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Snowy Cairn Gorm: Plan D or was it Plan E?

Snowy Cairn Gorm: Plan D or was it Plan E?

Postby uk-scrambler » Sun Apr 16, 2023 3:03 pm

Munros included on this walk: Cairn Gorm

Date walked: 14/04/2023

Time taken: 6.5 hours

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We didn't intend to climb Cairn Gorm on this day. We didn't even intend to be anywhere near the Cairngorms. This was our first time out in the hills this year and, as ever, work/school commitments meant we had a small window of opportunity to get out and about. We'd marked out this Friday on the calendar about a couple of weeks prior and decided we'd check the forecast nearer the time and make plans accordingly.

Original plan was to head to Blair Atholl and climb the Beinn a' Ghlo three. I kept checking the forecast from about a week out and it couldn't make up its mind. Would it be rain, sun, snow or a bit of everything? Certainly it wouldn't be entirely moisture free but if you wait around for the perfect forecast in the highlands you could end up sitting inside all year! Two days before, it was looking good, perhaps a smidge of light rain. (We still have nightmares about what 'light rain' can mean after our Beinn Eunaich disaster https://www.walkhighlands.co.uk/Forum/viewtopic.php?f=9&t=113349).

We were going to leave 4am on the Friday. One last check of the forecast before going to bed: ah, hmm, heavy snow and very poor visibility. Bugger. I quickly gathered together all my OS maps and looked for alternatives. Complete our unfinished work in the Arochar alps? Nope - looks bad too. Ben Lawyers? Nope - looks worse. Back to Glencoe, nope, the forecast was bad everywhere unless you go further north. The Cairngorms forecast looked most optimistic. I hadn't intended going that far but sometimes you have to take what the mountains are offering!

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We set out as planned and when the sun came up the weather was fantastic all the way up the A68 and the M90, all the way up to Perth where we had an early breakfast. Perhaps we could go for Beinn a' Ghlo after all? Nope, not far up the A9 the weather was as advertised, bleak. Decided therefore to go for Cairn Gorm. It didn't look good as the snow was falling heavily around Dalwhinnie. I was having serious doubts about the forecast. But, lo! What was that? Blue skies in Aviemore. We arrived at Cairn Gorm base station and the weather was fine. Snow on the tops. Chilly. But a good decision to push on northwards.

Good decision. The weather looked a lot better north of the Cairngorms.

We thought we'd go for Cairn Gorm, which would be easy enough. But then where? Bynack More was the target. Beinn Mheadhoin would be nice but probably a bit much for what we had in mind. Ben Macdui was probably doable but we wanted to go for some new peaks (we did a great summit bivvy on Ben Macdui in 2021).

Here-we-go. Straightforward slog up from the ski centre to Ptarmigan Station. Weather looking good.

Wasn't expecting it to be sunny. This is nice.

We headed upwards roughly parallel with the funicular railway. There didn't seem to be many people around. I'm not sure if there is an actual path along the route we took, the snow was fresh and lying quite low so we made our way upwards more or less direct. This would be the pattern for the day - route finding not too bad when the visibility was ok, but finding a path more or less impossible the other side of Cairn Gorm. It was easy enough getting up to Ptarmigan Station even though the clag came down and the snow started to fall.

Fresh snow. Easy enough to get up to Ptarmigan Station.

Now the weather starts.

Suddenly there's lots of people around. The ski season still going strong in mid-April.

Having never been up here at this time of year we were surprised to find the ski runs at Ptarmigan Station busy. The route up to Cairn Gorm summit was snowy but straight forward. We could have saved ourselves an hour by getting the funicular up to Ptarmigan station (that seemed to be what most people who went to Cairn Gorm summit that day did).

The route to Cairn Gorm summit. Easy enough. Poor visibility but no chance of getting lost.

Keep going.

Lots of snow and wind. Still, one of the easier Munros. Nearly there.

IMG_3723 2.jpg
Some mug at the summit.

Summit bagged. Where to now? What can we see?

At the summit visibility was low but its impossible to get lost with the well marked path from Ptarmigan station and the cairns on the summit plateau. We stopped for a bit and considered where to go next. Visibility at this point was not more than a few metres but we decided, still, we'd give the weather chance to improve and we'd head off into the whiteness towards Ciste Mhearad direction hoping to pick up the path that runs down to Glen Avon.

