Winter in Cairngorms National Park, Scotland

The Cairngorm Plateau consists of bare, stony undulating terrain and can seem benign in clear, summer weather. However it's edged with cliffs and steep slopes, and poor visibility is common as clouds sweep across the slopes. Join Chris Townsend as he crosses the Plateau on a freezing winter day.

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by Chris Townsend | 2009-01-20 00:10:00-07

Click a thumbnail to view the image gallery.

Winter in Cairngorms National Park, Scotland - 1
A lone Scots pine protrudes from the snow on the moors below the Cairngorm Plateau. The peak in the background is Creag an Leth-choin, which translates as Lurcher's Crag. My route led across the partly open stream seen in the center of the picture, then up the ridge above that stream.

Winter in Cairngorms National Park, Scotland - 2
On the western edge of the Plateau looking down into the Lairig Ghru (pass of Dhru), a deep steep-sided trench cutting through the hills. In the distance, the snow-free lower ground of Strathspey - the wide valley of the River Spey - can be seen with the snow-capped Monadh Liath (grey hills) rising on the far side. The pointed peak left of center is Creag an Leth-choin.

Winter in Cairngorms National Park, Scotland - 3
Looking south down the Lairig Ghru pass with the little ponds called the Pools of Dee glinting in the sun. The slopes of massive Braeriach (brindled upland) rise on the right with the pointed peak of Cairn Toul (peak of the barn) to the left. Note the windblown clouds curving over the summits, a sign of changing weather.

Winter in Cairngorms National Park, Scotland - 4
As I climbed the last boulder-covered slopes to the summit of Ben Macdui, the clouds thickened over Braeriach and began to sweep across the Lairig Ghru and onto the Plateau.

Winter in Cairngorms National Park, Scotland - 5
Looking back north across the Plateau from the slopes of Ben Macdui as the cloud sweeps in over the peaks along the northern edge. Two lines of steps in the snow can be seen. Mine is the one on the left.

Winter in Cairngorms National Park, Scotland - 6
On the western edge of the rounded summit dome of Ben Macdui above the Lairig Ghru. The sun still shone on the summit, but to the north the cloud was thickening fast and Strathspey was now dark under the thick grey blanket.

Winter in Cairngorms National Park, Scotland - 7
View from the western edge of Ben Macdui across the Lairig Ghru to Braeriach, capped by a thin layer of cloud, and the huge bowl of An Garbh Choire (the rough cirque) with smaller side bowls cut into the slopes above.

Winter in Cairngorms National Park, Scotland - 8
View from Ben Macdui to the flat-topped Cairn Toul, whose steep east face plunges down into the Lairig Ghru, where the infant River Dee runs out of An Garbh Choire. To the right of Cairn Toul is Sgor an Lochain Uaine (peak of the green pool).

Winter in Cairngorms National Park, Scotland - 9
The great sweep of the western wall of the Lairig Ghru from Cairn Toul over Sgor an Lochain Uaine round An Garbh Choire to Braeriach. The route between Braeriach and Cairn Toul is one of the other superb high level walks in the Cairngorms.

Winter in Cairngorms National Park, Scotland - 10
In the featureless heart of the Cairngorm Plateau looking across hidden deep Glen Avon to the still sunlit peak of Beinn Mheadhoin (middle mountain).

Winter in Cairngorms National Park, Scotland - 11
By the time I reached the northern edge of the Plateau on my way back, I was in mist much of the time. The rocky edges of the Plateau faded in and out in the swirling air. This is Pygmy Ridge on the cliffs of Stob Coire an t-Sneachda (the peak of the cirque of the snows). The little pools on the floor of the cirque can just be seen bottom left.

Winter in Cairngorms National Park, Scotland - 12
A last view down the Stob Coire an t-Sneachda cliffs (popular for winter climbing) to the pools on the floor of the cirque. Shortly after this photograph was taken, the mist closed in completely, and I descended from the Plateau in poor visibility, worsened by the fading of the late afternoon light.

The Cairngorm Plateau lies between the summits of Cairn Gorm (blue hill) and Ben Macdui (Macduff's hill), the second highest mountain in Britain, in the northeast Scottish Highlands. The plateau covers over eight square miles, the largest area over 3,000 feet elevation in Britain. The Plateau consists of bare, stony undulating terrain and can seem benign in clear, summer weather. However it's edged with cliffs and steep slopes, and poor visibility is common as clouds sweep across the slopes. Good navigation skills are essential to find a safe descent route in such conditions. The Plateau is also subject to extreme weather. Heavy snow is common in the winter, often brought on strong winds. From October to May, winds over 100 mph occur every month and 173 mph, the highest wind speed ever recorded in Britain, was registered by the weather station on the summit of Cairn Gorm in March, 1986.

