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Winter Walking in the Cairngorms - Athena Mellor

Written by George Fisher

Image for article Winter Walking in the Cairngorms - Athena Mellor

As we approached the Cairngorms National Park at dusk one evening in mid-January, we were astonished by the amount of snow that blanketed the surrounding hills. Driving up the tiny forest track to the wooden ‘wigwam’ that my sister, Amira, and I had booked to stay in for the week was like entering a winter wonderland, a world away from the grey city streets and bright lights of Manchester that we had left behind. But it wasn’t until the next morning, as we approached Loch Morlich at sunrise, that we could truly see the full nature of the wintry conditions that had been bestowed upon the Cairngorms. The Loch was frozen from the shores for about 20 metres and the domed hills behind were not only capped but completed covered in snow. Everything sparkled as the sun rose steadily behind the peaks; the sky a dusty pink glow against the bright white of the hills that were slowly awakening with the first rays of light. I couldn’t wait to head into the heart of them.


''We ended the day on the summit of Cairn Gorm, the almost full moon aglow in the distance and the sky a hazy shade of pink. I was completely astounded by the mountains, like a distant moonscape I had landed on; hills rising as far as the eye could see''

On our first day in the Cairngorms, I planned a walk from the forest in which we were staying to the Ryvoan Bothy that lay slightly northeast of us above the treeline. I also had my eye on a nearby hill called Meall a’ Bhuachaille that we could tackle from the bothy, but didn’t commit to anything before assessing the conditions. Though last year Amira and I had crossed the 5,416m Thorong la Pass in the Himalayas in thick snow and -20 degrees, as the older and more sensible sister, I wasn’t about to lead us into any unsafe situations. But Amira - a strong mountain biker and student - is headstrong and determined, and the second she laid eyes on the hill announced confidently that we would go to the summit. The slope wasn’t steep and the snow not too heavy, so I agreed that without ice axe and crampons we could tackle our first Scottish Corbett, and am infinitely glad that we did because the views enroute and at the summit were utterly breathtaking. Sometimes you need a determined younger sister to counterbalance your caution…

For the next two days, I was enrolled onto the Jonathan Conville Mountaineering Trust Winter Skills Course. With two experienced mountain guides, a group of twelve of us headed into the snowy hills to learn some essential winter skills; crampon technique, winter navigation, and avalanche awareness. For me, a keen hillwalker and aspiring alpinist, these skills would open up a whole new world of spending time in the mountains - it would make me safer, more confident and skilled. We practiced sidestepping and front-toeing in our crampons; learned how to properly carry our ice axes; assessed avalanche risk with a snow stability test; cut steps with our boots and axes; and learned how to ice axe arrest by throwing ourselves down a steep, icy slope. We ended the day on the summit of Cairn Gorm, the almost full moon aglow in the distance and the sky a hazy shade of pink. I was completely astounded by the mountains, like a distant moonscape I had landed on; hills rising as far as the eye could see.

The conditions altered considerably the next day. A far cry from the Alpine blue sky and bright sun that had glimmered down on us the day before, the following day felt much more like the Scottish winter conditions that I had heard so much about. Yet a few of us agreed on the journey to the mountains that the high winds and bitter chill forecast excited us; we wanted to suffer a little, as all passionate mountaineers do! After learning so many skills the day before, today we went on a journey to put those skills into practice. From the Northern Corries, where winter climbers flock, we headed up the steep Goat Track to the plateau on Cairn Lochan where winds howled, jackets were zipped up, and ski goggles went immediately on. Visibility was minimal, so we took the opportunity to practice winter navigation in our group; taking bearings, pacing, and navigating off the plateau in white-out conditions. By the end of the day, everything was frozen but my smile beamed as we headed off the hill at sundown. I couldn’t wait to put the skills I had learned into practice on my own.

And so I did… I had a big hill in mind: Ben Macdui. At dawn on our last day in the Cairngorms, Amira and myself headed out from the ski centre carpark in clear and still conditions. It was -8 degrees celsius when we set off and it wasn’t until 10am that the sun crested ahead of us and lit up the surrounding peaks; we breathed a sigh of relieve as the sun hit our faces and warmed our skin, while we took a break on the mountain to eat our pain au raisin (Alpine style!) and drink warm water from a flask. All day we hardly saw another soul, navigating across deep snow in bluebird conditions until we reached the summit of Ben Macdui three and a half hours later. 360 degree views astounded us; mountains beyond mountains from the second highest point in the U.K. But the height we stood at didn’t really matter. For me, the joy came from knowing we had made it here on our own; without a mountain guide or clear footpaths to follow. The joy came from knowing I could navigate in winter conditions, make judgements based on weather, and be properly prepared to head winter walking in the mountains.

For me, this week of winter walking in the Cairngorms was all about learning and growth. The journey from hillwalking to mountaineering has been a natural progression; the more time I spend in the mountains, the more my passion for them grows, and the more I long to really understand them. Learning how to be safe in the mountains is more important than anything, and I feel that after the instruction of some amazing mountain guides, and then taking the opportunity to plan an independent winter walk, I am so much better equipped to spend more time in the mountains in winter. Where to next? I wonder. All I can say for now is that the mountains are calling me, and I shall return to them soon.

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