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FOUR SEASONS: THERE’S SNOW HOLE LIKE HOME

Published: The Scotsman (TSMag) 27 February 2010

WITH its double AA rosette restaurant, well-stocked library and even better-stocked whisky bar, The Torridon is the kind of hotel you could happily spend a few days and nights in without ever venturing outside. Given its stunning location on the banks of Upper Loch Torridon, though, even the booziest bibliophiles will probably feel moved to explore at least a little of the surrounding wilderness during their stay – which is where Torridon Activities comes in.

Run by qualified-to-within-an-inch-of-their-lives instructors Chris Wilson and Richard Trott, the intrepid arm of the Torridon operation offers everything from river kayaking to gorge scrambling. The latest addition is snow holing – building and then spending the night in your own snow shelter. It’s something I’ve always wanted to try, so the other weekend I blew the dust off my collapsible snow shovel, pulled on my thermal undies and headed north to meet Wilson for an extreme version of Channel 4’s Grand Designs.

Conditions aren’t always ideal for snow holing on the west coast, so to be on the safe side we made for Aviemore, a couple of hours south-east of Torridon. After parking the Land Rover in the Coire na Ciste car park at the Cairngorm ski centre, we took the shuttle bus to the funicular base station and then, dodging skiers, began to wind our way up Coire Cas towards the Fiacaill ridge.

As we climbed, snow flurries gave way to patchy sunshine, and by the time we’d reached the top of the ridge the cloud was really breaking up, giving tantalising glimpses of the crags on the other side of Coire an t-Sneachda. “I decided to leave my sunglasses in the car so the sun would come out,” said Wilson.

His strategy worked because after lunch, as we made our way on to the undulating expanse of the Cairngorm plateau, the cloud burned off altogether, giving breathtaking views south to Ben Macdui and west to Braeraich.

Cloudless, windless days are rare in the Cairngorms, particularly in February. Wilson and I were both prepared for the worst the Scottish winter could throw at us, but as it turned out we could have completed our six kilometre walk in shorts and T-shirts. As if to emphasise how lucky we were, we ran into a group of climbers who had been in the area all week. This, they told us a little wistfully, was the first time they’d seen the sun.

Shortly after 3pm we arrived at our destination: Garbh Uisge Beag, a narrow gully funnelling north-eastwards towards Loch Avon and the sheer cliffs around Shelter Stone. Wilson scrambled up its snow-laden south-east facing side and whipped out his snow probe – no point digging if you’re going to hit rock after half an hour. Satisfied that there was sufficient snow for us to tunnel into, he marked out a doorway six feet high and three feet wide and we unpacked our shovels and got to work.

Much more ingenious than their name suggests, snow holes are designed to provide maximum protection from the elements in exchange for minimum effort. You begin by tunneling directly into your chosen snow bank for about six feet, creating an entrance passage high enough to stand up in. Next, you turn 90 degrees to your left (or right, if you prefer) and excavate a raised sleeping platform long enough to lie on and high enough that you can sit up in bed without smacking your noggin on the icy ceiling. Finally, to prevent snow blowing into the hole and sealing you inside, lintels are carved out of the snow and laid across the upper half of the entrance.

At first we made good headway, taking it in turns to lever football-sized blocks of snow out of the hillside. About four feet into our tunnel, however, we came across a seam of rock-hard névé. This had to be chipped away with ice axes, meaning we used twice as much energy to move half as much snow.

Eventually, though, the last of the lintels was slotted into place, the sleeping bags came out and Wilson got the gas stove going for dinner. Outside on the plateau the temperature plummeted to -6C, but on our little ledge, stuffing ourselves with meatballs and pasta, it was a balmy 8C. And although the temperature inside fell to -1C later that night, I slept as well as I would have done at home.

The next morning we awoke to an almost zero visibility, but Wilson, meticulous with his map and compass, navigated us off the plateau with pinpoint precision. On the way down we met three climbers who took a keen interest in the location of our snow hole. I hope they were able to use it. It’s not quite The Torridon, but it’s got better views than any hotel in Scotland.

For more details, visit www.thetorridon.com/activities

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