Our first solo winter adventure

When booking our winter skills course we decided to allow two extra days so that we could immediately put in to practice what we’d learned (assuming we liked it!). In theory we had what we needed to be safe - but stepping out on your own that first time is a fair amount more scary in practice.

The night before we reviewed the avalanche forecast and our OS maps and decided on a ‘short’ loop ascending Fiacaill a Choire Chais, and looping west over Stob Coire an t-Sneachda and Cairn Lochan and descending on the west ridge of Coire an Lochain. On paper this looks about 9km - but in reality it felt like so much more. The forecast was for winds - but very little avalanche risk.

A photo of some snowy rocks on a mountainside. The sun is low in the distance but obscured by snow clouds. There's flurries of snow all around.

We faced very strong winds nearly the entire day, with poor visibility for the first half. Occasional breaks in the cloud gave some lovely glimpses of what the area might look like in good weather.

A hand in the foreground holds a compass and map. In the background is a figure walking away. The compass is pointing towards the figure.
Photo looking up a snowy hillside. Ed is in the foreground holding an axe above his head. The sun is nearly directly behind him.
Photo by Chris Natt.
A photo looking up a snowy mountain - in the near distance is Chris Natt holding an ice axe over his head. There's flurries of snow all around.

Shots with axes in the air seem to come naturally - though now I’ve got a few I think we’ll need to find some other poses to strike.

Most of the ascent was in un-compacted fresh snow - very slow going.

The summit

With great relief we reached the summit (1141m, top of Fiacaill a Choire Chais). We’d used our maps and compasses to navigate here - but more so we could practice than through necessity. Here’s where we met some other winter hikers - a reassuring sight.

Ed looks out in to the distance, which is misty with low visibility. He's holding a map and compass, and wearing a bright orange jacket and ski goggles.
Photo by Chris Natt.

The winds never really died down - though the clouds started to clear about now. Here’s where our temperature control was off - we’d been generating lots of heat on the ascent - but as soon as we got to the summit both started to get cold. We needed to take off our jackets to add layers - but in the wind we both froze quickly. We’ve since learnt to be much better about adjusting clothes ahead of time - including getting insulating layers to go over our hardshells.

Ed and Chris with axes in the air on a snowy plateau.
Two people walk across a snowy mountain, each holding an ice axe. There's two more behind them.

Looking at these walkers I’m struck by how different this scene is from other things I’ve done in the UK. I never knew the weather here could be so harsh.

Two climbers in full winter gear at the top of a snowy mountain.

These two had just topped out from climbing Coire an t-Sneachda. I don’t think we really aspire to get to their level - but their dedication is really impressive.

Ed and Chris kneel down with ice axes in hand at the top of Stob Coire an t-Sneachda
Looking across the edge of a snowy mountain. There's tiny specks from walkers on the hills
The Fiacaill ridge on the right - which would be a destination on a later trip.

The descent

We made two mistakes on the day - things we recognised later we should have done differently - particularly with the training Glenmore gave us. Neither put us in any real danger (given the conditions) - but we’d still prefer to have gotten them right.

A photo of Ed walking in the distance up a snowy mountain.
Photo by Chris Natt.

Our first mistake was setting off up this hill without sufficient planning. We’d always planned to return on the west ridge of Coire an Lochain - so after lunch saw the ridge and set off for it.

Only half way there did we start to question - was this the right ridge? We weren’t sure.

Reviewing the map suggested it could also be a different one. How long had we been walking? We’d stopped for lots of photos so couldn’t remember. We weren’t sure where we were.

Glenmore had taught us to check the map regularly, take bearings, estimate travel time. In our haste we’d assumed what we saw was what we wanted. Ultimately either ridge would have led home, and we had phones with GPS - no real danger. But it reminded us that we should aim to always be confident of where we are - and for a moment we weren’t 100%.

A telephoto photo of Ed walking up a wide snowy hill. He's a small dark figure in an otherwise very bleak landscape. There's an ice axe in his right hand.
Photo by Chris Natt.
A telephoto photo of Ed on a snowy mountainside. There's mounds of rocks and snow in the foreground partially obscuring Ed. The camera is focused on the foreground so that Ed is partially blurred.
Photo by Chris Natt.
A macro photo of rime / ice deposits on a rock.
Close photo of rime on rocks at the top of a snowy mountain.
Looking down at a pair of boots with crampons on icy ground.
A man descending a snowy hillside in afternoon sun.

Our second mistake was not using crampons on the descent and continuing when we were both hungry. Being hungry means you’re low on energy, which means you make worse decisions. In our haste to get home (we could see the car park in the distance) we pushed on.

Putting on crampons is a pain - and walking with them over rocks is annoying. So we didn’t put them on when we really should have. Which resulted in lots of falling over as we descended (not bad falls) in the wind. Again - car park was in view, we had plenty of daylight left - no real danger; but still, we did the riskier thing when we didn’t need to.

In later trips we’ve been much stricter about putting crampons on - and have practised so we can do it quicker. We’re a bit better about stopping for breaks - though we still need to get better about it.

A wide panorama of a snowy mountainside as the sun sets.
A panorama of a snowy hillside as the sun has set behind the hill.

In the end we had a great first solo winter adventure. It pushed us and our skills further, and taught us something about where we still needed to improve.

This trip started a trend of doing a mini-retro in the pub at the end of the day discussing what went well and what didn’t. There can be a tendency to try to be ‘manly’ when you’re on the hill and not complain or say you’re tired - this is exactly the sort of thing that leads to bad decisions though.

We discussed the mistakes we made - which helps us both get better at recognising similar things in the future. In the end it’s about having a safe and enjoyable trip - not necessarily about completing an objective.