In the afternoon, Gertrude had abated from the 130mph gusts on the summit, and was sufficiently calmed to allow us to get up to 630m at the ski centre, and we were surprised to find enough shelter to cover step kicking, edging, axe use, crampon use and self-belay, before finishing the day as darkness fell with a small 'journey' across varied terrain. A better result than expected.
Saturday was forecasting snow, progressively heavier, with Westerly winds gusting 80mph. Great. We opted for a Narmia-like walk out to Ryvoan bothy, followed by a smash-and-grab attempt on the summit of Meall a'Buachaille, 810m, by the path which gave some relative (and I mean relative) shelter, sufficient to allow us to make the summit. A good experience of the ferocity of winter in the Cairngorms, and a magical walk out in deep fresh snow after lunching at the bothy - how welcome is the most basic of shelter in such conditions?
Sunday promised better, calmer weather, and it delivered. We joined the hordes who all got to the path to Coire an t-Sneachda at the same time due to the guys needing to open the ski road, and staked our claim on a snow slope at the foot of Fiachaill Ridge. There we practiced self arrest techniques, before setting off across the coire to the foot of Mess of Pottage. We won't mention me pointing out a snow covered burn to Mikie, just as I fell through into it myself, OK?
Here we knew the slope would be avalanche safe, and proved to be excellent neve, hard snow-ice perfect for crampons. The ascent is relentless, and we practiced various techniques that we had learned on Friday of using the crampons to ensure a sure foot placement. It would be fair to say some found it easier, (or should I say less difficult) than others, and it illustrates the necessity of practice with any new tool or skill before one becomes comfortable and/or proficient. Winter climbing and walking is not simply the same as summer, only in crampons - It is a whole new skill set, new muscle groups, and much, much more demanding.....but then all the more rewarding.
After a pause to eat and catch our breath, it was a crampon-less march up the summit of the Cairngorm at 1245m, where we met some cave rescue guys on a winter skills trip too. The views were pretty good given the recent weather, over Derry Cairngorm, Beinn Mheadhoin, Lochan Etchachan, Stachan Dubh and Shelterstone Crag. On the descent Gary quipped that he wanted a cafe, and Lo!, there was the Ptarmigan Ski centre as we descended. Unfortunately it was closed.
I used a wee bit of smooth talking, and blagged us a free lift on the last funicular down, which was most welcome for the knees, and allowed us to get a coffee in the cafe at the bottom, which was still open, (despite the length of time it takes to get served in these bl**dy coffee places....grr). The day was completed by an Italian buffet at La Taverna - proper Aviemore experience :)
Monday brought Storm Henry, and with it 130mph westerlies again. We settled on another Ryvoan trip, this time with some micro-navigation, easier on the tired limbs, yet taxing on the brain. We had some informative fun along the way as we delved into the intricacies of our wonderful OS maps and what it looks like on the ground. By 15:00 we had all had our fill of contour lines and slope aspects, and after another welcome stop at the bothy, had a wild old walk out into the wind and driving snow.
David, Mike and Gary were a great group, and I am sure Gertrude and Henry haven't put them off winter in our mountains. Yes it can be challenging, but as I said above, the rewards are all the sweeter, and the beer all the more deserved! :) Thanks for your company gents.