ALPENGLOW AND GHOST RAINBOWS – THE JOYS OF A WINTER HIKE

Start: Glenshee Ski Centre

Distance: 8 miles Ascent :600m Time taken: 6hrs 15mins

Setting the alarm for 5.30am with only a 20% chance of cloud free Munros (mountains over 3,000 feet/914m) according to the Mountain Weather Info Service, I really thought my husband Chris had gone nuts, suggesting that this area would be a good option for our first proper hill walk in 2022! That said, we were both in the mood to do something and keen to start improving our hill fitness sooner rather than later. Chris had also noticed that Glenshee was mentioned in another forecast as possibly – possibly  – seeing a few more breaks in the snow showers. We knew there would be a lot of snow and we’re not really up for doing anything too long and steep under winter conditions and with short days ; so Glenshee ticked a lot of boxes offering benign slopes , a nice high start of 600m (oh joy!) and the chance to enjoy 3 Munro summits early in 2022. Ok, it would probably mean walking in the clag most of the time, but wouldn’t just getting out on the hills be reward enough? Plus we both wanted to make a good start on this year’s target of 24 summits by the year end.

We often complain – vociferously! – about how often the weather forecasters get things wrong as what might be suggested as a good hill day, turns into a plod through the cloud and mist.Today however, our low expectations got tumbled upside down in a very different way…

We pulled into the Ski Centre at 9.15am after a 2hr 20 drive from our home, paid the £5 parking charge and got the winter gear on; tons of snow so I donned my Micro Spikes.The route to the first two summits starts from behind the café, taking us onto a familiar track up through the fences and ski paraphernalia,  to the col between Carn Aosda (pron.’Osda’) and The Cairnwell. The snow was much deeper and less consolidated than we’d expected. Snow machines had firmed up some of this short section but mostly it was quite tough walking, plunging down to knee level at times.

Encouragingly, the light was already good and Glas Maol opposite was clear and the sky behind, eggshell blue and lemon. I really had forgotten the sheer wonder of the ever – changing, atmospheric light and colours of winter.

Heading for The Cairnwell
Hard going

An hour saw us up on Carn Aosda (915m) and for the first time in several visits up here, we enjoyed a clear view from its broad summit.

The rocky Tor on the top of Lochnagar made it easily recognisable beyond another Munro, Carn an Tuirc.

From Carn Aosda summit.Lochnagar just visible (notch)
From Carn Aosda

Lochnagar zoomed beyond Cairn of Claise
Lochnagar zoomed

Behind us and away to the west, An Socach and the hills around Glen Ey beyond Braemar looked lovely in the cold light. The big Cairngorm mountains were swathed in cloud – that was the 20% area at present!

Good light on An Socach and B.Iutharn Bheag
An Socach and other hills above Glen Ey

It was almost windless so although it was -6C,  there was no windchill, making for great January walking conditions. Windchill can be a real killer , literally, on Scottish mountains.

Next one - The Cairnwell from Aosda
Looking towards The Cairnwell

There was no ice at all, just knee level snow and after 10 mins of admiring the views and Chris already quite smug about persuading me out here today,  we headed down to the col again with the plan to head up  to The Cairnwell (933m). ‘Worth it already, isn’t it?” he said and I had to agree.

Carn an Sac on the way to The Cairnwell
Heading up to The Cairnwell

There were walkers all over the place. A big group of 16 was heading out to Munro No 3 – Carn a Geoidh – and we wondered whether we should do that too – basically get the most remote mountain under our belts next. But it was socked in, covered in heavy cloud and didn’t look too promising. So we stuck to Plan A and headed up to Munro No 2. An hour later,  we were at what I admit is not the loveliest mountain summit with its radio towers but we were blessed again with some great light over the north side of Glenshee and the summits of Glas Maol,  Cairn of Claise and Creag Leacach. All held great memories of past hikes in less snowy conditions.

Eggshell blue sky from The Cairnwell looking east
Looking across to Glas Maol

Out with the flask of hot water and a quick cup of tea made, then sandwiches and a Kit Kat. We cooled down quite quickly just sitting and after 25 mins or so it was time to get moving or we’d be frozen to the spot!

It was now 12.30pm and time to head out to Munro No 3, Carn a Gheoidh – the Hill of the Goose (why that name, I don’t know) – even if most of the route and the mountain was pretty much invisible in thick fog. We were just having so much fun being on the mountains in snowy conditions  – it felt good for the soul to be out here, so close to the elements.

