I have walked with Matt a number of times previously, but this was his first foray into winter conditions, so we set out with the intention of a 'real life' journey whereby we would cover the basic skills required for a safe and enjoyable day in the hills. We met the evening before, when we covered the kit required for winter, (and was then able to buy some additional stuff before setting off!), route choice and avalanche awareness, and then started our journey the following day from the ski centre at the Cairngorm. This allows quick access to the hills, and we soon left the hubbub of the ski area for the relative remoteness of the coires to the West. I say relative as the forecast was good, and there were a lot of walkers and climbers about for post-festive activity.
There was sufficient ice on the path to practice crampon work, and then we experienced the effort of trail breaking in deep snow to gain the foot of the Fiachaill ridge, where we covered footwork, self-belay technique and finally ice axe arrest.
After a break we set off across the coire, revelling in the atmosphere which changed with the snow flurries and breaks in the cloud. It was also very good to be amongst the climbers as we ascended the steeper ground towards P1141, their calls and clinking of metal setting the hairs on my neck a-bristling as they always do in such grand surroundings. It's always a tricky call as to when to put on the crampons when you have mixed ground, snow, rock and rime ice, but we did so early. As we ascended, we knew the adage of 'if you're thinking about it, do it' was correct - It would have been difficult and even dangerous to have tried to put them on higher up, so we progressed safely.
Having chatted to some climbers on their descent after a route, I coached Matt on his balance and footwork, and he made steady progress upwards, getting accustomed to the wider gait required for safe crampon use, as well as practising using his axe. Before long, we were at the top, with a great fleeting view of a distant Beinn A'an basking in sunshine. It was then on for the summit of the Cairngorm, and another munro tick, the first in winter. The walk down was via a very civilised cup of tea at the Ptarmigan cafe alongside the skiers, and down the (not at all) Windy Ridge back to the car just as darkness fell.
Our next day was spent in delightful Glen Feshie, on excellent paths along the river for the fairly long approach to Mullach Clach a'Bhlair. This is a munro I needed for my second round, and provided excellent navigation practice for Matt. We elected to ascend via the Druim na Bo, which gave almost whiteout conditions so typical of the area, and tested his skills to the full. The challenge for mainly summer walkers is that it is not common to need to micro-navigate to the extent required in winter, and Matt certainly had to work here, as the featureless terrain adds to the difficulty. Yes, there may be a huge track on the map, almost to the summit, but you try and find it under all that snow!
I knew Matt was finding it strenuous underfoot, and disorientating in front, as the horizon regularly disappeared and the white for the snow blended with the flat light of the snowy sky. Proper winter!!! But what it gave him was an excellent taste of the challenges whilst safely being coached by myself - Perfect.
He walked on bearing after bearing, but kept 'feeling' the angle of the ground too; we paced; we timed; we took another bearing.
Finally, as confidence visibly ebbed, we spotted the tiny summit 'cairn' (for it's about as insignificant as you're going to get!) about 30m to our left. Fantastic work, and done in 'real time'. I was very proud of his efforts, and he should be so too. He did it. He walked on the bearing for 700m, made a dogleg, and found the cairn.
The descent from the summit was only 300m to the supposed track, but again illustrated how easy it is to get lost, as the slope sucked us downwards despite our bearing, and I need to correct us as we toiled in the knee deep snow. I took over to ensure we found the top of the descent track quickly, and after a snack, we made short work of the descent as the snow got shallower.
We made it back to the car just after dark again, very pleased with our work. Matt had a real taste of what the winter Cairngorms are like, and will be far more ready to tackle things he may encounter in the future. Thanks for your company, and well done mate.