Cairngorms - February 2017

To Scotland to do a bit of winter mountaineering.

5 days ― February 2017

Part 1: Learning some winter skills

In February 2017 Chris and I ventured up to Scotland to try a new sort of adventure - winter mountaineering.

We signed up for a weekend winter skills course at Glenmore Lodge. I’d done a 5 day mountaineering course at Plas y Brenin the year before (photos still to come), and was interested in what I could do next - both in terms of skills and in pushing my boundaries.

Chris and I are both massively in to hiking and photography, so this seemed like a great way of extending those interests. It was also something of a gamble - would we really like being in bitterly cold and more risky conditions?

A selection of winter mountaineering tools on carpet. Pictured are a helmet, crampons, ice probe, shovel, and ice axe.

When you arrive you’re given an impressive and scary set of tools to look after. These are exciting - but also make it start to hit home that this is a lot more serious than some other outdoor activities you can do.

As we’d come to appreciate through the course, winter mountaineering can be incredibly fun - but also has to be treated with a lot of respect. Done without care it can be incredibly dangerous.

Four men dressed in winter gear walk in a line up a snowy mountain in poor visibility.
Four men wrapped up in winter clothing huddle on a snowy mountain.

Other than some of the basics you might expect - crampon use, ice axe arrests, etc - the majority of the course is really about safety. There’s so many things that can go wrong, and it’s so easy to go off course. Much of what our guide talked to us about seemed trivial initially until you realised that if that one thing went wrong you could be in serious trouble.

Ed Horsford reading a OS map next to the Cairngorm mountain weather station
Photo by Chris Natt.

We had less than ideal conditions through the course - but perhaps that makes for a good learning opportunity. Much of our second day was spent in near white-out. This was great for practising navigation - and for learning how not to panic when everything around you looks the same.

Ed Horsford standing next to the Cairngorm weather station, holding an ice axe over his head. The weather station is completely iced over and there’s very little visibility.
Photo by Chris Natt.
The weather station antenna at the top of Cairngorm mountain. It’s completely iced over.

We didn’t build this ice hole - but I’d love to come back and do a course on that too. It was so cold and windy outside but remarkably comfy inside.

A man uses the corner of a compass to look at a map. He’s sat inside a snow hole.
Sheltering from the wind.
Four people walk on rocky and snowy ground in poor visibility.
A black and white contour map of the Cairngorms on a table. Parts of it have been hand-coloured in yellow, orange, and green to indicate avalanche risk.
Learning to estimate likely avalanche-prone areas.

I’d never really considered that avalanches would be a thing in the UK. Nor that avalanche prone areas might change each day - one day a slope might be safe, and the next it could be very risky. I now know they’re a massive part of winter mountaineering. Even four winter trips later I still feel this is an area where I’ve got lots to learn.

If anyone were thinking of doing some winter mountaineering I’d wholeheartedly recommend doing one of these courses. Even if you’ve used crampons and axes a bit (glacier trek maybe?) - there’s so much more you pick up on the course - navigation, avalanche awareness, etc.

Part 2: 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.

Part 3: Walking in Gleann Eanaich

With an afternoon flight back home to get to, we looked in our OS maps for somewhere easily accessible where we could walk for the morning. Our last day in the Cairngorms turned out to be the best weather by far - no winds and glorious sun.

The maps indicated a path leading in to the valley of Gleann Eanaich from Whitewell - we figured we would walk as far as time allowed before turning back.

A photo taken from behind as Chris walks ahead. The sun is directly ahead causing Chris to be mostly silhouette with brightly lit edges of his body. The surrounding countryside is fresh with evergreen trees and a snowy mountain in the background.

Our initial target was Loch Mhic Ghille-chaoil - but we soon realised that was far too ambitious for a morning stroll. Still - the weather was glorious, and we loved just wandering about in the valley.

A sunny valley early in the morning. There’s a bit of mist in the background and several layers of mountains visible.
A wide photo in morning sunlight. In the background there’s a hump of a snowy hillside. In the foreground there’s brownish grass with tall trees littered about.

The first part of the walk was through light woodland - before emerging in to a stunning valley. The snowy hills were very tempting, but we weren’t equipped for winter walking any more, and didn’t have the time - tempting for another trip though!

A small stream in a sunny valley landscape. There’s patches of snow on the right bank.
A wide panorama of the Gleann Eanaich valley. There’s snow on the upper parts of the mountains and in the valley it’s mostly brown.
Sgòr Gaoith rising sharply on the right - where we'd visit in March.
Chris stands on a high path taking a photo of the Gleann Eanaich valley in bright sunlight.

All-in-all a very successful morning and end of our first winter trip. The first of many to come.