Cairngorms - March 2017

Back to Scotland to put our new skills in to practice.

3 days ― March 2017

Part 1: Climbing Fiacaill ridge

When Chris and I booked our first winter skills trip, flights were so cheap we booked a second trip for the next month in case we liked it. Naturally we loved it, and the next year did two trips again, and this year plan another two. A second trip so soon after the first helped us reinforce what we learnt on the course - rather than waiting another year before putting those skills in to practice.

We decided to hire a private guide for the first day - a great investment. We asked our instructor (Tim Oates) to help us progress our skills, learn some ropework, and ideally go some place photogenic. He suggested Fiacaill ridge - a grade II winter climb in the Cairngorms. Not too challenging, but plenty of interest and areas to test our skills.

Chris and our instructor walk along a path uphill. There’s small patches of snow in the distance, but the ground is otherwise brown and windswept.

Since our trip the month before, much of the snow had gone - a very different experience. The winds were low this day, which made the whole experience much easier. We’d hoped for more ice and rime on the ground, but weren’t lucky this time. Still, dry rocks are better than wet ones.

A long photo of several hikers in the distance walking along a snowy path on a mountain side.
Ed drinking from a vacuum flask, with snowy mountainside in the distance. He’s wearing full climbing gear - helmet, harness, rucksack.
Photo by Chris Natt.
A photo taken facing along Fiacaill ridge. There’s climbers walking along various sections of it, with one in the foreground.

Fiacaill seems a popular destination with climbers / mountaineers. There are tricky sections, but everything can be avoided if wanted - so you can pick what you want to tackle.

Chris and our instructor stand on a level section of Fiacaill ridge. There’s low cloud on the mountain, but some sunlight just breaking through.
Our instructor gets placing climbing equipment on the edge of an overhang on Fiacaill ridge.
Chris takes a big step out on to an exposed section of Fiacaill ridge. His axe is in a crack providing support.
An exposed step

This was probably the most nerve-wracking bit of the day - a very exposed step. There’s probably a 500ft drop down the side. Tim made sure we were completely safe - but that does little to quell the fear. This is also where axes come in so handy - a ready made handle to help you take that big step.

A macro photo of climbing gear on our instructor’s harness. Chris is visible in the background.
Chris and Ed stand at the top of Fiacaill ridge. The ground is mostly snowy with patches of brown.
Photo of the backs of Chris and our instructor. Our instructor is pointing downhill with a ski pole. There’s dramatic lighting in the sky - sunlight in the foreground and ominous dark clouds in the background. There are patches of snow on the ground.
Long shot of several ski mountaineers in a valley. They have skied to the end of the snow, and are now packing up their gear.
Facing straight on to a large orange sign in front of a cottage. The sign is written in large uppercase blue letters and reads ‘VIROL’.

Our thanks to Tim for an enjoyable day that well matched our aspirations. I imagine we’ll attempt the ridge again on our own one day to see how far we’ve progressed.

Part 2: Sgòr Gaoith, not that you'd know it

A successful day, but not much to see or show for it. I’d looked up a few options for routes around Aviemore that we could attempt - this seemed suitable given the conditions. We would set off from near Balachroick, following the valley towards Càrn Bàn Mòr, before diverting East towards Sgòr Gaoth. Returning via the humps of Meall Buidhe and Geal-Charn.

Chris taking a photo looking down a sunny hillside. There’s dark clouds in the background.

The day started of with bright sunlight and crisp air. Some lovely colours about.

A photo pointing down at moss and grasses. The moss is deep red in colour.
Chris hiking in a t-shirt on a brown grassy path. There’s partially snow covered hills in the distance.

With low winds and a steady pace we kept warm as we gained altitude. The weather got progressively more gloomy and foggy.

Ed hiking uphill on a partially snow covered slope.
Photo by Chris Natt.
A photo of a rocky cliff partially covered in snow. There’s strong fog everywhere so the background and bottom of the cliff can’t be seen. There’s a shadow of a person at the tip of the cliff.
Photo by Chris Natt.

Sgòr Gaoith is an impressive ridge on the West side of the Gleann Eanaich. Photos look incredible. Sadly the view from the top was less than ideal on our visit.

A gloved hand holds a compass and map in front of the camera as a blurred figure walks ahead in the distance surrounded by snow and fog.

We’d originally planned to walk along the ridge towards Sgòran Dubh Mòr - but decided against it as we wouldn’t see anything. Instead we spent the afternoon practising our navigation on the way back to the car. There was thick fog, but heading West, North-West away from the ridge presented lots of safe space to practice. We picked out nav targets in turn made our way home.

Ed looking down at a compass held precisely on a map.
Photo by Chris Natt.

In all, not the thrilling day we’d hoped for - but a successful outing in winter nonetheless. Our first year of winter mountaineering a success!