In the last month I’ve been working with members from East Pennine Orienteering Club to create a Marsden Virtual Orienteering course for their virtual series. Its live this week!
If you’ve never had a go at Orienteering this is a great way to try it out. From understanding the orienteering style of maps to learning how to navigate at speed and maintain the orientation of the map. The best bit is, you don’t have to be a fast runner – its all about ability to navigate accurately and come up with the best route between controls. You don’t even have to run at all, if you just want to use the courses for practicing navigation skills and techniques then just go for a walk.
So if you want to have a go, the Marsden courses – Long, Medium and Short – are all live on the website. If you don’t live nearby there’s lots of other virtual routes still live – as the courses will exist forever even after the weeks ‘race’ has ended.
Download the MaprunF app for your mobile if you want to log your time, and print out the maps. Instructions for MaprunF are on the EPOC website.
So get yourself outside and have a go!
(thanks to Richard for his help and putting up with my lack of IT skills!)
I love navigation challenges and having done my first orienteering event in the cold damp months of February I was disappointed when Covid hit that there wouldn’t be more over the summer.
Then a friend introduced me to a series of virtual orienteering runs via the East Pennine Orienteering Club (EPOC) and I’ve been hooked ever since.
Virtual Orienteering has become a popular activity with both Orienteering clubs and event organisers using technology to provide ‘events’ for people to continue to participate in activities.
Whilst there’s a few different apps available, most are using MapRunF which is free to download and simple to use. The app allows the facility to ‘cheat’ (assuming its not been disabled by the event organiser!) by following the red line you create as you move.
Given clubs are using it to replace the punch and card of old orienteering events, most are disabling this function and ensuring participants use good old paper maps which can be downloaded from their own websites.
EPOC events have been great fun as they’ve kept them both short and urban to encourage participation. Theres a choice of length for the linear runs and sometimes there’s score events if you want to freestyle.
I quickly became addicted to racing round villages and parks trying to get my phone to ping at the checkpoints.
Having the opportunity to do a weekly event has been great fun for encouraging me to be active when I’ve been feeling lazy and fed up. It has also given me something to be competitive about at a time when there’s been little happening – which has certainly brought the fun back into navigating.
During this never-ending period of ‘not-lockdown-but-not-normal’ a number of race event organisers have also been using the MapRunF to organise free events, enabling people to get remain engaged with their events and encouraging new people out.
While I’ve been running races for a couple of years the race in the cold wet months of February was the first time I ever tried an orienteering event. So full of the excitement of EPOC events I had a go at the Explore Events Peak Raid events series.
Set in the White Peak, an area not that far from home but not one I’ve really explored much, this ticked all the boxes for me. A chance to try 2 hour events and get more mileage in my runs at the same time as explore new places. I wasn’t taking the races seriously enough to try to win, it was more about having a go and testing myself.
Via the end of the 4 events I had battled through head high bracken, been eaten alive by midges on sweaty hot evenings, slide down the steepest path into Castleton and been chased through a field by a herd of scary cows.
While I’d happily finished the first event half an hour early as I’d had a nice run, by the 4th event I was definitely zigzagging to get as many checkpoints as possible and actually being frantically competitive!
Geocaching – a geeks treasure hunt
During Lockdown my mountaineering club had virtual catchups with members. During one of these Laura presented on Geocaching. I’m not going to explain what geocaching is as its been around for decades now and if you haven’t heard of it you’ve clearly been hiding under a rock.
Having had a look at the map and discovered I seemed to be surrounded by geocaches around my village, and being trapped at home I took myself out for a spot of hunting.
Now I have to say, there is nothing about geocaching which translates to traditional navigation skills. You basically look at the app on your phone and follow it to find a cache, sometimes solving a puzzle along the way to find the right location.
That said, it is a fun way to get out and find yourself in very odd locations – rummaging down the side of a fence in the long grass for a box, or under a rock on the top of the moors. Its certainly made a few of my local runs a bit more interesting when I’ve been fed up of running the same routes.
If you find yourself a bit bored, geocaching can certainly give you the excuse you need to get out. Many of the caches give you interesting information about the local area, history and geology.
Going digital then?
In a word, no.
