The big freeze: An ice-cold adventure in the Cairngorms

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

First, learn how to 'self-arrest' as you slither down a mountainside. Next, rely on counting footsteps to find your way. Then dig yourself in for the night.

Back in 1942, a bunch of Norwegians arrived in Scotland's Cairngorm mountain range and set about trying to blow up bits of it. They blew up rocks and they blew up roads. They even blew up some of the local fish by chucking grenades into Loch Morlich, the pretty stretch of water that lies at the heart of Glenmore Forest.

This sort of behaviour is not generally encouraged any more, particularly in the Cairngorm National Park. However, those particular Norwegians had an excuse: they were commandos training for an attack on a heavy-water factory in Nazi-occupied Norway. Their mission – sensationalised in the 1965 film The Heroes of Telemark, starring Kirk Douglas – was eventually successful, and their explosive story still forms part of landscape here in the Cairngorms. Literally so, as a man called Andy Bateman was keen to point out to me.

"See that stone up there?" he said, gesturing to a boulder poised 10 metres or so above the road leading up to the Cairngorm ski centre. I glanced upwards. It looked unremarkable. Roundish. Big. Boulder-shaped. "The back of it is smashed into bits. The Norwegians tried to blow it up. They didn't get very far." Perhaps that's not so very surprising. The Cairngorms – vast lumps of pink granite covered with heather and hikers – have been around for more than 40 million years. It takes more than a few sticks of dynamite to make a lasting impression.

I am not, by the way, Norwegian. I don't have the Scandinavian habit of doing national service. My cross-country skiing skills are as yet untested. Crucially, my knowledge of winter survival techniques is, or at least was until last month, confined to wearing gloves and a woolly hat during cold snaps. But that was before I met Andy, before I spent a night in the Cairngorms with him, before I dug my first snow hole.

First, some context: the Cairngorms are big. Not Alpine big, but certainly big in British terms. Sure, there's Ben Nevis over in the Grampians, but the Cairngorm range contains the second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth-highest mountains in Britain. These range from Cairn Gorm itself (4,084ft), which overlooks the now tranquil Loch Morlich, to the 4,295ft-high Ben MacDui, which rises just to the south. And if the Cairngorms are big, then the Cairngorms National Park has just got even bigger. Created in 2003, this vast chunk of north-east Scotland was already the largest national park in the UK before it was expanded southwards last year to include a patch of highland Perth and Kinross.

The point of all this is that you can get lost pretty easily in the Cairngorms, particularly in winter, and particularly if – like me – you have absolutely no idea what you're doing. And that's where Andy Bateman comes in. Andy runs a company called Mountain Innovations from Fraoch Lodge, a B&B/hostel in Boat of Garten, a village that took its name from a nearby ferry over the river Spey. He doesn't blow anything up, but he does run camping and hiking trips among the mountains during the summer, as well as navigation courses. And in the winter he takes people – even people like me – snow-holing.

Building a snow hole is the sort of thing those Norwegian commandos might have done in order to survive in freezing, hostile terrain. But Andy's technique was, he told me, very different from that used in Scandinavia, where temperatures plummet far lower than in the Cairngorms. "Scottish snow holes for Scottish conditions" is his mantra. "It's down to the time spent digging. Too little time means a snow hole that's too shallow, too small and too poorly ventilated."

I still didn't really know what he was talking about. What did a snow hole actually look like? Did it go down into the ground, or did you build it like an igloo? How cold would it get inside? And how was he going to fit five of us inside one?

Never mind, he was a qualified winter mountain leader, so presumably knew what he was doing – and at least I'd come prepared. Andy's pre-arrival instructions were clear: you need a decent amount of kit and reasonable fitness to hike these mountains in winter. A session in my local branch of Cotswold Outdoor had mustered a sleeping bag that would keep me warm at temperatures of -10C, a smart green waterproof jacket and a thick bedroll. I'd also been briefed on the importance of wearing base layers, fleeces and thermal socks – and had obtained a pair of gaiters. These were apparently very important, both to keep my legs dry and to protect my shins from being stabbed by crampons.