Down we went off the summit, then we cut across the trackless snowy moorland to reach a knoll and the route out to CaG. Out of the mist came the big walking group we’d seen earlier, who had just returned from our next objective.The leader was checking his compass to work out where they went next as The Cairnwell was now socked in with heavy cloud. Chatting to one of the group, they remarked that they’d seen nothing on the walk and that the final slope up CaG was ‘steep’ and pretty tough given the snow. I didn’t remember this slope being particularly anything. Oh well…we’d soon find out!

Heading out to  remote Carn a Gheoidh - about an hour away
Heading into remoter country and mist

There are minor bumps to ascend and descend on the route out and it was tough at times in the snow. There were the tracks of others but these still meant plunging knee deep at times, so it was a more tiring walk out than we expected. But what the heck, we were loving being out here.

We walked close to a spectacular, steep walled corrie and huge drop before detouring away from it, followed by a gradual pull up onto a plateau. A few other walkers emerged occasionally from the gloom, passing us in the opposite direction. Everyone said a cheery ‘hello’ and confirmed they’d had nothing but thick mist on the summit.Oh well, we’d had it clear on 2 tops – that was lucky enough with the forecast.

Two young guys emerged from the fog and told us that we hadn’t far to go now – always good to hear! But again, they warned about the final slope, that it was steep and tough going. Oops…another warning. Normally that would make me very nervous but I know the mountain well and its final slopes are benign; Chris reckoned (joked? I hope so!) that they must have felt sorry for a couple of oldies on the hill who were looking a bit wobbly.I told him to speak for himself!

Finally the last section appeared -the snow was deep but Chris kicked steps up and with the micro spikes, it felt very safe and thankfully, not really much of an issue.

We were on the summit! I don’t think Peary could have felt more excited when he reached the North Pole, as we did striding across to Carn a Gheoidh’s snowy, icy summit cairn😊 Absolute silence , thick rime on the rocks and much colder out here too.

Clearing towards the Cairnwell - mast visible
The Cairnwell – just

Time for a sit down and the last of the tea and another KitKat. Actually as usual, I had far too many layers on and had got over-heated so that I now felt a bit dehydrated and super thirsty; an odd feeling when it was so cold.It always feels remote out here, something I love it for. Just endless mountains to the west and north, the big whaleback ridges of Cairngorm with their sub Arctic tundra terrain.Beautiful to walk on!

A privilege to be on the mountains in these conditions

As we sat, the light began to improve and as if by magic An Socach began to emerge and Glas Tulaichean, two hills which give lovely plateau walking.

Northern Cairngorms clearing

The thick mist lifted like a veil and soon the outline of the Northern Cairngorms emerged – Cairn Toul, Braeriach (both just under 1300m) and Angel’s Peak – we had climbed these last year in summer with an overnight wild camp. It was superb, stunning in the winter light, seeing the giants plastered with snow. In fact, it felt a privilege to see it all like this especially given how clothed in fog the mountain had been until now.

Cairn Toul, Braeriach appearing
Cairn Toul and Braeriach

I really do love these hills. I know they don’t have the drama of the pointier, sharper mountains of the west but they have their own great beauty and allure.

Afternoon winter light on the mountains

I went a bit crazy taking photos (a common occurrence) then Chris warned me that it was now 2.40pm and time to head back as darkness would fall around 4.15pm. Plus, we had also cooled down considerably now with the extended rest. Yes, it was great walking weather but the cold was a reminder of how easy it would be to freeze out here. I had noticed on the walk out, that Chris’s eyebrows and moustache had a coating of frost; my hat was rimmed with ice. Any moisture at all just froze.

Braeriach, Cairn Toul and Angel's Peak clearing
Cairn Toul , clarity improving

But Nature wasn’t done with us yet. Just as we left the summit cairn, a Ghost Rainbow formed before our eyes.

A fog bow! A white rainbow, unusual and so beautiful!

This white rainbow or fog bow, framed our descent route, as if we were walking through an enormous white arc. We were stunned! Apparently, the bow is created not by raindrops but by small droplets inside a fog. It takes a million of these droplets to make one raindrop! Light waves can’t refract and separate into the more familiar rainbow colours, but instead blend and become pure white. The resultant bow is thicker and closer to the ground than a rainbow, which was certainly what we experienced. I have only seen a fog bow once before and that was on a trip to the High Arctic in summer, when one formed over sea ice.

Thrilled, we headed down the slope and began the walk across the plateau.

The Cairnwell and Glas Maol straight ahead
Heading off the summit

Looking back to Carn a Gheoidh's final slopes
Looking back to Gheoidh’s final pull up

With each step, the light changed dramatically and I couldn’t do anything but take more photos.It was glorious. We knew the sun was going down quickly but it was impossible not to keep stopping and just take it all in. Lilac clouds, eggshell blue and lemon skies, pink snow and Cairn Toul and Braeriach getting clearer every minute. As the glens and lower hills softened into lavender and pink shadows, the highest peaks turned golden with the last rays of the afternoon sun.

Ben Macdui, the UK’s second highest mountain at 1309m, caught the last of the sun…

Ben Macdui in sunlight
Ben Macdui

Carn an Righ
Blue shadows

The Cairnwell was now brightly lit…

A last view of The Cairnwell
The Cairnwell

Ever changing light and shadows as the sun went down…

Ben Macdui and Derry Cairngorm sunlit, Cairngorm NP
Ben Macdui

The steep corrie bowl below Braeriach looked as if it was just a stone’s throw away, it was so clear.  Ben Macdui and its impressive cliffs of Sron Riach and Derry Cairngorm (above.) They looked magical.

An Socach, B.Iutharn Mhor, Carn an Righ -Cairngorm NP

The Cairnwell cleared too after being covered in a cloak of mist and it looked otherworldly emerging into the light,  with mist and fog still hovering in the valleys.

The Cairnwell with Creag Leacach behind

Soon, where we were walking lost the sun and turned a cold, icy blue.The next knoll to be ascended was still bright with sunlight.

The little knoll on our route, Carn Aosda behind
One of two knolls
The Cairnwell brightly lit now

Up and down the two wee knolls then we headed down a short, steeper slope to pick up snowy footsteps on a slight short cut that would take us back to the col. Loch Vrotachan appeared below us, completely frozen, with An Socach behind. I’ve always fancied that as a wild camping spot though not today!

Across frozen Loch Vrotachan to An Socach and Northern Cairngorms
Loch Vrotachan, frozen
An Socach in purple glow
Three Mountain Hares
Three Mountain Hares

Three mountain hares, beautifully white with darker ears, bounded ahead of us across the moorland, alarmed at our presence. They all stopped at the same time and watched warily as we moved away from them.

Sunset is all aglow

Time for a pause at the col, where we had stood 5.5 hrs ago and a final look at the sunset out west, then we turned and made our way down the final slopes to the ski centre.This was definitely what’s called Alpenglow – the red light from the setting sun, casting its spell over the mountains.

Carn an Tuirc and Glas Maol were now turning rosy pink. Ski paraphernalia or not, it was glorious.

Pink snow
The final, easier slopes to the ski centre
Carn an Tuirc and Sron na Gaoithe sunset, Glenshee, Scotland
Sunset over Carn an Tuirc

Six hours 15mins after setting off, we arrived at the café at the back of 4pm.There were more skiers about now (though only 2 tows were on) and lots of children with snow boards. I’d almost forgotten how popular Glenshee is at this time of year; the café was packed too and there were a lot of touring campervans about. Nice to see Glenshee so busy! Our ski centres have a rough time of it as snow is never guaranteed and even in January, there wasn’t enough to open all the tows.

The hills here are a perfect outing for anyone who wants to get a bit of experience of walking in snow, given the nice high start at 600m, the mostly benign slopes and, if all 3 Munros are taken in, it’s only 8 miles all in. (Cutting out Carn a Gheoidh would make it an outing of barely 2 – 3 hours at most.) Great when days are short yet offering so much more than anyone might think once the ski tows and fencing is left behind. And even when it’s not, there are some fine views to be had. I’ll hear nothing against Glenshee – Lang May Its Lum Reek and it’s mists lift for what are relatively easily won but wonderful rewards.If this is a 20% forecast, I’ll be heading out in those conditions more often!

POSTSCRIPT: Buoyed by our day, next week saw us out on the Munros again, this time on the other side of Glenshee, with a lovely ‘70% cloud free’ mountain forecast. Ye gods! It was a 5 hour micro – navigational nightmare in thick cloud, with not a view to be seen! C’est la vie…

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