Cairngorms Snow Cave Bikepacking Adventure (Video)

Taking advantage of rare weather conditions that created a firm crust for riding a fatbike atop the deep backcountry snow, Annie Le pedaled out into the Cairngorms for a unique multi-day adventure that included digging out and sleeping in a snow cave. Find a 10-minute video and a story from her trip here…

Words, photos, and video by Annie Le (@a_girl_outside)

Every year, as winter begins its slow transition to spring, I begin avid forecast watching for a very specific set of conditions. The snow blanketing the higher mountains consolidates in freeze-thaw cycles, eventually becoming firm enough to ride. I believe Alaskans call it crust season. If the crust forms during a spell of settled weather, it can be a fat-biking paradise. Due to our wild Atlantic weather systems and the height of these mountains, it can be a fleeting opportunity—or some years, not come at all.

For several years now, I’d been waiting for an opportunity to head up onto the plateau, to dig myself a snow hole home for a few nights, and to ride and explore the beautiful snowy vista. The feeling of riding crust is something I’ve never replicated elsewhere. There are no restraints on where you can go. You can point in any direction and ride until you are on the cliff edges of the mountains. It’s pure, awe-inspiring freedom. I might only get a couple of days of these ephemeral conditions every year, but they stand out as some of my most memorable rides.

  • Cairngorms Snow Hole Bikepacking
  • Cairngorms Snow Hole Bikepacking
  • Cairngorms Snow Hole Bikepacking

I knew the conditions weren’t perfect when I set out on this trip. A few inches of fresh snow had blanketed the crust, and I wasn’t sure how rideable it would be. Mist was forecast to hang low over the mountains, making for an eerie atmosphere and making it impossible to ride on the first day as I navigated by compass to where I thought I’d find deep enough snow drifts to dig my snow cave.

Digging is very physical and wet, as you get covered in snow. After a couple of hours, I was ready to give up, icy layers in the snowpack slowed progress, and I felt like I might not have the energy to complete the cave. Fortunately, the deeper into the drift I dug, the softer the snow was, and progress became easier. Inflating my mat and lighting some candles made the little cocoon-like space feel welcoming and comfortable. Aside from a few nightmares about the ceiling collapsing, sleep was easy.

Cairngorms Snow Hole Bikepacking

Awakening to the same low mists, I spent my first morning widening my sleeping platform and reading. As the fog cleared, I set off to explore my mountain habitat. The layer of fresh snow made the uphill slower, but on descents, the bike whooshed over the powder, feeling weightless. It was sublime. Firm snowdrifts, hollows, and dips in the terrain became features to play on as I weaved my way from summit to summit. Eventually, the clouds darkened, and a cold wind picked up, so just before sunset, I headed back to my cocoon to tuck myself up for the night.

  • Cairngorms Snow Hole Bikepacking
  • Cairngorms Snow Hole Bikepacking

My alarm rang at 4:30 a.m. I hauled myself out of my sleeping bag, stuffed my feet into frozen boots, and headed out in search of sunrise from one of the higher peaks. The first light, a gentle orange glow, peered over the far hills, and gradually, I could make out the outline of the land. Everything glittered and sparkled in my beam of light. There was a feeling of absolute peace in the darkness. The only sound was from my breath and my tires on the snow.

The rising sun was hidden behind a far hill, so the land gradually lightened until, in a moment, the sun popped up, bathing everything in a bright, welcoming warmth. After drinking in the beautiful views, I rode back to my snow hole and packed up. Enjoying the warmth, I brewed up a few teas before eventually making my way back down the mountain and headed towards home.

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