Rousing from slumber in a snowhole is like
waking in a ping-pong ball. Everything is white. Up, down, either side of you –
all white. The only visible movement is your breath, bursting forth in great
clouds of steam (also white).
My first thoughts are foggy. Wrapped in many layers and buried in a sleeping bag and waterproof bivvy, I feel snug enough – but it must be flipping freezing out there beyond my cocoon – where the hell am I?
Perhaps I got drunk and fell asleep in an industrial fridge. Again. No, not enough noise for a fridge. In fact, complete silence reigns. The only thing I can hear is my imagination running riot. This is like the scene from Empire Strikes Back, when Luke gets captured by a wampa and imprisoned in a snowcave. Am I about to become breakfast for a Yeti?
Next to me a figure stirs and slowly emerges from his sleeping bag. He bids me good morning, knocks some ice from the wall into a pot and brews me a steaming cup of tea on a camping stove. Hardly the actions of a wampa.
The figure belongs to Ian Stewart, the bloke who has brought me into this wintery world and who is quickly teaching me how to survive out here on the frozen plateau.
It's the middle of winter and we're in the Highlands of Scotland: in The Cairngorms to be precise, Britain's highest national park and one of the wildest places in the country – every bit as dangerous as it is hauntingly beautiful. Terrain like this doesn't suffer fools gladly, and fortunately, while I might be a complete idiot, Ian is a fully qualified and highly experienced mountain guide.
On the hike into the hills from the gateway town of Aviemore, Ian taught me to use crampons and self-arrest with an ice axe in the event of a potentially calamitous slip. We shared the digging, but he was the architect of our snowhole and I followed his instructions as we tunnelled four metres into the snowdrift and sculpted our Arctic-style accommodation for the night, ensuring there was adequate ventilation and that we weren't in a spot that might be at risk of being consumed by an avalanche.
We completed the cave just in time – the weather closed in shortly afterwards, with the Cairngorms’ infamous icy winds bringing the outside temperature down to around -15°C. Inside, though, with a stove going for cups of tea, we were warm and cosy, protected even from the sound of the elements by the muffling effect of our snow house. Ian had smuggled in a small bottle of red to have with our dinner, and a flask of singlemalt whisky for a nightcap before bed. Just like home in fact, and I soon tumbled into a deep sleep after the exertion of the day.
Today we will climb Ben MacDui, the second highest mountain in Scotland (and Britain for that matter), standing 1309 metres, just 35 metres shy of its slightly bigger brother, Ben Nevis… By dusk, all going well, we'll be celebrating our success back in the embrace of Aviemore, sipping steaming lattes and replacing lost calories face-diving into some epic cakes in the Mountain Café. And tonight, we'll sign off the expedition with hearty feed in the Ben MacDui Inn, washing it down with a few pints of Tradewinds Ale from Aviemore's own Cairngorms Brewery. First, though, I have to get out of this warm sleeping bag and bid farewell to our snug little burrow – probably the most challenging thing I will do all day.
To go on a snowhole adventure in the Cairngorms, or to find out more about Ian Stewart's guiding services, check out his website or call him on 07901 684579.