As I'd never worn gaiters before, or the special B2 rigid mountain walking boots that you need for crampon use, I was glad that part of Andy's three-day snow-holing course involved a session of winter mountain skills. But I was also slightly concerned. The other members of our party had form: Arlene, a legal secretary, had spent most of 2010 bagging Munros (Scottish mountains over 3,000ft), ticking off 70 of them in the process. Andrew, meanwhile, was a paramedic who'd spent a chunk of last year hiking up pointy stuff in the Himalayas. By way of contrast, I preferred my walks short, flat and with a pub at the end of them. I'd never even held an ice axe before.

It turns out that ice axes are important for winter hikers. You hold them in your uphill hand at the point where the shaft meets the head of the axe, with the spike facing backwards. This means you can jam it into the ground if you lose your footing and need to "self-arrest". Andy took us on a stiff walk past the skiers skidding down the icy slopes of Cairn Gorm – "If you can ski in Scotland, you can ski anywhere" – for some practice. As we crossed the snow-line and strapped on our crampons, a large white ptarmigan watched us, its croaking cry warning us to come no nearer.

We self-arrested for a bit, sliding down the mountain on our fronts and backs, rightside up and upside down. The key thing is to twist round as quickly as possible and use the weight of your body to force the ice axe in to the snow. If it wasn't a matter of life and death, it would be quite an amusing spectator sport.

The day was crisp and beautiful. From the top of Cairn Gorm we had a pixel-perfect view that stretched out over a plateau hemmed by peaks painted white with snow. And getting up top had been far from arduous: a brisk hike, albeit with some thigh-burning moments on the steeper sections. As dusk fell, we passed an ice-bound weather station, then watched the passage of one of the most beautiful sunsets I've ever seen: burning golds and oranges, with the wind whipping the snow on the tops of the mountains like steam.

Back at Fraoch Lodge that evening, the cosy front room was crammed with walkers and skiers, all describing their day on the mountains. I tried to join in, but gave up when the conversation turned to "v diff" climbing routes. Instead, I got stuck into the excellent chocolate cake made by Andy's partner Rebecca Field, which wasn't v diff at all.

Andy then gave us a briefing about what to expect on our trip, including a disconcerting piece of news. Mountain Innovations participates in the Cairngorm Poo Project, he said, which is designed to stop human waste being left on the mountains. Should we feel the urge, we'd be required to use a corn-starch bag and carry the results back down the mountain with us in a special canister for safe disposal. Reluctantly, I declined the offer of more cake. The next day would clearly be a test for some very important muscle groups.

Sandwiches packed, we were joined in the morning by the fifth member of our snow-holing expedition. Any hopes I had that he or she would prove to be as incompetent as myself were swiftly dispelled. Neil had trained for six years in the armed forces before starting his own back-country survival course in Aviemore. It turned out he could already self-arrest.

We spent a couple of hours winding round the western flank of Cairn Gorm before climbing the ridge above Coire an Lochain, a deep scoop in the mountainside. It all seemed quite manageable, just like the day before. But as we started to rise further, suddenly everything went white. Not white with grey bits, or white with lumps of scenery here or there. This was white without respite: a relentless, blank, white-on-white sort of white.

There's something exhilarating, and slightly terrifying, about being on a mountain yet not being able to see anything. The crisp views of the day before had now been replaced by a dense sheet of blanketing cloud. But Andy was reassuringly unperturbed. Working with Neil he set about the process of navigating without landmarks, using compass bearings and a timings chart that listed how far we were likely to travel in a given period, or over a set number of paces, with clever adjustments for ascents and descents. Occasionally he would stop, check that all was well with us, then march for 20 metres – north, south, east, west – to confirm the contours of the land. Then we'd be off again, braced against the wind, straining against our heavy rucksacks.

The change in weather conditions also marked a change in how I approached the trek. As the wind increased and the conditions worsened, I became very aware that we were tiny specks on a very big map; that as far as I knew we didn't have a tent with us; and that without Andy I would struggle to find my way back down the mountain, or even to survive.

