white maw of the gully.

Heading down the corrie. Watching out for the buried stream

I tested the banks of snow: the hard ice side had received another couple feet but the ice was too much of a barrier: on the other side there was a layer of damp slushy snow (you can’t dig a safe shelter in that) but underneath there was ‘dry’ and hard stuff that was spot on. The temperature was set to dip below freezing overnight which would solidify the ‘structure’. The corniced bank had also provided shelter to other creature: a line of spots indicating where ptarmigan had hunkered down

Ptarmigan like this corrie

We had a brief lunch to get energy, said our farewells to the walkers – they had a dreich walk back down, where as we had a few hours ahead of digging.

Heading towards sundown

We dug 2 entry tunnels inwards, this allows 2 people to be digging at once, then turned towards one another, until the ‘join’ (obligatory handshake) then whittled out enough space for the 3 of us to lie down and also unpack some kit.

Tunnel starting inwards for about 2m
Fellow digger breaks through

Just in time for nightfall, we finished and took our stuff inside to cook some food. There was an annoying drip where some damp snow above was draining through, and some of the sheen on the snow wasn’t great (you want freezing conditions, this was on the edge and humid too). I stuck a bivvy bag on my sleeping bag: it’d protect against drips but makes for a sweaty sleeping environment. After eating, I was beginning to chil, so headed out for a walk to generate some heat before turning in. No sign of any aurora, there was the odd clear patch above and a few stars but nowhere near the pristine clarity of the previous overnighter here. I turned off my headlight to allow my eyes to adjust and could see some faint glow south, some distant towns.

Nigh time stroll on the plateau
Back at the hole. We’d blocked up one of the entry tunnels, and laid a bothy bag over the other as a ‘spindrift curtain’ although it was low wind so not particularly needed.

I had a fairly uncomfortable sleep all told, although this time there wasn’t spindrift or intense cold, there was just general dampness: I’d taken some wet bits n bobs and put them between the bag liner and the bag in a futile attempt to dry them out, but all told I should have (apart from my boots) left them out. The 1 beer I’d taken with me meant a night visit outside too, squandering generated warmth.

Light began to creep into the hole in the morning and we looked out to better weather, and after some breakfast there was even strong sun that had us laying out our bags to air.

Morning in Coire Boidheach
Whisps of morning cloud
Hazy then sunny then hazy again
Breakfast view
A tour around the coire
All our junk outside: the abode in it’s pristine decor
Wide view with blocked entry tunnel
Arty beer shot

At Beinn Bhrotain we’d failed at ‘cornice challenge’ but here the extra snow layer on top of the ice, and the flat top made things relatively easy to kick into and then lever over.

Cornice challenge
Uh oh please don’t go again sun

Cloud had moved in again and we blocked up the entrance, left out sleep kit and headed for a wander

Blocked door

We headed over to Coire an Loch Bhuidhe, negotiating streams popping from under the snow

Brief view of Cac carn Mor
Lower Coire Boidheach tumbling towards Dubh Loch
Coire an Loch Bhuidhe

Coire an Loch Bhuidhe (another snow hole location) has some gentle slopes with low-hazard run-out that make it great for practising some winter skills: we spent some time glissading, doing ice-axe arrest and creatung stomper belays before heading on.

Back towards ‘home’

Packing up our sleep kit, it was back on with the heavy packs (heaviest of the year pretty much with winter kit + digging kit) and we headed over towards The Stuci leaving the coire to the Ptarmigan who looked keen to scuttle back there

“They’re leaving, great let’s head back down”
High contrast cloud layer : looking north
A look at The Stuic
Looking south west towards Coire an Loch Kander
More gurgling Ptarmigan. They make some unusual noises
heading back around Sagairt Beag
Distant mountains
Looking back to Lochnagar
Across the stream
Ballochbuie view

On the way down, some splashes in a small pond caught the eye: frogs were out in force, and the results of their activities. Even better, there were a few newts readily visible, something I’ve not seen in years.

A stiff hike down with a large pack, I had to put the hammer down too to make it to the bus in time. Snowhole is always a tough gig, but a unique way to experince the winter mountains. A shame about the weather this time: in future I think it best to be done at times of ideal conditions (I’ve had loads of those this winter) and not scheduled in as a particular date in advance. On a better day I’d have liked to try making a quinzhee or a sig-igloo, with winter drawing towards a close this’ll probably need to wait until next winter though.

Classic view across The Dee

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