Chris Hatherill: Snowed out
After our treacherous ascent up from basecamp (aka the ski resort parking lot), the summit is at last in sight. Wintery winds whip down on us from the plateau we’re attempting to reach, where as part of the aptly-named Winter Fest 2012 we’re planning to dig out a hole in the snow, fit lintels to ensure it doesn’t reseal itself during the night (!) and camp out in a glorified fridge-freezer. Down below, the clouds have all but blocked off the rest of the Cairngorm landscape from view, leaving only the ridge, a few ski-lift poles and the summit in sight. To quote Jarvis Cocker, the normal world feels very, very, very far away.
On our backs, we’re carrying everything we need to survive a night on the mountain: stoves, bivvy bags, snow shovels, sleeping bags, spare clothes and all our food, which in my case includes a Kendal Mint Cake that’s been languishing in the back of my closet, waiting for its big moment. Walking poles and ski goggles complete the look. Every step we take brings us closer to the plateau, and our excitement builds, but with each step also seems to bring stronger gusts. As we press on, I begin to worry the trek will be called off. The wind is now howling and the light seems to be fading, but that only makes it feel like a real adventure. In my head, architectural plans for a labyrinthine snow fort begin to unfold – complete with lounge area and built-in shelving carved from the snow. The dream is suddenly shattered as two figures emerge from the white out ahead of us: two mountain rescue personel coming down the mountain. After a quick chat, Chris decides it’s best to call off the expedition, considering the conditions and the long walk ahead. It’s probably the wisest decision, but I’m gutted.
Reflecting on the way back down, I assess the things I’ve learnt during my short time out in the Scottish winter:
• Winter camping (albeit without a tent) in a wooded valley is no preparation for camping on a mountain
• B2-rated winter boots aren’t great for walking around in – trudging nearly 20 miles the day before in what are essentially ski boots was not bright
• Kendal Mint Cakes are heavy
Once safely off the mountain, we head west to join the rest of the Winter Fest gang in Kintail. Arriving at the Kintail Hotel and Lodge, who kindly prepare a room at the last minute, the disappointment of not getting to sleep in a snow fort is amplified by rolling news coverage of the massive snowfall everywhere else in the UK. Although enjoyed at the time, I’m probably the first journalist in history to complain about being able to enjoy a cold beer and a hot bath at the end of a day’s trekking.
The next day brings consolation with the news that we can now join the planned Avalanche Awareness expedition to the South Shiel Ridge to learn about how to avoid the pitfalls of mountaineering in the snow. Led by Keith Miller of the Sportscotland Avalanche Information Service, we traipse up a winding road towards the snowline, passing grazing deer and half-frozen streams coursing through rocks and over moss. As we leave the trail and begin climbing towards the white stuff, Keith explains his daily routine: a solo ascent beyond the snowline to check conditions and access the risk of unstable snow building up. We learn how to spot telltale cracks forming in footprints, how to dig and test sections of snow for possible collapse, and how to read the geological-style layers of snow to get a feel for past weather. Looking down through the bands of ice and snow, we can see the entire Scottish winter layed out like tree rings – if only there was a taller top layer, I can’t help but thinking, we’d be in business!
Still, the previous day’s bone-chilling trek up the Cairngorms and Keith’s stories of hikers caught unawares have been an eye-opening experience. As the bus weaves its way back along the frozen roads towards Inverness and the sleeper train back home, any thoughts of striking off alone for the hills to camp sans tent rapidly fade. Being guided by local experts and people who really know the hills, I realise, is a pretty good idea. The next morning, traipsing back through snowy Hackney and eyeing the potential for snow forts, I’m already thinking about next year.
Chris Hatherill is web editor of walk. For more on Winter Fest and Natural High Guiding’s summer festival in Glen Affric, visit www.naturalhighguiding.co.uk. Accomodation for Winter Fest was kindly supplied by Kintail Hotel and Lodge, Kyle of Lochalsh, Ross-shire, Scotland, IV40 8HL ✆ 01599 511275.