There is a path on the OS map that runs from the summit in roughly the 1 o'clock direction, not far from the main route to the summit. We aimed for this. But, alas, there are no cairns (not that we could see anyway!). Pretty soon we were marooned in the clag. I believe we ended up going in more like a 2 o'clock direction. There is a surprisingly large rocky feature on the summit plateau, not well marked on the OS map, that fooled us into thinking it could be Cnap Coire na Spreidhe - even though we knew we'd not gone far enough to be there yet. The lack of any visible landmarks can mean all bearings are lost surprisingly quickly. It's not much of a worry on the Cairn Gorm summit plateau because we knew we could head back west-ish and we would soon pick up the line of cairns near the summit. But we we would not be confident going out into the wilderness beyond Cairn Gorm if there was no visibility! After a while the clouds did part and we were able to spy Beinn Mheadhoin across the way, looking a lot closer than I thought it would.

The other side of Cairn Gorm. First glimpse of the Cairngorms proper through the clouds. Looking south.

Suddenly we had a good view of it. A black and white world of snow and rock opened up below us. The alien tops of Beinn Mheadhoin clearly visible across the way. We've not climbed that one yet, one I'm looking forward to, but have always liked the look of it since we first saw it from a different angle, at dawn above a cloud inversion after our night on Ben Macdui. Loch Avon was like a black hole way down at the bottom of the crags. I think Ben Macdui and Derry Cairngorm would be visible if the cloud had lifted fully, but as it was we it was Loch Etchachan that was about as far as we could see.

Wow. The 'alien mountain' Beinn Mheadhoin shows itself. We didn't see any other people this side of Cairn Gorm.

The views open up. Looking across in Ben Macdui and Derry Cairngorm direction (hidden by clouds). Loch Etchachan sat there in the basin. Anyone fancy a dip?

Cairngorms in monochrome. Everything is black and white. A very bleak looking Loch Avon down there at the base of Beinn Mheadhoin.

We had a good view over towards Bynack More, our second target for the day. It took us some time, as the cloud lifted, to convince ourselves that it really was Bynack More we were looking at. It looked so close. It looked like it would be easy to get down to the saddle above Loch Avon and skip across over A'Choinneach towards the summit. But - we've been fooled by distances before in the Cairngorms. The lack of anything in the foreground or mid-ground means it is hard to judge distance. The thing that scuppered our Bynack More plans was route-finding. We could see where we needed to go. But could we find the path down to the saddle? Not a chance, the snow was much deeper and more widespread than we'd expected. Without the path it was hard work going over boulder fields when every now and then one or both of us would sink down thigh-high in the snow. Still, if we could have guaranteed good visibility we probably would have gone for it. As it was it was the difficulty with path-finding and the threat of on/off visibility that meant we reluctantly downgraded our expectations. We decided we'd get down to the Saddle then make a final call on whether to go for Bynack More.

Hmm, is that really Bynack More? It is. It looks so close. Should be easy to bag that too.

Beinn Mheadhoin. The alien mountain. The second time we have encountered it. First time in snow. Not climbed it yet.

Time for lunch. A spot just above the 'saddle' where we would have turned left and slogged it up to Bynack More if the weather wasn't threatening zero visibility.

We did find the path eventually and the going was much easier. We might have pushed on if we'd have seen any other hikers around on that side of Cairn Gorm. It didn't feel right to carry on as it was - if we couldn't keep on the path when the visibility was reasonable what chance would we have when the clag came back? We stopped for lunch then decided to make our way back to Cairn Gorm summit. We had an idea we might descend back down as a scramble via the Fiacaill ridge.

Here comes the clouds and the horizontal stuff. Glad we didn't go for Bynack More. Goodbye Beinn Mheadhoin. Until next time...

It was the right decision to turn back. Not far above where we'd stopped for lunch the cloud closed in and the hail was whipping our faces.

Looking bleak on the way back to Cairn Gorm summit.

Cairn Gorm summit re-visited. Looking in Braeriach direction. We considered descending as a scramble down the Fiacaill ridge. Decided against.

Back at the summit the call of food and warmth was too great and we decided to do our bit for the local economy and take the funicular back down (after we'd turned our noses up at the folks who'd taken it on the way up!). It was actually a lot of fun.

Cheating. But why not? Fish and Chips in Eyemouth was calling us.

A great day out. But not what we had in mind when we planned our first trip out of the year!
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Joined: Sep 1, 2021

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