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Winter fun in Scotland

What’s your favourite season?

One of our reasons for moving to the Cairngorms was that we knew we would experience a “proper” winter i.e. snow. None of this wet and slightly cool weather which seems to characterise winter in the London area. No we wanted proper snow. That white stuff which seems to terrorise the rail network and bring London to a grinding halt. Here in the Highlands it can be something to be enjoyed. Fortunately there are others who are of the same mindset as us and look forward to a proper winter season so they can dust off their skis or crampons or snowboards.

Plenty of winter fun to be had here in the Cairngorms. Here’s just a small selection of activities you could enjoy:

A fun packed week in the Cairngorms!

Sonja, Cormac and Katie came to visit Fraoch Lodge Dec 2012 to early New Year 2013. Cormac was booked on our Hogmanay Winter Skills trip as a treat for his significant birthday; which left Sonja and Katie to fill the week with their own activities. They managed to keep themselves very well occupied for the week. Katie even tried to roll her own pasta one evening. She was very pleased – so much more to report back to her friends than she expected.

Sonja kindly agreed to write up their adventures here:

hogmanay winter skills

Navigating on New Year’s Day

The big idea

Cormac’s big birthday was fast approaching and I had no clue what I was going to do. He is an avid hillwalker and mountaineer so I felt something in Scotland might be a good plan. We spend quite a bit of time in the Glencoe area so I wanted to try somewhere new. The Cairngorms National Park seemed the obvious choice. I had spotted Fraoch Lodge while surfing ‘the net’. The idea of a Winter skills courses combined with freshly made homemade bread appealed to me straight away.

I enquired online, then Andy (one of the proprietors) responded to me straight away. He answered all my queries and came back with an excellent price for two adults and a child for a week’s stay with a course included.

winter skills course

Ice axe arrest on the snowy slopes of Cairngorm, Scotland

So Cormac would be yomping around the Cairngorms for the week, digging snow-holes and cutting steps etc.  Now what to do with a nine year old adventuresome type girl?

We decided a spot of snowboarding would be just the ticket.

For the rest of the family

We set off for Scotland early on the 27th of December and caught a ferry from Belfast to Stranraer. Our drive was scenic but uneventful. Upon arrival at Fraoch Lodge, wee Gregor, a roaring fire and tea and cake greeted us. This was all very, very welcome after a 12 hour journey in the car. Each afternoon we would enjoy a variety of cakes in front of the fire. This quickly became my favourite part of the day.

Soon the rest of the Hogmanay group arrived.  We all met in the dining room for a hearty two-course dinner with our hosts. Plans were made for the next day and most of us retired to bed or the cosy warmth of the sitting room. Our rooms were great, clean, comfortable and warm, which just added to our sense of being in a home from home.

Alternatives to snowsports

The next morning dawned bright and clear. Katy (the adventurous nine year old) and I, set out for Aviemore to the local tourist office to find out what was available to us in the area. We were unable to go snowboarding due to the gusting winds up at the piste.

We met a really delightful man in the tourist office who was courtesy and friendliness itself. He gave us a number of pamphlets and outlined so many things that were on offer in the area. We booked tickets for the wildlife park the next day. That day followed its usual pattern of delicious cake, hearty grub and interesting and fun conversation with the other guests.

The next day, packed lunch in hand, we set off to The Highland Wildlife Park. We had never seen such an array of exotic animals before from Polar Bears to Bactrian Camels and everything in between. The park is a wonderful day out with so much to see and great talks at feeding time. Katy thoroughly enjoyed herself and we had no trouble whiling away an entire day there.



Always a memorable site – the Cairngorm Reindeer herd

The Reindeer centre

The next day the winds continued to stymie our snowy plans so we headed up to The Cairngorm Reindeer Centre. I think this was one of Katy’s favourite activities.

We went out to the little paddock set off to the side of the centre and saw a number of reindeer but the real treat was to come. Everyone followed the staff up in convoy to a car park someways up the mountain. We hopped out and were given a brief talk (it was chilly) about the plan and off we set. We went down a winding trail to a beautiful river, across the wooden bridge and up the other side. This lead us into the foothills of the Cairngorms. Soon we were surrounded by a herd of 200 reindeer all looking for attention and of course the food pellets that they knew we had.

It was a wonder to see these majestic creatures up so close, particularly after the long hard Christmas they had just had. They seemed to be enjoying their well deserved break from their North Pole duties!

Cairngorm reindeer herd

Keep a look out for the Cairngorm reindeer herd roaming the hills

Birthday treats

That evening I was really touched to see that Rebecca had gone to a lot of trouble for Cormac’s birthday. She had prepared his favourite chocolate biscuit cake (with candles) for cake o’clock and put up birthday banners in the dining room.

The next day, still unable to snowboard, we hit Aviemore. We treated ourselves to big steamy cups of hot chocolate and a spot of sledding in the town. We planned to go dog sledding the next day so we relished the idea of a relatively easy day spent at home in front of the fire.

at Fraoch Lodge

Everyone loves an open fire, almost as much entertainment as the TV

Dog sledding

The next day we set off for The Cairngorm Dog Sled Centre. This again was easily one of Katy’s favourite experiences. After a long talk by the owner of the centre who is a real character and very passionate about his dogs we set out on a motorized vehicle that was ‘pulled’ by a team of sled dogs. It was exhilarating and we loved every minute of this activity.

