The incredible power of awe - Sgor Gaoith winter summit camp

Munros: Sgòr Gaoith

Date walked: 02/12/2023

Time taken: 14.31 hours

Distance: 31.87km

Ascent: 1346m

The power of awe, and it's amazingly beneficial & important effects on our nervous systems in something I've come to understand more recently. In fact there's a professor called Dacher Keltner who has written a fascinating book on it. And it made me think – those of us who spend a lot of time in the great outdoors often witness amazing things on a grand scale. But there are fewer of those occasions where I've been left almost speechless (a grand feat for me, Malky would say) by the “wow” factor of something I've witnessed. This weekend was one of those “wow” moments.

Sgor Gaoith, on the edge of the Cairngorm plateau, is a hill that has eluded me for many years. One summer I walked all the way up to Loch Einich, planning to head up Sgor Gaoith. But once I arrived at the loch I decided it was such a beautiful day and I would rather sit on the beach for hours before walking back. A 20km round trip to sit on a beach (absolutely worth it, by the way).
(July 2018)

Another time, Malky & I had walked up Braeriach for sunrise and had planned to walk around to Sgor Gaoith. But it this time, we sat around on the plateau for ages in the sunshine before heading down (& thank goodness we did, because the walk out from Loch Einich on one hour of sleep nearly finished us both – that's what you get for doing a sunrise hike the night the clocks went forward eh... :roll: )
(March 2019)

Since then, Sgor Gaoith had featured in several plans, but never materialised. And then March 2020 happened.

The Covid Pandemic & lockdowns haven't been fun for anyone, and many suffered with not getting out on the hills amongst other things. But for me, March 2020 was the beginning of 3+ years of hell. The Covid infection I picked up left me with Long Covid, an illness where the only thing I knew to do – pushing through – was literally the worst thing to do; although it took me a long time to work this out and find the things that did help. It felt like my body, which I had always taken for granted as it turns out, was basically working against me, in what felt like an act of betrayal. It was a hellish experience I wouldn't wish on anyone, and I am extremely grateful to have now recovered from.

Since around April/May this year I've been able to start rebuilding fitness – a frustrating experience, but again, one I'm grateful to be able to have. To begin with I had to be very cautious, and then as I gained a bit of fitness & confidence I was able to push a bit more. Initially, Sgor Gaoith was not even close to being within the scope of what I could do, even by the “easy” route. But over time, it got mentioned. But it was a bit far. And then the weather was better elsewhere. Or the weather was awful everywhere!

But on Friday lunchtime, Malky said “So, what are we doing this weekend?”

I had a quick check of the forecast and said, “Sgor Gaoith summit camp.” And although Malky's face - when he also checked the weather and saw full sunshine, low winds, and yes, -10C – was an absolute picture, by just after 8 on Saturday morning (just after, rather than just before, because Malky had to have an emergency stop at the Tesco toilet in Aviemore), we were parked up near Whitewell and on our way.

The car was reading -10C as we left the car which made the thought of a night at 800m higher feel little daunting as it would undoubtedly be significantly colder. But we headed off before we had too much time to think about it! The track was quite icy initially, but once past the house the snow was deeper and made for easier walking (for now....) and we were soon passing a very frozen Lochan Deo

It's amazing the way that the snow seems to muffle any sound – it was early, but not that early! There were a few sets of footprints ahead of us – most likely from the day before – but a lot of the snow felt surprisingly untouched.

As we gently climbed, we started to see the sun hitting Meall a' Buachaille behind us

Ahead, the snow was clinging to the trees and it felt like a real winter wonderland

When the path split, we took the higher option, thinking it would make for easier walking. It didn't feel that easy – as we continued there were fewer footprints and more snow! But as we reached the high point of the track we were treated to some excellent views of our target!

Partially frozen river

As we reached the bridge, we were caught up by a runner! Not sure how he was coping with running as we were finding walking hard enough, but he was moving quicker than us – also carrying a lot less, mind! We stopped for a quick chat before he overtook us. We also stopped for a look at the weird ice pancakes in the water – a lot of the rocks under the water were frozen too, but still flowing.

The hill didn't appear too far away, but the miles ticked over and over – amazing how difficult it is to get an idea of distance, especially in the snow! But we did finally appear to be making progress

Now almost at the loch, we were down to 2 sets of footprints – everyone else appeared to have turned back, including the runner who was foiled by a river crossing. Not wanting wet boots, I decided to utilise my neoprene socks, which required a bit of faffing but kept my boots dry.


