A Stellar day in the Cairngorms on 16 March 2011

[Words and photographs by Roy and Mary Starkey]

  • Start and end point – Coire Cas Car Park [Grid Ref: NH 989 060] Altitude 632m (2075 feet)
  • Highest point 1195m (3921 feet) on Cairn Lochan [Grid Ref: NH 987 027]
  • Distance 9.5km (5.9 miles)
  • Height ascended 842m (2762 feet)

Cairngorm Mountains from near Kincardine

Coire Cas car park ahead of the rush of skiers

Mary ascending the Fiacaill a Choire Cas

After leaving Cameron and Elaine in Tyndrum we journeyed north to Aviemore, just ahead of the much heralded “great dump of snow”. Well, we were not disappointed; it snowed continuously overnight on Saturday 12th March and deposited a good covering, well over wellie-depth. We were staying in a relatively remote location on the back road from Aviemore to Nethybridge, and were glad that we had stopped to pick up two days worth of food on our way past Tesco. We were even more pleased when we saw a snow-plough zoom past unexpectedly, meaning that we might yet be able to venture out: but somewhat less pleased to see the 3 foot wall of compacted snow it had deposited, neatly sealing-off our driveway! Shovels to the fore, and we soon had ourselves liberated. The first couple of days were rather mixed and cloudy, with frequent snow showers, meaning that we constrained ourselves to very local walks in the fields, deeply buried in fresh powder snow.

Mary and Coire an t-Sneachda

On the Plateau above Coire an t-Sneachda

However, the MWIS (Mountain Weather Information Service) forecast on Tuesday evening indicated that Wednesday looked like it could be a really good day, so we made lunch the night before, got all the kit packed and rucksacks ready for an early start. Well, we awoke to clear blue skies and sunshine blazing through the window. We were sufficiently ahead of the skier rush to get a parking spot in the main Coire Cas Car park, and were soon making our way up the Fiacaill a Choire Chais ridge onto the plateau. There were plenty of “Winter Skills” course groups on the hill, learning about avalanche awareness and practising their ice axe-arrest technique. It was hard work in the deep fresh snow however, and we switched to crampons and ice axes on the upper reaches as the powder turned to crunchy névé. As we reached the cairn at the top of the ridge we were greeted by a pair of Snow Buntings flitting around.

Looking down into Coire an t-Sneachda

The views in all directions were truly spectacular, with snow-covered peaks visible all the way to the very distant horizon in the warm sunshine. Our initial plan had been to try and get over to Ben Macdui, but the sheer depth of snow on the plateau – extensive areas with drifts to thigh deep – meant that progress was both slow and exhausting, so instead we opted to descend far enough across Coire Domhain to see the head of Loch Avon, have lunch, and then make our way back to Cairn Lochan and descend via the ridge between Coire an t-Sneachda and Coire an Lochain.

Ski tourers climbing out of Coire Domhain

The head of Loch Avon with Beinn Mheadhoin beyond - just fantastic

Mary on the descent to Coire an t-Sneachda

We saw several groups of ski-tourers / ski-mountaineers, who were faring very much better on the loose deep snow than were the small number of walkers on the plateau (lesson there somewhere!). We also saw a few people with snowshoes, which seemed to work surprisingly well – possible future Xmas present perhaps?

The descent down the west ridge of Coire an t-Sneachda was quite exciting with deep snow ledges and accumulations and we met a few ice climbers popping up along the ridge on our way down. Finally we paused to polish up our own ice axe-arrest skills on a steep and nicely frozen slope towards the bottom of the ridge – great fun, and a reminder to us all that you really do need to keep your hand in on this, just in case.

Once back at the car we decided to stop off at Loch Morlich for some evening photos and the view with the still lake and golden evening sunshine was just wonderful – a truly stellar day and one we shall remember for some time to come.

Evening light over Loch Morlich and the northern corries looking at their very best

About Roy Starkey

Roy grew up in the south of England but quickly developed a thirst for mountains and geology. Over the past thirty years or so he has visited many remote parts of highland Scotland in search of mineral specimens and photographs. He and his wife Mary have visited various mountainous areas in Europe and the USA, and climbed Half Dome in Yosemite a year or two ago (a really great day out if you have not done it). Like Cameron he has spent much time in Snowdonia, and the Lake District, but his first love is the Scottish Highlands where he tries to spend at least a couple of weeks every year – winter and summer.
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