The Cairnwell: first winter hillwalk after a sprained ankleFebruary 5, 2019
The Cairnwell is a mountain near Glen Shee in Scotland, an area which I’ve been entranced with since I was a child. It’s astonishing that it’s taken me so long to get round to climbing any of the mountains in this area.
It’s not one of the most scenically beautiful parts of Scotland – in fact, I think it’s the area’s bleakness that used to fascinate me when we drove through it occasionally on family holidays.
The A93 on the approach to the hauntingly bleak Cairnwell Pass in October last year.
“Shee” or “sidhe” in Gaelic, means fairy, and this region does have a haunting quality, probably because the A93 road winds its way through the hills at such a high level, rising to an altitude of 665 metres (or would that be 666?) at the Cairnwell Pass, the highest main road in the UK, next to the Glenshee Ski Centre.
This means that if you’re climbing the surrounding hills, you get a very high start. Many “Munro baggers” tackle the hills around the Cairnwell Pass early on in their bagging career, because they are so (relatively) easy to climb.
The three Munros on the west side of the Pass: Carn Aosda (917m), Carn a’ Gheoidh (975m) and The Cairnwell itself (933m) can be reached with a total climb of just 595m, as you’re starting at an altitude of more than 660m. To bag the four Munros on the east side of the Pass you’ll need to climb a total altitude of 891m.
Map showing our route. We were intending to walk to Carn a’ Gheoidh, at the bottom left on this map, but we decided to turn back.
Bleak and boggy
Most walkers describe these hills as dull, bleak and boggy. That’s why I wanted to climb them in winter. The snow would harden up the bogs, and add interest scenically as well as to the technicality of the route. And this area is known for its mountain hares, which turn white in the winter. I love hares.
I posted the walk as an event for my Meetup group. The main challenge would be driving up the road to the start of the walk, at the top of the Pass, in snowy weather. I was nervous about tackling such a steep road in snowy, icy conditions.
Also, it would be my first big hillwalk in a month. I sprained my ankle on the 5th January, and although it wasn’t a really bad sprain, I wanted to ensure that the swelling had subsided before I headed out to the hills again.
As the day approached, the weather forecast looked so poor that I decided – after a great deal of thought – to cancel the walk. I was worried that we might not be able to get our cars out after the walk if the snowgates were closed. However, one man on the list was still keen to go, and he posted a message, offering to give anyone who was worried about the road conditions a lift in his 4-wheel drive.
I was the only one who took up his offer!
Although I’d never met Carles before, I felt as if I knew him, as he knows many of my friends. He is also an event organiser, with a different Meetup group. And he is also recovering from injury – a more serious one than mine. Around the same time I sprained my ankle, Carles tore a ligament in his knee while skiing with his family in Austria. Carles is very fit and has “compleated” all 282 Munros, but like myself, he was feeling the effects of not having done much physical exercise over the past month.
When we reached the ski centre car park and opened the back of the car to put on our boots, the snow was coming down so fast, carried horizontally by a south-easterly wind, that the car boot was quickly covered in a dusting of snow. We layered up as fast as we could, and waddled across the road to the foot of our first target hill, Carn Aosda.
Ski centre at the start of the walk. The snow was coming down so fast I could barely see to focus!
We had to avoid the ski runs, which meant plodding up the snow-laden hillside, with every single footstep sinking deep. This made it very difficult to walk, though we were assisted by the fence marking out the ski run. It was pretty exhausting!
Carles walked slightly ahead to break the trail. After a while, I offered to take a turn at trail-breaking, but it didn’t really work because as a woman, I don’t weigh so much, so my boot-steps were shallower, and Carles just sank further into them.
We were relieved to reach the summit plateau. From there it’s just a short walk of about 200m with a gentle ascent – only we were walking almost directly into the south-easterly wind, which was blasting us with snow, as each step sank into the drifts.
I was puffing and panting, and imagining what it must be like climbing Everest, when you not only have to cope with these conditions x 10, but you also have issues of altitude, sapping your energy and giving you brain fog.
Summit of Carn Aosda – Munro no. 103 for me. Not many views!
To be honest, I enjoyed the challenging conditions. My five layers of clothing, combined with the effort of walking up that hill kept me as warm as toast, and it was just great to be out in the fresh air.
As we headed back over the plateau towards the second hill of the day, the wind was at our backs, which made walking a bit easier. But visibility was almost non-existent!
Carles heading out over the plateau.
The snow wasn’t quite so deep on the plateau, as it had been scoured by the wind – there were just a few patches where we would sink down to our knees. When walking in these conditions it’s best to aim for any tufts of grass or vegetation, as they show where the snow is at its thinnest. Despite this, our progress was much slower than it would have been in non-winter conditions.
We had to be very careful in our navigation. We both had route maps on our phones, and I was also carrying a paper map. Unfortunately it blew away, and I was unable to catch it. I should have had it in a proper map holder.
A change of plan
I was really enjoying the challenging conditions, but Carles was starting to feel more tired, and he was very concerned about putting too much strain on his injured knee. He decided not to continue to the second Munro, Carn a’ Geoidh, and said he would wait for me in the ski centre café.
I said I would go back with him. Although I still felt pretty energetic, there was no way I was going to continue alone in those conditions without a paper map. With the temperature well into minus figures, my phone could have frozen at any moment, and although I had a compass and was carrying a storm shelter and would most likely have made it back, I did not want to take even the slightest risk of getting lost on that bleak plateau, with sunset just three or four hours away!
I took the decision NOT to risk walking along this plateau alone without a paper map in these conditions.
Carles was very apologetic, but I honestly didn’t mind. I was just happy to have been able to enjoy the walk. In any case, it was probably a good idea not to put too much strain on my ankle on my first rehabilitation hillwalk. The other mountain was 2.5km away, which in those conditions would have taken almost two hours there and back.
As we turned back, the weather was beginning to clear, and we could actually make out some snowboarders in the distance. We took a quick lunchbreak, and then pressed on to the summit of The Cairnwell.
Me at the summit of The Cairnwell – my 104th Munro.
Carn nan Sac, the mountain plateau we had walked along before turning back.
Satellite tower at the summit of The Cairnwell.
Many hillwalkers complain about the ski lifts, huts and runs that almost litter these slopes, but I love skiing, and I love to see people out enjoying the fresh air. As we walked back down, I enjoyed watching the skiers and snowboarders, and the little kids sledging down the runs on the eastern slopes.
We didn’t get much sunshine that day – which was ironic, as most of the week had been dry and sunny. But that didn’t stop people enjoying themselves.
Snowboarders having fun.
I had a great day, and I wasn’t the slightest bit disappointed about only getting to two of the three Munros. I’m looking forward to posting this walk again for my Meetup group, maybe in a few weeks’ time when the snow is thinner and the road clearer.
It’s just great to be back on the hills again!