At about 3pm, we stopped in front of a huge bank of snow. According to the map we were in a gully close to Garbh Uisge Beag – "rough little water" in Gaelic – but the monochrome landscape betrayed very little of note. Andy climbed the bank to test its stability, then gauged the depth of V Csnow with a long pole. Then he carved three metre-wide doorways into the snow, about halfway up the bank, and about a metre and a half apart. Shovels out: it was time to start digging.

We dug, and we dug, and we dug. We used saws to carve away huge blocks. We got sweaty, tired and wet. "We're not digging a snow hovel!" shouted Andy when there were signs of slacking. "We're building a snow hole!"

Night had fallen by the time we'd got a couple of metres in, so we used head-torches to light our way. Gradually an internal structure was formed; the areas behind the doorways were connected, then deepened. Four hours after we'd begun to dig, we had a long gallery in which to shelter. Then Andy carved a vaulted ceiling: we could now stand up. Snow hole? This was a snow home! We sealed up two of the exits with blocks of snow, unrolled our sleeping bags, and Andy started cooking dinner on a tiny camping stove, using melted snow for water.

The inside of a Cairngorm snow hole is a spectacular, if odd, place to spend the night. Andy had carved little cubby-holes for candles that bathed the inside in a warm yellow light; a band of ice ran through the walls in a glittering stripe.

As I fell asleep I tried not to think about the tonnes of snow heaped above our heads, or the drip of melting water from the ceiling. The wind had dropped, and outside ice crystals sparkled in the air, lit by starlight. I have never been anywhere so quiet.

There are almost certainly two sorts of snow-holing trip. One where you wake up to an ice-clear morning and a stunning view of the Cairngorms, and the other when the wind has increased to 55mph gusts, the visibility has dropped off further, your gloves are soaking and you've run out of chocolate. Guess which type mine was. Nevertheless, the other members of my group were keen to hike to the top of Ben MacDui (the second-highest mountain in Britain, remember). And for sensible, survival-based reasons, I decided to join them.

I can remember only snapshots of this journey: my hands gradually going numb, despite fresh gloves; icicles growing in Neil's beard; the metal of my ice-axe going sticky with cold; particles of snow collecting along the leading edge of every item of clothing or gear; the prints of crampons in the snow, like horribly extended animal claws. Andy would occasionally pause to point out various different forms of frozen water: rime ice, hoar frost, frost heave, windslab snow. Having navigated in these mountains for 12 years, he still expressed an infectious enthusiasm for this winter world, wind-chill and deafening wind notwithstanding.

Eventually we reached the cairn at the top of Ben MacDui, posed briefly for commemorative – if less than scenic – photos, and then began our long descent to the boulder-strewn greenery below. Despite my continuing status as a hiking novice, it had been an extraordinary journey. A snow-bound night in the Cairngorms tests your stamina and leaves you disorientated and dazzled in almost equal parts. But it also drives home the timeless and imposing nature of these mountains – and how fragile we are in comparison to them. You might not see much while you're up there, but for a proper sense of perspective, this is the place to be.

Travel essentials: Cairngorms

* Mountain Innovations (01479 831 331; scotmountain.co.uk) Fraoch Lodge, Deshar Road, Boat of Garten PH24 3BN. Snow-holing trips in 2011 are scheduled for 21-25 February, 5-9 March and 26-30 March, priced £389 per person based on two sharing, including three nights full-board accommodation at the lodge, one night in a snow-hole, snow-holing and cooking equipment, and transfers.

Getting there

* The nearest train station is Aviemore, which is served by ScotRail (08457 55 00 33; scotrail.co.uk), with day trains and the Caledonian Sleeper service from London Euston. East Coast (08457 225 333; eastcoast.co.uk) has a daily train from King's Cross.

* The nearest airport is Inverness, which is served by Flybe (0871 700 2000; flybe.com) from Belfast, Benbecula, Birmingham, Edinburgh, Gatwick, Kirkwall, Manchester and Stornoway, and by easyJet (0905 821 0905; easyJet.com) from Bristol, Gatwick and Luton.