The sheer scale of these buttresses impressed me before. This time they were covered in snow which just gave it that extra element of “wow”

We were finally at Loch Einich – a bit different from the last time we had been here – our previous tent pitch was under snow (although given that we were intending to camp on the plateau, I do appreciate the irony of being shocked at this :lol: ) We were actually pleasantly surprised that the loch wasn't frozen. Malky had drawn the line at carrying the sledgehammer, and we'd previously discovered that ice axes don't really work that well on frozen lochans!

We had to cross the river, which wouldn't have been too hard in different conditions. But the rocks that were above the water were covered in ice which wasn't hugely helpful! After Malky made it look difficult, I decided to just stick the neoprene socks on again as I was planning on getting into the water anyway! The water was cold – obviously – but not as bad as I'd imagined it might be


Look at that beach of pristine snow!!

And then it was time for a swim! Off goes Malky, with the usual grumbling of “I can't believe you're making me do this again” :lol:

And there's me! It was absolutely glorious in the water! Cold, obviously – but what a spot for a swim! Loch Einich is definitely one of my favourite spots – it was one that was immediately on my hit list as soon as I started cold water to help with Long Covid, but it was way out of my league until more recently. It was so exciting to be able to do something, which I had initially started doing for its therapeutic benefits, in a way that was also an adventure! It felt incredible to be there, and in such perfect weather too 8)

It was definitely lunchtime by the time we were out of the water, dried off and wearing all of our layers to warm us up. Malky got the stove on for a cup of tea to go with our sandwiches. I attempted to dry my towel before it froze (I failed – when we arrived home, both my towel & neoprene shoes were frozen solid!)

Malky contemplating “Sgor Gaoith direct”

The day was somewhat getting away from us – the loose snow and the swimming was definitely slowing us down and we reckoned the worst was still to come (and we were correct). Our next stage was to follow the path along the side of the loch and climb up the coire at the back. Easy enough in summer I'm sure, but covered in unconsolidated snow was another matter....

It was extremely tough going before we'd even gained any height. Malky did a pretty job of sticking to the path for the most part, but every other step a foot would drop into a hole, hit a rock or drop a big pile of snow into my boot (if only I'd remembered gaiters!!). We made slow progress – once we did start to climb it was even harder work! But the views back down to Loch Einich definitely made up for it.

The path – or what we could follow of it – took us into the coire, at which point we were dumped in a bowl of powder snow, with 45 minutes until sunset :lol:

We filled up all our water as we weren't sure of having any running water higher than here. To be honest we were quite surprised to find any here!

We stumbled our way across the floor of the coire before deciding it would probably be easiest to head up the rocky rib rather than sink into the deeper snow away from it

I think this was probably the correct decision, but it didn't make it an easy one! The snow was so slippery and the gradient steep, that feet were slipping from under us. Malky with his longer legs was finding it hard enough, but I felt myself floundering at times, especially with the heavier load on my back – this was my first time carrying my bigger pack since illness, and I was really noticing the difference!!

It was really tough. Malky was grumbling away and I was swearing and blowing out my backside. He was blaming me for this stupid idea and I was just trying to stay on my feet and get up the slope! There was so much loose snow around that even though there was practically no wind, somehow it was blowing around. I think some of it was coming off Malky's boots, so I tried staying a bit further back :crazy:

As we started to pull out of the worst of it, the sun was setting. We were missing it, unfortunately, but the light behind us on Braeriach made up for it!

Looking south to Monadh Mor, which was probably looking as pretty as it ever did!

Finally a glimpse of the summit!! And oh my goodness did it look a long way away – even further than it normally would because of the snow conditions!!

Finally we were actually on the plateau. Although when we had been lower we'd both been dreaming of a beautiful expanse of consolidated snow, as we'd come up the coire we'd sort of lost hope of that. So we weren't surprised (but we were disappointed) when the snow here was super hard work. But we plodded on – although we were still going uphill, the gradient was a lot easier now!

A tired Malky!

We plodded on through the snow, past the lochan known as the Breakfast Well; although the lochan was covered in snow, the ruins of one of the very old bothies was visible. We then managed to find the only water on the plateau that wasn't frozen, as Malky fell through the snow into a bog :lol: I did slightly better but still got the top of my boot a bit damp. Our boots then iced up and we ended up with huge chunks of ice stuck to the bottoms which took a fairly serious thwack with an ice axe to remove!

Although the sun had set, we were now treated to some incredible light to the west

Slightly zoomed, Ben Nevis & the Creag Meagaidh window are particularly prominent

Looking back....

THE SUMMIT!! We actually made it – and before it was totally dark!

Last light from the summit of Sgor Gaoith – what a mammoth effort

Looking onwards down the ridge

True to the forecast, there wasn't a breath of wind, so we were able to find the perfect pitch just beneath the summit, and get the tent up just as the light was going

It was time to get ourselves settled, mats blown up, extra layers on & get a cup of tea on the go!

Once we had drunk a good load of tea – we had built up quite a sweat on the final climb – we got dinner on and were able to stand around enjoying the fabulous views. It felt so incredibly magical standing up there in the still darkness, looking at stars. Every time I saw some stars, I then saw more behind. The Milky Way was so clear.

There had been some pretty awesome aurora activity the few days before, and we thought the icing on the cake would be to catch some from up here. I did wonder if there was a hint of it in this photo, but unfortunately it turned out to be a lot of airglow around that night. I almost didn't care because it was a super cool experience!

As we stood out marvelling at the sky and the surroundings, we spotted what looked like a lot of shooting stars all together. Once I'd realised how ridiculous that sounded, it obviously wasn't that :lol: But apparently it was Starlink – a train of satellites, which I'd never heard of, but Malky had. Pretty cool to see!

I think there's definitely an element of not truly appreciating things until we have them taken from us. I definitely saw my fitness and ability to get out into nature as almost something I was entitled to. I absolutely took it for granted before. It was just something I loved doing, so I did it. I definitely don't take that for granted anymore! I was loving each moment of being out there. Even the difficult bits :lol:

At this point, the blocks of ice that were attached to Malky's legs (more usually known as his feet) decided that they'd had enough, so we retreated inside the tent for a bit. It was so incredibly still and it felt amazing just lying there. I almost wanted to lie in the tent with the door open. I say almost, because it was COLD!

A few hours later nature called, which meant heading outside with the camera because the moon had risen and was shining on the snow which just looked incredible. I couldn't believe how awesome it looked – the photos just don't do it justice at all!

Before falling asleep properly, we remembered to bring the water and boots inside the tent. Unfortunately the water should have gone in the sleeping bags, as we woke to up to 3 litres of ice :lol: But the boots did largely survive – mine more so than Malky's, which made me extra glad I had gone to the effort of crossing the rivers in my feet!

Morning dawned – it had been a cold night, but tucked inside our sleeping bags with all our clothes on we were warm and toasty. Malky was very grateful for my spare sleeping bag – I was in my Arctic Dream, leaving him free to borrow my Alpine, which was a lot warmer than what he usually uses. And I finally felt vindicated in buying the Arctic Dream – these were the conditions I was dreaming of when I bought it years ago!

Looking out the tent door, the light was starting to get going and I was going to have to dig out my boots so I could enjoy sunrise! Artistic use of my walking pole (which I had placed there to hopefully stop one of walking off the cliff in the dark!)

Now in better light, we were able to inspect our tent pitch – surprisingly good! The pegs were struggling in the loose snow, so we had used ice axes to hold it in place. A little unorthodox perhaps, but it worked :lol:

The summit & our tent

Looking south

Loch Einich

I ran (or trudged) back up to the summit – there was a load of low-lying cloud in the glen, but up high it was cool, calm & clear

Here comes the sun!


As the sun came up, the snow started to glow that incredible orange and it just felt magical! I couldn't believe that we were here! I just felt like jumping around in excitement!



A silly sunrise Jaxter

Looking down to Loch Einich

The sun hitting the Monadhliath

Back at the tent, Malky had been melting snow to make tea :lol:

We took our time with tea & breakfast. It felt so amazing to be here. I didn't want to leave! But eventually we realised how far we had to get back, so we took the tent down and packed up. Malky wasn't massively happy about carrying his 2 litres of ice back down :lol:

Adventure time is back 8)

There were bits of cloud drifting around to the south. However we had already decided against the original plan, which was to head over to Mullach Clach a' Bhlair. In consolidated snow, it would have been a dream. But in the loose powder it would be more of a war of attrition!

The new plan was to head over to Sgoran Dubh Mor, and hopefully down the ridge from there, but we were hoping that maybe someone had been there already and might have left some footprints to follow, otherwise it was going to be very hard work....

From the summit of Sgor Gaoith – looking straight down the snowy crags

Crime against fashion Jaxter 8)

Not even sure what this is... :lol:

A last look back from the summit before heading off

The footprint situation up to Sgoran Dubh Mor was good. We thought we'd seen someone one skis but they had disappeared quickly. We kind of wished we'd brought skis, but also remembered that we would have needed to carry them as well. So maybe not....

Sgoran Dubh Mor

Looking back to Sgor Gaoith

Looking across to the rest of the Cairngorms, it seemed we might have the best of the weather! Although the Lurcher was clear, there was cloud drifting around

Looking down towards Kingussie

I was all for carrying on down the ridge – Malky was a bit more wary of the deep snow (sort of fair enough as he was breaking more of the trail than me). But there was one set of prints heading down, so I managed to persuade him that it would be really easy and we should totally do it, rather than dropping down into Glen Feshie...

