Sun, snow, winter skills, and three big days out in the mountains
Being the most extensive mountain range in Britain, with 5 of the 6 highest peaks, makes the Cairngorms in eastern Scotland one of the best places to go winter mountain walking. The snow there is more predictable than elsewhere due to its position far from the warmer winds of the west coast, and the high plateau keeps vast areas of mountainside above the usual freeze-thaw line for months at a time.
Our aim was to go for three guided walks into the Cairngorms, aiming for mountain summits while teaching the skills the group needed to stay safe in winter conditions. We were all kitted out with the essentials – winter boots, crampons, ice axes, snow goggles, and lots of warm clothes!
Our first day was a good lesson in route planning. With strong winds and constant snow forecast, we took a more sheltered option and began the walk from Glen Feshie. This valley in the western Cairngorms is famous for its wild setting, with a river that is notorious for shifting position after floods, taking the path with it!
We walked up into the cloud and found fresh snow-drifts all around the peak of Carn Ban More. Sheltering from the wind to practise kicking steps and a brief introduction to the ice axe, we walked into a white-out on the plateau, where we had lunch in the shelter before descending back into the valley.
Our second day started with snow falling heavily out of the windows of the hostel, nestled in Rothiemurchus forest. By the time we began walking however, it looked brighter, and within an hour or so we were basking in the sunshine, with fresh snow shining bright on the hills.
We went on one of the classic Cairngorms walks, around the tops of the northern corries, and up to the summit of Cairn Gorm itself, the 5th highest mountain in Britain. The view from the high plateau in all directions was spectacular, with fresh snow wherever we looked. Luckily we found some hard snow to practice how to wear crampons, and continued looking at ice axes.
After a descent in the ‘golden hour’ of the setting sun, our thoughts turned to the final day, and soon a great objective emerged. We would aim for Braeriach, the 3rd highest peak in the country, and quite a walk!
Early the next day we set off, the northern walls of the Cairngorms opposite us as we made our way through the Chalamain Gap and down to the famous valley of the Lairig Ghru. Up on the other side rose Braeriach, a beast with its head in the clouds.
The ascent was a big undertaking, with some soft snow creating difficulties during the long uphill climb. The weather was constantly getting better, and despite the summit being in cloud, we reached the top with no wind and a sunny haze seeping through the thin vapour. The deep corries of Braeriach appeared through the mist and then vanished again just as suddenly, giving us a glimpse into another world.
In great spirits from our successful climb, we returned the way we had come in sunshine. Back at the minibus, we went out for our final celebratory dinner in Aviemore, three great days behind us.
For a few hours on the final day the group opted to head back to Cairn Gorm and look again at some of the winter skills we’d been learning, particularly crampons and ice axe arrests. This done, we talked over the weekend with a coffee and bade farewell to the Cairngorms, that great mountain range where epic days out are never far away.
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