This means that hiking on the Plateau in winter is always a challenging adventure, especially as there are only seven or eight hours of daylight. On this occasion, late in 2008, I set out on a freezing but sunny day intent on crossing the Plateau to Ben Macdui.


Citation

"Winter in Cairngorms National Park, Scotland," by Chris Townsend. BackpackingLight.com (ISSN 1537-0364).
http://backpackinglight.com/cgi-bin/backpackinglight/winter_cairngorms.html, 2009-01-20 00:10:00-07.

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Winter in Cairngorms National Park, Scotland
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Addie Bedford
(addiebedford) - MLife

Locale: Montana
Winter in Cairngorms National Park, Scotland on 01/20/2009 20:39:21 MST Print View

Companion forum thread to:

Winter in Cairngorms National Park, Scotland

John Haley
(Quoddy) - F

Locale: New York/Vermont Border
Re: Winter in Cairngorms National Park, Scotland on 01/21/2009 15:57:44 MST Print View

Great photos, Chris. I never had the opportunity to hike that area except in the summer. It looks as good in the winter as it did in the summer greenery.

Peter Atkinson
(sewing_machine) - MLife

Locale: Yorkshire, England
Winter in Cairngorms National Park, Scotland on 01/22/2009 02:01:30 MST Print View

Yeh, it's a great part of the world; Chris capture's it really well with his imagary and words. I've had some fantastic times in the Cairngorms:Cairngorms winter '08

Chris Townsend
(Christownsend) - MLife

Locale: Cairngorms National Park
Winter in Cairngorms National Park, Scotland on 01/22/2009 05:11:53 MST Print View

Thanks for the comments John and Peter. Peter, that's a good photo - it really captures the vastness of the high Cairngorms.

Joe Westing
(pedro87) - F
Re: Winter in Cairngorms National Park, Scotland on 01/22/2009 15:45:46 MST Print View

Wow, gorgeous photos. You are lucky to be near such amazing terrain.

Edited by pedro87 on 01/22/2009 15:46:16 MST.

John Manning
(pctjohnbadger) - F - M

Locale: Stainforth
Winter 'Gorms... almost as good as Hardcastle Crags! on 01/23/2009 08:24:16 MST Print View

Splendid photos Chris - what a contrast between these and your autumn Cairngorm photo essay. Could be different planets. I've been through the 'Gorms many times but never enjoyed that much snow - how fortunate you are to be on the doorstep.

Marianne van Ginhoven
(mvanginhoven) - M

Locale: The Netherlands
Photos Winter In Cairngorms on 01/25/2009 10:30:37 MST Print View

They are wonderful photos, but might it be possible to show as a slide show together with the commentary? That would be nicer to watch.

George Matthews
(gmatthews) - MLife
Re: Winter in Cairngorms National Park, Scotland on 01/26/2009 15:47:01 MST Print View

Nice photos. They're more inspiration to me, and I'm sure others, to get out in the cold!

Your description speaks of 100+ mph winds and cliffs hidden by clouds not to mention not much daytime hours. Ironically, such adverse conditions produced really beautiful pictures.

I'd believe that this series combined with your Fall article has the potential to increase Scotland's tourism. Beam me up, Scotty!

Norman Bradley
(NormanB) - F

Locale: New York
Caringorms in Winter on 01/26/2009 20:24:52 MST Print View

Chris, great photos.
I thought it was a pretty desolate place in the summer. Some of these pics make it look a bit like the South Pole.

Chris Townsend
(Christownsend) - MLife

Locale: Cairngorms National Park
Winter in Cairngorms National Park, Scotland on 01/27/2009 10:30:11 MST Print View

Thanks for all your comments, everybody.

I think the Cairngorm Plateau does look more desolate in summer than winter. I think it's beautiful in both seasons.

At present there is more snow on the plateau than in the pictures and I am hoping to be ski touring up there later this week.

Edited by Christownsend on 01/28/2009 12:49:32 MST.

Jonas Bodenäs
(greenjuice) - MLife

Locale: Scania (Skåne)
The Camera? on 01/31/2009 09:13:46 MST Print View

Woow, what beautiful photos over the landscapes in Scotland. I've been once in Scotland where I walked at the West Highland Way.

I wonder one thing, according to your blog. You used Sigma DP1, right? What did you think about it? Is the camera suitable for nature photography generally?

Chris Townsend
(Christownsend) - MLife

Locale: Cairngorms National Park
Camera on 01/31/2009 10:32:06 MST Print View

Th DP1 produces great results - the best from any compact - but is slow so it's very much a landscape camera and not an action one. It also has a fixed focal length lens rather than a zoom. My review of the DP1 should appear on BPL soon.