I do use digital mapping for planning routes, or quickly checking something when I’m out running. But I love a paper map a bit too much and don’t trust phones to not die when I’m out.
I’m a firm believer that being able to navigate is a life skill everyone should have – that there’s nothing more confidence building than being able to head out with a map and have a fantastic walk. Its also essential to avoid being the idiot who had to call out mountain rescue as all you had was a mobile phone which ran out of battery.
I do promote the OSLocate app to all who come on my courses as its a fantastic free tool to give you a grid reference when you need it. And unlike What3Words doesn’t require you to have mobile phone coverage so will work even when you don’t have data. Giving you a quick grid reference allows you to see where you are on a map and get yourself back to where you need to be. (I might rant about W3W another time)
OSLocate is free on Android and IOS so get it downloaded.
Thank to all the Orienteering clubs and event organisers who have embraced technology and despite the massive organising effort have provided free events for everyone to participate in. I’m hooked on randomly running around the countryside to get my phone to ping, so long may they continue!
I’m going to start by saying that I’m not rubbishing those of you who have set New Year goals. I’ve got some for 2018 too. But the trouble with goals is the pressure you put on yourself to achieve them.
Take my 2017 goals.
• Do winter ML training and also do 15 winter days for log book – ✔️
• Lead climb VD outdoors
• Try ice climbing ✔️
• Half marathon ✔️
• Climb 6b indoors by the end of the year and be able to lead 5s.
• Reach 60 parkruns
• Lead an Alpine route
• Try skiing ✔️
• Learn to ride a motorbike
Now the ticks hide the real story behind last year. I’d already committed to doing the winter ML training and where’s the stress in going on a training course? Getting 15 days for my log book became quite stressful as this winter started though. I found myself putting unnecessary pressure in myself to do routes and weirdly became quite nervous about navigating in white outs. No logical reason why, I love navigation challenges, and I had a blast in Storm Eleanor on a rescue team night nav training this week. The pressure to be out in Scottish winter became less fun though.
Lead climb VD and reach 6b and lead 5 sport climbs. Where do I start with that one? Climbing terrifies me. It’s the one thing I do that I really have to be in the right frame of mind for and I’ve learnt I have to be with the right type of people too. So last year wasn’t that successful for climbing. I had lots of incidents of crying seconding routes and only managed to lead 3 diffs. I did get up to leading 5s indoors but again it matters a lot who I’m with and I found myself having wobbles on 4s sometimes.
Ice climbing seemed an easy one to tick off, weird since rock climbing scares me. But it was a holiday with friends who knew it was my first time out so there was no pressure to perform at any level. As it was, I loved it.
I managed 2 half marathons and a 25km race, with mixed success. The trail races nearly killed me but the Great North Run felt like a blast. I’ve failed to get a proper training pattern though so I never reached 60 parkruns, although I did get to 50.
While I did have a fantastic Alpine trip and did some great AD routes I did not lead anything, again down to confidence and being with people more experienced than me.
Skiing was an easy tick at the end of the year and I lost interest in riding a motorbike.
So you see my dilemma?
The things I really care about succeeding at are the ones I fail to achieve. The goals I set to achieve them become my barriers, no matter how small they are.
So here’s the plan for 2018.
To be kind to myself.
• I want to lead 3 severe routes and 7 VDs.
But it’s ok if I cry. It’s ok to say no to a route. It’s ok to pick easy stuff too. It’s ok if I get to the end of the year and have only got part way to this too. I’m going to try to second more harder stuff too though. I have a friend who would thing that’s a poor attitude to learning climbing and I should be sucking it up and getting stuck in. That approach didn’t make for happy climbing last year so I’m not doing that again.
• I want to run a marathon.
I might find this easier to do if I can find the time to train as I’m not the competitive person who needs to beat a certain time. Finishing is always my goal.
• I wanted to do my winter ML assessment in early 2019, but my recent winter experience had made me rethink this goal. I’m putting too much pressure on myself to perform, so instead I want to just get 20 winter days in and have fun. Then I’ll see what happens.
And that’s where I’m leaving it this year. I want to be kind to myself. Life isn’t about smashing out goals and punishing yourself for failures. I want to have fun in my adventures.
