Alfie, my eldest son, often wants to experience some of the things I get up to but commitments like school keep getting in the way. However, each year for his birthday, I try to give him the chance to experience something that he really wants to do. This year his imagination was captured by the idea of snow holing. This was always going to be a bit more involved than last year’s trip to a big indoor climbing wall, so half term provided us with the only realistic opportunity to make the trip.
After the last few years of amazing winters in Scotland, it has been frustrating that this year hasn’t quite lived up to expectations. However, to give ourselves the best chance of a successful trip, I decided to head for Cairngorm where I knew of certain sites where the snow was most likely to have accumulated. The other advantage of this site is it’s altitude – at 1100m, it was above the expected freezing level, so hopefully limiting the chances of the snow hole sagging overnight!
As we made our way up the ridge from the Coire na Ciste car park, I was beginning to wonder whether there would actually be enough snow. The weather was reasonably cold, but not much snow on the ground. Carrying a big expedition rucksack was quite hard work for Alfie. I’d tried to give him all the lighter personal kit, while I took the heavier stuff and all the ‘group’ kit. However, we got into a routine of splitting the ascent into chunks of 100m of height gain, which made it a bit more manageable and we actually made good progress up the ridge as the cloud grew thicker and the wind speed picked up.On the cairn of Cnap Coire na Spreidhe, Alf couldn’t resist posing for the first summit photo but, with the wind blowing at about 50mph, his arms were getting blown all over the place.
Although it was certainly cold and icy on the top, there wasn’t much sign of snow. As we started the final 300m leg from the top into our planned snow hole site, I was still uncertain there would be enough snow to dig a sufficiently large snow hole. However, with about 50m to go, the cloud pulled back slightly to reveal a row of snow hole entrances that had been left by previous explorers.
We dumped our rucksacks and had a nosey look inside them all. With this being Alfie’s first experience of snow holes, I wanted him to be able to have a look at what can be done. Although there tend to be some common design features for the sake of comfort, the only limiting factors are the volume of snow, time and your imagination. We took our lunch break inside a snow ‘palace’, which included two rooms. The first had two sofa sized seats with a table in the middle and a short corridor heading back into the bedroom with two separate beds. Alfie was blown away by the fact that a snow hole could be so big and comfortable. Personally, I was just relieved to see that there was plenty of snow – this particular hole went back about 7m and still no sign of hitting solid ground.
Our lunch gave us the chance to do a little planning for our own construction, and we soon selected a site in the snow bank that looked ideal. We spent all afternoon digging – certainly the longest I’ve ever dug in the snow for. However, in the past, my snow holes have simply been a source of shelter to enable a longer journey. In this case, the whole reason for the trip was the snow whole experience so it made sense to devote more time to it. By the time we had finished, we’d made ourselves an extremely comfortable home for the night.
One of the things that I’d explained to Alfie was the importance of trying to smooth off the roof. If it’s rough, any moisture that condenses on the ceiling will gather on the sections pointing downwards and end up dripping on you during the night. Alf took this to an extreme never before seen in a snow hole. He spent ages smoothing off the walls and ceiling to such a degree that it looked as if we’d brought a professional plasterer along with us!
After a decent breakfast, we headed to the top of Cairngorm itself. With it only being 800m away from our snow hole ,with 150m of ascent, it would have been almost criminal not to have done it. As we left the shelter of the snow hole site we got hit by 70-80mph North-Westerly winds which made it hard to walk straight. It must have taken Alf all of 2 minutes to decide that he needed his goggles to protect his face from the ice being blown in our faces. Again, the visibility was very poor (down to about 30m), making the navigation a bit awkward and a heavy reliance on the compass slowing progress.
Arriving at the top, we took advantage of the shelter provided by the weather station. It might not have been indoors but, after being exposed to the wind, hiding behind a stone wall felt like it. We then made a final 50m dash for the summit cairn, which Alfie clambered up for the obligatory photo, fighting the wind as it buffeted him around.
As we retreated back to the shelter of the weather station, Alfie was fascinated to notice the amount of ice on it’s metal supports. Known as rime, this ice ‘grows’ sideways on objects as the wind blows water vapour which freezes instantly on contact with solid objects.
Once back in the shelter of the snow hole site, we spent much of the day practicing various winter skills with boots, crampons and ice axes. However, it still left us with enough time for a few home improvements, giving ourselves some additional space for our second night out.
After all the fresh air, exercise and a good dinner, we were both shattered and ended up blowing out the candle by about 7pm – I haven’t gone to bed so early for years! However, a decent night’s sleep set us up for an early morning. Within 2 hours we were fed, dressed and packed and said a sad fairwell to our temporary home as we started our way back down the mountain and returned to civilisation and the warmth of the car.
It was a great few days, making the most of the conditions we were faced with. Hopefully, the experience will wet Alfie’s appetite for similar adventures in the future. Happy Birthday!