Equipment

* Cotswold Outdoor (0844 557 7755; cotswoldoutdoor.com) has a range of specialist equipment for winter hiking trips including clothing, sleeping bags and footwear.

* Crampons, B2 walking boots and ice axes can also be hired from Mountain Spirit (01479 811788; mountainspirit.co.uk) at 62 Grampian Road, Aviemore.

More information

* visitcairngorms.com

* visitscotland.com

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

Arts and Entertainment
Armando Iannucci, the creator of 'The Thick of It' says he has
tvArmando Iannucci to concentrate on US show Veep
Life and Style
beauty
Sport
Luis Suarez looks towards the crowd during the 2-1 victory over England
transfers
Life and Style
Swimsuit, £245, by Agent Provocateur
fashion

Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes

News
Detail of the dress made entirely of loom bands
news
Sport
German supporters (left) and Argentina fans
world cup 2014Final gives England fans a choice between to old enemies
Arts and Entertainment
A still from the worldwide Dawn of the Planet of the Apes trailer debut
film
News
peopleMario Balotelli poses with 'shotgun' in controversial Instagram pic
News
A mugshot of Ian Watkins released by South Wales Police following his guilty pleas
peopleBandmates open up about abuse
Sport
Basketball superstar LeBron James gets into his stride for the Cleveland Cavaliers
sportNBA superstar announces decision to return to Cleveland Cavaliers
Sport
Javier Mascherano of Argentina tackles Arjen Robben of the Netherlands as he attempts a shot
world cup 2014
Arts and Entertainment
The successful ITV drama Broadchurch starring David Tenant and Olivia Coleman came to an end tonight
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Sport
There were mass celebrations across Argentina as the country's national team reached their first World Cup final for 24 years
transfersOne of the men to suffer cardiac arrest was 16 years old
Life and Style
life“What is it like being a girl?” was the question on the lips of one inquisitive Reddit user this week
News
peopleDave Legeno, the actor who played werewolf Fenrir Greyback in the Harry Potter films, has died
Sport
Mario Balotelli, Divock Origi, Loic Remy, Wilfried Bony and Karim Benzema
transfersBony, Benzema and the other transfer targets
Sport
Four ski officials in Slovenia have been suspended following allegations of results rigging
sportFour Slovenian officials suspended after allegations they helped violinist get slalom place
News
14 March 2011: George Clooney testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during a hearing titled 'Sudan and South Sudan: Independence and Insecurity.' Clooney is co-founder of the Satellite Sentinel Project which uses private satellites to collect evidence of crimes against civilian populations in Sudan
people
Arts and Entertainment
Balaban is indirectly responsible for the existence of Downton Abbey, having first discovered Julian Fellowes' talents as a screenwriter
tvCast members told to lose weight after snacking on set
Life and Style
More than half of young adults have engaged in 'unwanted but consensual sexting with a committed partner,' according to research
tech
Life and Style
A binge is classed as four or more alcoholic drinks for women and five or more for men, consumed over a roughly two-hour period
tech
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Sales Manager (Fashion and Jewellery), Paddington, London

    £45-£55k OTE £75k : Charter Selection: Major London International Fashion and ...

    Volunteer Digital Marketing Trustee needed

    Voluntary, reasonable expenses reimbursed: Reach Volunteering: Are you keen on...

    Java Swing Developer - Hounslow - £33K to £45K

    £33000 - £45000 per annum + 8% Bonus, pension: Deerfoot IT Resources Limited: ...

    Corporate Events Sales Manager, Marlow,Buckinghamshire

    £30K- £40K pa + Commision £10K + Benefits: Charter Selection: Rapidly expandin...

    Day In a Page

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
    Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

    A writer spends a night on the streets

    Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
    Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
    Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

    Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

    Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
    Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

    Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

    This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
    Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

    Why did we stop eating whelks?

    Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
    10 best women's sunglasses

    In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

    From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    The German people demand an end to the fighting
    New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

    New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

    For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
    Can scientists save the world's sea life from

    Can scientists save our sea life?

    By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
    Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

    Richard III review

    Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice