THE plans for our winter traverse of The Fara had been set weeks in advance, and we had been keeping a close eye on the weather and avalanche forecasts ever since.
We would take the track along the western shore of Loch Ericht before leaving it near Ben Alder Lodge to turn right to climb a gap between the trees and then follow the long, undulating ridge north-east.
The night before the walk, all changed. A fierce northerly meant we would get a rude awakening when we emerged from the tree cover, and we would be fighting it all the way along the ridge. And that was before factoring in the windchill.
Although planning is crucial for winter walks, it is also important to be flexible, to be able to adapt to the conditions at a moment's notice. Take heed of the wind direction and speeds and watch for any likely changes during the day. It's also vital to check the SAIS (Scottish Avalanche Information Service) forecast regularly. In the end, we simply agreed to reverse the route, a move which turned the day on its head with great success.
With the wind behind us, we made good progress. We were able to enjoy the views ahead, rather than battling along with our heads down in the face of stinging snow and ice flurries. It would have been tortuous going, but the clincher came on the descent from the final summit, Meall Cruaidh, where we found ourselves wading through soft, waist-deep snow.
The streams were hidden, all contours wiped away. It was hard enough dropping down through this: coming up would have been near impossible. We would have been beaten before we had really started. Our decision to change was shown to be wise within a few minutes of setting off from the railway station at Dalwhinnie, with fierce gusts driving down the long trench of the loch.
Doing the route north to south means a short, sharp ascent up a slim corridor through the forestry, but the shelter provided by the trees had created a bit of a sun trap and it was hot work going uphill. There was blue sky ahead on the horizon but the speed with which the cloud were scudding across suggested this was filled with false promise. It's hard graft breaking trail in deep virgin snow, but the advantage of walking with a group is that the burden can be shared in a similar way to skeins of geese, by taking turns as front marker.
Confirmation of the wind direction, if it was needed, was assured by the bias of ice on the metal fence posts strung out near the summit and we didn't hang around long. Our wind-assisted progress along the ridge was welcome, and the scouring meant the underfoot depths were never a problem. As we were pushed and prodded along, we had spectacular views of the Ben Alder Munros dead ahead, the profile of every corrie and every ridge standing out with a crystal clarity that's only ever evident under a blanket of white. Down to our left, Loch Ericht was a glistening ribbon of silver, born into brilliance by the low winter sun.
It was another hard slog going down, a constant game of Russian roulette trying to pick out the best line to avoid a cold water shock in the streams lying beneath unpredictable depths. As we looked back at the spindrift spinning and swirling off the heights behind, there was a silent recognition that we would have struggled to make it up this way.
For what it's worth, this is my preferred route for this circuit anyway. The original idea of going south to north was a club construction simply to mix it up for those wanting a little variety on an old favourite. I don't think anyone was disappointed.
When walking with a group in winter, it's important to make an early decision and stick with it. We were five and we were unanimous in our choice. We watched for each other and regularly checked to see we were intact. We also had a contingency in case of emergency.
When you walk as a three or a pair, it's even more important you stick together. So it was particularly alarming this week to hear a tale of a walker who left a struggling partner to fend for themselves high on a mountain during high winds and poor visibility.
Frustration is no excuse – when faced with a scenario like this the stronger walker should be able to recognise the danger and make sure their partner is helped off the hill without delay.
Forget that tick, the mountain will still be there another day. No one should be left behind.