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August - September 2006


The 'Hole' Story - Snow Holing in the Cairngorms

by Super Jolly

My parents met on a ski slope and ever since they had a great affinity for snow, mountains and wilderness. My parents had crossed the Arctic circle a few times, spent a wedding anniversary in an ice hotel in Sweden and survived a night in an igloo in Alaska. Just looking at their holiday snaps made shivers run down my spine.

My mum seems to have now developed a phobia for snow but my dad’s enthusiasm for snow activities remains unabated. He spotted a small Scottish company – Mountain Innovations – offering a winter expedition in the Cairngorms – building and staying in a snow hole. I never had any attraction for snow holidays but this winter some genetic malfunction against my better judgement persuaded me to give it a go.

On a cold January morning, I flew to Inverness and was then whisked to a tiny village at the foothills of mighty Cairngorms covered in ice and snow. I met the other group members, mostly seasoned trekkers with state of the art gear, and I was to rely upon the hired equipment. My mountain boots seemed to weigh a proverbial ton but to my delight added a few inches to my diminutive height.

We also discovered that our Snow Hole Expedition was to feature in a forthcoming issue of Trail magazine – the UK’s top publication for hill walking.

The plan was to spend the next day on the mountains to experience walking on snow and ice and to learn winter skills of survival in a hostile environment. These included walking with crampons (a metal contraption with spikes that fit onto the boots and supposedly aid gripping on ice) and use of ice axe for steep slopes and particularly to arrest sliding down a mountain for a premature meeting with ones maker.

I could hardly sleep with fear of the unknown! I could not get rid of the flashes of my falling and slipping down the mountain into an abyss. At midnight, I thought of telephoning my family to say goodbye just in case ….. When I got up in the morning, all my apprehensions were gone and I was looking forward to a unique experience.

Wearing several layers of warm clothing, mountain boots and carrying my rucksack, ice axe and safety helmet, I joined the group for a drive to the starting point. Soon we were in a sea of snow. A typical Christmas card scene. Serene, silent and tranquil. This reminded me of the Indian saying that Gods lived in mountains for their beauty.

Luckily the day was bright and relatively calm. We started walking up the piste and soon left it to trek off the beaten track. I discovered muscles whose existence was unknown to me but I was quite enjoying it. Many were falling and slipping in the snow but I had no such problem perhaps due to my relatively short stature.

We enjoyed our lunch of almost frozen sandwiches sitting on snow when our guide explained to us the importance of winter skills.

We attached crampons to our boots. That added almost another two inches to my height. With mountain boots and crampons, I had almost added 10% to my height. I soon learnt the art of walking with crampons and after some hits and misses I mastered the use of ice axe to arrest sliding down the steep slope. However, I wished and prayed that I would not encounter a position where I would have to use all my newly acquired skills. In an emergency, for survival, intuition takes over and a day old skill learnt in fairly benign conditions disappears in the fog of fear and confusion. I kept on reminding myself of the technique and repeated mental simulations finally dispelled my fears boosting my confidence. I could feel myself having a smug smile.

Following an afternoon of fun in the slow and ice we climbed to the summit of Cairngorm to sample the breathtaking views. Then back to the lodge for out last night of comfort before our expedition.

The day of reckoning arrived. We got ready with sleeping mat, sleeping bag, extra warm clothing and we all had to share carrying the cooking utensils and food for dinner and breakfast the following morning. The plan was to take a route across the high Cairngorms to Ben Macdui. I did not see any markings or signs but after trudging for four hours we reached somewhere that seemed to me to be a place between anywhere and nowhere.

After a brief respite and cold luncheon, armed with axes, handsaws and shovels we started digging a communal tunnel in the steep snow wall large enough to sleep for the nine members of the group and leave enough space for a kitchen area. The soft snow soon gave way to ice when digging became extremely laborious. We were all sweating and gradually peeling of layers of clothing. A strange phenomenon as sweat was freezing on coming in contact with cold air forming icicles and it was a unique experience for me. After some six hours of hard labour, our “hotel” for the evening was ready, with just about enough space for sleeping mats and kitchen. Snow and ice are excellent reflectors of light and a single candle was enough for light.

Our guide prepared dinner of carrot and coriander soup and couscous with peppers and chorizo on a gas stove. This was of course complemented by a wee dram of whisky – just to keep out the chill of the night air. We had our dinner sitting in our sleeping bags at –5°C. Everyone was exhausted and after some brief chin wagging we retired for the night tucked into our sleeping bags wearing several layers of clothing, a woolly hat and balaclava. I was now enjoying every moment of this experience – a night without TV, heating, running water and mobile phones.

We had a breakfast of porridge, to which we added the remainder of the previous nights’ whisky, and coffee. Soon after we packed up our gear and hiked to the summit of Ben Macdui, the highest peak in the Cairngorms standing at 4,295 feet.

Some four hours later having descended the mountains of the Cairngorms we returned to our lodge complete with log fire and bathroom. Everyone was now chirpy and talking of blisters and near misses with frost-bite and so on. Early next morning we were driven to the airport for our flights home with fond memories of a distinctive experience.

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