Snowholing on Snowshoes

In the amazing winter of 2010 I went snowholing on snowshoes in the Cairngorms with my friend Simon. Our plan was to snowshoe up onto the Moine Mhor and spend the night in a snowhole. I was catching up with Simon recently and we were reminiscing about this adventure. It was a great trip during the biggest winter season that I’ve experienced. I wrote about this trip at the time, but lost the post while migrating my website a few years ago. After enjoying a whisky with Simon it seemed like a good idea to repost an account of the trip and photos!

Snowholing on Snowshoes in the Cairngorms

We set of walking through the very snowy Rothiemurchus forest towards Loch an Eilein. It was 20th February 2010. There were plenty of tracks in the snow left by walkers, skiers and mountain bikers, but no sign of other snowshoes in the Cairngorms. As we headed out into Glen Einich the weather was perfect. Blue skies and no wind – a rarity for the Cairngorms!

As we walked we were chatting about how I was finding living in my van. It was challenging, but great fun as long as the diesel, paraffin and whisky didn’t freeze. I was reading a lot and had just finished reading “A High and Lonely Place” by Jim Crumley an author Simon introduced me to. It’s about the nature and landscape of the Cairngorms and our relationship with it. Consequently we kept a look out for the last pine tree of Glen Einich.

The winter scenery was stunning and as we reached Loch Einich there were no more human tracks. It was time to put on the snowshoes and we began climbing into Coire Dhondail. The snowshoes made all the difference or we would have been wading in extremely deep snow. I was an instant fan of snowshoes in the Cairngorms. Exiting onto the Moine Mhor proved interesting due to the steep final slopes. The plateau was breathtaking with nobody else in sight and everything was glistening in the sun.

It was while we were resting that we discussed our water supplies. We agreed that when we identified a place to dig our snowhole one of us would begin melting snow while the other began digging.

The Stove

We walked out across the Moine Mhor and found a perfect spot for our snowhole. I had the shovel and Simon had the stove so we put our plan into action. First we stamped down and then flattened an area to put our things down without losing them in the snow. And because we were snowholing on snowshoes we took off the snowshoes to make digging easier. I was down to a baselayer and windshirt to dig because it was hot work in the sunshine. The opening was well under way when Simon stopped me. The stove wasn’t working properly. This was a serious problem. We discussed our options because if we couldn’t fix the stove we would need to start walking back. Simon was sure he could fix the stove so I carried on digging.

The snowhole was taking shape, but I needed a break and a drink so I went out to talk to Simon. The stove repair wasn’t going well and we only had a small amount of water. It was his stove and he knew it inside out. He talked me through how the pump system worked and that a seal was broken. He didn’t have anything to make a seal did I have anything? I said would some lip balm work? It was a thick one in a tub. He thought it might so I gave him the lip balm and went back to enlarging the snowhole.

A short while later Simon came to give me a drink and said the stove was sort of working. He was freezing and wanted to do some digging as light was now fading. We swapped jobs and I enjoyed the setting sun whilst slowly melting more snow. Simon finished the snowhole and we settled in for the night.

The stove was definitely not working properly, but after the lip balm we could at least melt some snow. It took a while before we could enjoy a hot cuppa soup with some biscuits. We followed this with hot chocolate and sweets since our main course was not possible. It was warm and cosy in the snow hole so we soon went to sleep.

Sgor Gaoith & Sgoran Dubh Mor

In the morning we woke up to another beautiful day. We managed to get a warm drink out of the stove before packing up. The snowshoes made the going much easier with hoar frost and deep snow underfoot. Because we were dehydrated we moved at a slow and steady pace. Our plan was to traverse Sgor Gaoith and descend the long ridge back to Rothiemurchus. The views of the Moine Mhor, Beinn Bhrotain and Braeriach were phenomenal. We spotted tracks left by skiers on the slopes of Braeriach, but nothing else until the summit of Sgor Gaoith. The cornices were magnificent!

We continued snowshoeing over to Sgoran Dubh Mor and began our descent of it’s north ridge. There was a lovely rocky outcrop and decided to have a rest. We got the stove out and managed to get it working. It was good enough to melt some snow for drinking water and a perfect cup of tea!

After enjoying the views with our hot tea we carried on descending. It was at this point that my camera battery died due to the cold. This means I couldn’t photograph the strange patterns in the snow. There were lots as of mountain hare tracks, but this was different. We realised it was the pattern of a Ptarmigans wings as it had taken off left in the snow.

The ridge took us to the Argyll Stone on Creag Dhubh. A great place to look back at our route along Glen Einich and the Sgoran Dubh ridge. It was a fun descent going down steeply through the trees in very deep snow. We soon reached the track back to Loch an Eilein and once back at the van we headed into Aviemore to rehydrate!

Reflecting on Snowshoeing in the Cairngorms

Though I haven’t been snowholing on snowshoes in the 14 years since this adventure it was an great experience. I’ve since used snowshoes in the Cairngorms whenever possible. It certainly taught us the importance of knowing your equipment and how it works. Without that knowledge, good communication and teamwork we wouldn’t have stayed in the snowhole. I’ve been on countless adventures with Simon over the years and this is definitely one of my favourites.

I think it’s fair to say that this trip is what sparked my love of snowshoeing in Scotland. Originally I got into snowshoeing when I was working towards my International Mountain Leader (IML) qualification. The winter element of the IML includes leading groups on snowshoes. My snowshoes are now much better suited to the Scottish hills and they’ve taken me up plenty of Munros and Corbetts. I have also used them to visit Bothies and some wild corners of the Highlands. You need some fairly specific conditions for it to be worthwhile, but when they are right it is fantastic!

If you are interested in a guided snowshoeing day and want more information then please click here!

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