Stormbound in the Cairngorms

A couple of weeks ago I decided that it would be a good time to visit Scotland for some skiing and I ended up booking three nights bed and breakfast accommodation from Tuesday 23rd Feb at the Glenmore Lodge in the Cairngorms. With the amount of equipment I wanted to take it seemed like driving was the best option so I packed everything but the kitchen sink into the car and set off. I actually left on the Sunday because I wanted to visit a friend in Sheffield and stop in the Kielder forest, so I reached the Cairngorms on Tuesday afternoon and conditions looked great with blue skies and the sun shining on snow covered mountains.

The Cairngorms

I stopped in Aviemore to buy some supplies and spoke to a number of people who said that skiing conditions were about as good as they get, so I was looking forward to the next few days as I drove up to the Lodge. Glenmore Lodge is actually a big outdoor activities centre and that evening I sat in on a lecture about avalanche rescue, after which I went to the noticeboard to check the weather forecast. Apparently there was snow on the way. I had brought both downhill and cross country skis with me and I was advised to try downhill first because the wind was forecast to increase over the next two days. This turned out to be excellent advice!

I got up early on Wednesday, had breakfast and got in the car to drive the few miles up to the car park at the base station of the Cairngorm Mountain Railway. It was snowing lightly but the ski area was open so I bought a lift pass and got on the train. A few minutes later I emerged from the top station into a stiff breeze with about 100m visibility. I hadn’t been on downhill skis for a few years and the conditions made it a bit of a challenge. There were drifts already building up in places and the flat light made it difficult to judge the terrain. After a few runs I started to get the hang of it and had an enjoyable day despite the poor weather. At about 3pm the train stopped running due to to deteriorating conditions and the tows started closing shortly after that. A snow plough had been trying to keep the road and car park clear all day but it was still an interesting drive back to the Lodge where I made use of the sauna to ease my aching limbs.

The next morning I woke up to find that about half a metre of new snow had fallen overnight and it was still snowing! The road up to the ski area was apparently impassable and there was avalanche risk on most aspects. Undeterred, after a large breakfast I strapped on my cross country skis and headed up the valley to the Ryvoan bothy. The route up there was fairly well tracked by people who had come down after spending the night, so I made rapid progress. At the bothy I met a load of people with dogs who had come over from the Lake District to train them for avalanche rescue. The training involved burying people in the snow and sending dogs out to find them.

I should have volunteered to be a victim as it is the sort of thing you don’t often get the chance to experience, but I had been looking at the map and decided to try to reach the forest about a kilometre further on. This turned out to be more difficult than I expected as I could not see any sign of a track and I had to plough through snow that often came up above my knees. I did eventually reach the forest where I had a short rest before turning back. I thought the return journey would be easier because I would be able to follow in my own tracks but they had largely drifted over already and I was glad to get back to the bothy for another rest. Skiing back down to the lodge was a doddle and I enjoyed it so much I went out again later to break another trail through the woods. I was still out at dusk and the scenery was magical – a true winter wonderland.

On Friday morning I had to check out by 10am but my car was buried. There was no way I could move it but I dug my way to the door and threw everything inside then spent some more time exploring the forest. By the time I got back to the Lodge the JCB was working on the rear car park and I managed to free my car but although the A9 had apparently re-opened I didn’t fancy trying to drive out. Fortunately for me there were some cancellations at the Lodge so I was able to get a bed for the night. On Saturday morning I heard that the road up to the ski lifts was still blocked and not expected to reopen till Sunday so I went out for one more go on the cross country skis before checking out and setting off for home.

If I had arrived in the Cairngorms a few days earlier I would have had some fantastic skiing, but then if I had arrived a day later I would have got stuck on the A9 and never even reached the Lodge, so things could have been much worse. It is strange being back down South where things are green instead of white. More photos in my Cairngorms 2010 flickr set.

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