We spotted a huge stag watching us, as we flew past him with the dogs running as though their lives depended upon it. My only advice for anyone planning on partaking in this activity: bring a lot of very warm clothes.

That night, after a feed of Haggis, tatties and neeps, we set out for the local Ceilidh with the rest of the guests from the Lodge We had a really wonderful night of dancing. Katy came with us and managed to ‘Auld Lang Syne’ her way into the New Year but we retired home moments after the clock struck twelve. She was all danced out.


Relaxing at the Lodge

On our last day Katy was feeling a little under the weather so she, wee Gregor and I had a duvet day. We spent the day lazing in front of the fire wrapped up in sleeping bags, drinking hot chocolate and eating cake. A perfect ending to a wonderful week in the Cairngorms.

I have absolutely no hesitation in saying that I will return to Fraoch Lodge to spend more time in that lovely part of the world. We barely touched the surface with regard to what can be done in the area. We still haven’t snowboarded there so that will need to be experienced. In fact I plan on doing the snow-holing weekend with the expert himself, Mr Bateman and the Winter Skills is also on my wishlist. Can’t wait!

winter Cairngorms

Walkers striding across the Cairngorm plateau

For the full range of walking holidays and skills courses offered by Scot Mountain Holidays please check here.

A snow hole expedition in the Cairngorms National Park – a most varied group

In February we ran a snow hole expedition, the second of the year, in the Cairngorms.

The group

The group was small but unusual.

Ian – our most frequent flier on the snow hole. This was his third snow hole trip. Ian first joined us in 2006 to attempt an overnight snow hole in the Cairngorms National park. The weather was against them on that trip and they had to turn back without reaching the snow hole site. The ski area wasn’t open and though the group attempted to ascend the hill they eventually had to turn back after being blown around a wee bit too much. There is video footage from their endeavours which makes for interesting viewing just to see the effect of nature, if nothing else. Ian returned again in 2007 with 90% of his group to try again – successfully

Andy – our oldest client to date on this trip – a celebration of his imminent 70th birthday.

Hui – our first guest from Singapore. A lone female traveller spending a few months in the UK on a sabbatical from her studies.

Andy’s Review

Read all about their experience in Andy’s words:

Late last year whilst at David Lloyd’s (gym), I said to my friend, Ian Thorpe, an experienced walker and climber, that I fancied carrying out some serious winter walking, but not climbing. Ian replied “Let me take you to the Cairngorms National Park, Scotland.” This was duly arranged by ian and off we set on 21st February at 10am, arriving at Fraoch Lodge in Boat of Garten, in the Cairngorms, at 16.15.

Rebecca, Andy and wee Gregor made us extremely welcome; dinner was baked salmon with a rich and wonderful sauce, followed by home made trifle containing shortbread and blackcurrants, wonderful.

Day 1

Next morning, along with fellow trekker, Hui, a lady lone traveller from Singapore, we were fitted out with ice axe, crampons & helmets prior to spending our first day on the mountains practising ice axe arrest. This was a daunting experience for some one who has never even worn crampons let alone walked on ice.

Later that day we walked till late on Lurcher’s Crag and the Chalamain Gap, looking towards Corrie an Lochain, before returning to Fraoch Lodge for another wonderful dinner, having first stocked up on copious bottles of red and white wine from the local Tesco.

Day 2

On Saturday 23rd February after a hearty breakfast at 7.30, we set off for the snow hole day. We arrived at Aviemore ski resort and walked in. At about 2pm we were ready to dig our snow hole. Andrew marked out 2 doorways on the ice covered mountain side. (We were about 3000ft up by now.) These door holes, roughly about 12ft apart, were then dug into using ice saws and snow shoverls. It took 2 hours to create a vertical face, then we had to further excavate in for about 5ft prior to turning inwards to join the 2 ends of the snow hole. This was particularly backbreaking work for Hui, thank God we had clear blue skies and sunshine. After about 4 more hours, the hole was completed. My feet were so cold I could hardly feel them.

Having put all our gear, including cooking utensils inside, Andrew started the evening meal. We had hot tea, followed by carrot and coriander soup, then a buckwheat and chorizo casserole. Dinner commenced about 10.30pm! Ouside the temperature was approx -9oC; inside however was relatively comfortable.

snow hole expedition

Stunning views from the “window” of your overnight accommodation deep in the heart of the Cairngorms

Day 3

Next morning we woke up to a complete whiteout. My fear was how do we navigate to the summit of Cairngorm Mountain? Andrew explained that we take a direct compass bearing but because I was finding the walk hard he explained that provided we walked clearly up and around the pudding shaped mountain, we would by definition reach the summit and incidentally GB’s highest automatic weather station. After approx. 600m of ascent we duly found the summit at 1245m.

Roughly 4 hours later, we had descended back to the ski lodge. It was particularly hard going with Hui hanging on the to back of Ian’s rucksack most of the way. We had the pleasure of seeing a Ptarmigan and 2 white hares.

Overall a fabulour experience which I will not be repeating, but one to tick off. Andrew’s knowledge of the terrain, geology, weather conditions, and navigation skills were par excellence.

Having successfully returned to Fraoch Lodge, we were treated once again to an excellent farewell dinner. Many thanks Ian, Andrew and Rebecca for a memorable trip which i will not forget for a long time.

Andrew Palliser

PS My 70th Birthday on March 12th 2013 – what a perferct birthday treat to myself!

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