by Val Hamilton
In Strathspey, most of the ground remains snow-covered. Friends email from further south, telling of time spent in the garden, when here a trip to the compost bin is a major undertaking.
Walking anywhere is difficult, with ice on pavements and deep snow on paths – but high pressure prevails, the air is still and crisp, and there is a risk of taking the world-class views for granted.
Even in these settled conditions, the snow varies daily. As David “Heavy” Whalley said in a highly entertaining mountain safety talk at the Aviemore Mountain Café last week, check the weather and avalanche forecasts, but use your eyes and ears to assess what is actually happening from the moment you set off for the hills. This was one of many commonsense observations made in a presentation which was part of a series organised bythe Mountaineering Council of Scotland.
Whalley’s wisdom stems from 37 years in RAF Mountain Rescue and from evidence accumulated as compiler of Scottish mountain accident statistics. Even my usually critical husband Graham, an ex-rescue team member himself, could find nothing to disagree with in Whalley’s advice and comments.
Last weekend was an example of the need to switch on senses and react to the conditions encountered. The weather patterns looked similar for Saturday and Sunday – sunny, calm, relatively warm – but the reality underfoot was very different.
On Saturday, not fancying the early start required to get a space in the Cairngorm car park, I opted for a ski-tour from home using traditional Nordic touring skis and leather boots. The snow was soft and soggy but deep enough to bear weight, and progress was slow but easy.
My plan had been to head across the moors south-west of Nethy Bridge to Ryvoan bothy, but a set of ski-tracks from the previous weekend was beguiling and I followed them uphill. The snow texture was perfect for fishscale skis – these have a pattern cut into the base to allow grip when ascending. Soon I was approaching the ridge between Craiggowrie and Meall a’ Bhuachaille, and only minor effort was required to reach the crest and the views of endless white mountains.
The heavy snow meant a slow descent. A more confident skier could have pushed off straight down the hill, but – aware of my solitary status – I made long, gentle traverses with step turns to change direction. Not exciting or dramatic, but wonderfully peaceful and relaxing.
With confidence high, the prospect of a Sunday tour of Cairngorm’s northern corries with Graham and our friend Geoff was appealing, but there had been a harder frost and ice in the car park was an indication of conditions ahead. The snow was firm as we set off towards Lurcher’s Gully, and it was not 9am when we put on skins – no grip from fishscales now – to begin the climb to the plateau. We assumed the surface would soften as the sun broke through the early high cloud.
The sun did not break through. Not only did the snow remain unforgivingly solid, it had frozen into the wind-sculpted ripples known as sastrugi – beautiful formations fringed with ice tassels like a vast candlewick bedspread. Desperate terrain to ski over.
Although the cloud was above the summits and macro-navigation was no problem, the light was so flat that, at the micro level, it was impossible to make out the aspect of the slope – or, at times, even to know if we were moving. As Whalley had suggested, ears were giving as much information as eyes, as we reacted to the change of sound from our ski bases.
For the second day running, long, angled traverses were the only safe means of descent. After a final steep climb from Coire Raibert, it was a relief to reach the bustle of Cairngorm summit. The passage of numerous walkers, skiers and boarders had churned the route back to the ski area, allowing a few cautious turns. The ease of return down the pistes reminded us of why this resort-skiing lark had developed in the first place.