We made it to Sgoran Dubh Beag, which had an impressive view down the side of no. 1 buttress to Loch Einich


Sgor Gaoith is such an impressive hill! I was so glad that I'd finally made it, and in such awesome weather

Looking down into Gleann Eanaich...

...and then along the ridge ahead of us....

...it was clear how far we had to go!! We were making slow progress. The footprints were really helpful, but it was still tough going. The snow was unconsolidated, very deep in places and uneven in others. Even in the bits where it seemed to be slightly easier soon ended with a foot sinking deep into the snow without warning!

After a long tough slog, we finally made it to the 833 point on the ridge and stopped for lunch. Despite tucking water bottles down our jackets, we were struggling to melt any of the ice and were only getting small trickles of water. Malky got the stove out and melted us a nice big pot of tea to have with our sandwiches (which had largely survived their deep freeze) and the cherry tomatoes (which had become frozen tomato-pops :lol: )

At this point, the footprints carried on down into the glen. I was keen to stay on the ridge, in the snow and the sunshine. And to be fair, the snow was much easier to walk on now. As we pondered, we were joined by 3 people who had come up from the glen. They also stopped for some food before continuing along the ridge – we were in luck as they started to leave some footprints for us!

Looking down into Glen Feshie

Unfortunately we overtook our new friends, but the snow was much easier to walk in here. “Thank goodness” said my legs.

East was now looking sunnier and clearer

We had thought to drop off Creag Dhubh at the end of the ridge down onto the Drake's bothy path, and then around past Loch an Eilein. But now Malky got ridge fever and wondered if we should just stay high... A check of the map suggested this wasn't the worst idea, and that if we followed the ridge around it ought to drop us onto the high point of the Gleann Eanaich track. In theory....

So on we went. And we got a view of Loch an Eilein that is quite rare – there are not many places that overlook it! Surprisingly only the end in the shade looked like it was frozen.

As we got lower down the ridge, the snow became looser again, and we looked like we might be heading into a mini-forest & heather nightmare. Fortunately it didn't really become any worse than what we'd already experienced!

As the ridge started to bend around to drop us into Gleann Eanaich, we were able to see all the way back up the glen. The sky was starting to do some pretty cool stuff, and as the light started to drop we were reminded yet again how long it took to do anything in deep snow, as well as how little daylight there was at this time of year!

The last bit down to the track was slippery and our tired legs were slipping around all over the place. We were so looking forward to the track!

And then we were there! The track still had a lot of snow on it, but had probably had a bit more footfall since the previous morning. Plus it was a track (although we hadn't quite hit the high point and had to climb up a bit – raging!) The sky was doing incredible things and we wanted to stand and watch it rather than move! We at least had some water now, so enjoyed what little we had.

It was two tired bodies that trudged along the track. But we felt elated! Well I did anyway. I think Malky just had cold feet – unfortunately his boots had got wet the day before and had then frozen!

We had to keep stopping to look back as the sky kept getting more impressive

Meall a' Buachaille ahead


Some final light in the west

I loved the trees with snow on them – I think Malky was probably wishing I would stop taking photos so we could get back to the car and pick up ice-cream in Aviemore!

There were a few moments where we almost went flying on ice, but we safely arrived back at the car and gladly removed our heavy bags! My boots were actually fine, but Malky was extremely pleased to take his off (he said it took 2 days for his toes to feel normal afterwards!) We of course stopped for ice-cream & waffles, because clearly that's the appropriate thing to do when it's many degrees below freezing :lol:

Well – I had finally conquered Sgor Gaoith, in fairly spectacular fashion! Maybe not the best winter route, but I didn't regret a moment of it. And my fitness may not be quite what it was before Long Covid, but it's getting pretty close 8)

Jaxter 2.0 is back!

Day 1 - Sgor Gaoith via Loch Einich
Stats: 17.2km, 1044m ascent, 8 hours 10 mins

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Day 2 - Sgor Gaoith ridge back to Whitewell
Stats: 14.67km, 302m ascent, 6 hours 21 mins

Sgor_Gaoith_back_to_car.gpx Open full screen  NB: Walkhighlands is not responsible for the accuracy of gpx files in users posts

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Location: Glasgow/Inverness
Occupation: Musician, outdoors enthusiast & baker
Interests: Walking, running, cycling, skiing, playing good music with good people, baking cakes and snuggling.
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Pub: Lochinver Pie Shop
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Distance: 821 km
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Distance: 45.5 km
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