So if you have set goals for 2018, make sure you enjoy them. Don’t punish yourself for any set backs, just get outside and have fun.
You’ve probably heard of type 2 fun – when fun challenges you and might scare you but otherwise leads to massive personal development.
I actually imagine fun to be a bubble that I’m in. Its a fairly massive bubble that most of the time I never notice the edges of where it becomes fear. As I’ve pushed myself to do harder and newer things the bubble has grown.
For example, I now love running in the dark on my own. I enjoy hiking long distances in the mountains far from civilisation and love being out in the cold Scottish winters with my face freezing. I love travelling alone to countries that don’t even share the same alphabet, let alone have English speakers.
I like to test the edges of the bubble to work out how far I can push it without popping it. For me this translates to sobbing pathetically or having to concentrate so hard I can hardly think straight and end up with a massive migraine.
There have been some surprises on this journey to stretch my bubble – for example I’ve never been great with heights so was surprised to find I loved paragliding.
I never expected to want to climb higher after reaching Kilimanjaro summit and to continue to want to push this limit in Nepal and Bolivia, going higher and more technical. And to wonder what else I could achieve too…
I never thought I’d enter a 25km trail race after my first 10km only 2 years ago. While I was physically knackered at the end I was proud of my time, given the heavy rain and sliding around on the rocks and falling over in the mud. I certainly never thought after feeling broken at the end I would run another 2 half marathons in the same year and be considering a marathon.
I still have a love/hate relationship with climbing due to harbouring a fear of falling. I really have to be in the right frame of mind and with the right people that I trust to feel confident. And even then I can still break out the disco legs and drop an f-bomb.
Trad lead climbing is still on the edge of what I’m happy with, I still shake with fear too much but its a fear I want to conquer. It’s on the right side of the edge of the bubble. I know if I conquer this fear there’s a whole world of challenges to complete.
There’s been few activities that I’ve tried and would never do again; things that were just too far the wrong side of the bubble for me. Caving is possibly one – I don’t enjoy abseiling at the best of times but in the dark and wet was possibly a step too far. Sobbing at the bottom of Alum Pot wasn’t my finest hour, and I’m grateful to Ben and Aly for giving me the opportunity; but sometimes in life you find things that you just don’t have the stomach for.
In striving to expand my bubble and I’m either going to run out of experiences to try, or keep finding myself shaking like a leaf wishing I was somewhere else. Thats the thing with the fun/fear relationship though, trying to find out which side of the bubble you’ll be is addictive.
I hate caving. I know hate is a strong word but having had a go I can honestly say, I hate caving. Wading around with wet feet inside cold wellies wearing a rubber boil-in-the-bag suit with a fibre pile onesie underneath so any physical exertion leads to being really sweaty. Having a mild panic attack in the dark, when the choice presented to you is to either wriggle through a tiny slot barely big enough to fit in or to slide down rock and somehow avoid landing in the pool of freezing water at the bottom. I feel a bit sick just thinking about it now. There’s always the choice to turn around but I’m not a quitter and like to push my boundaries of fear.
But I didn’t know any of this when I agreed to give it a go. I thought ‘It’s a bit like rock climbing, but underground’. Walking through passages marvelling at rock and fossils and wandering into huge caverns.
The reality is more like grovelling in the dark, wedging myself through rock and losing my dignity and nerve as I lower myself over the void to disappear into the abyss, dangling in free space.
The weekend was organised by Ben and Aly, both really experienced cavers and both in Mountain Rescue teams with experience in cave rescues, so if I was going to give it a go I was at least going out with experienced people.
Learning rope access skills
We’d spent Saturday morning learning rope techniques to ascend and descend the ropes, get past knots in the rope (re-belays) and also passed clips where the rope has been anchored to the side to make the descent better (deviations). In Bradford Pothole Club’s hut, a couple of feet off the ground, it was easy and fun. I enjoy learning rope skills, and this didn’t feel like it was that different than the rope rescue skills we do in my Rescue team. This was going to be a piece of cake.
On a hot sunny afternoon we then headed out to descend into Sell Gill, a cave system with all the rope work problems you could ever encounter. I didn’t have any problems getting down into the bottom of the cave. And yes, I had this look on my face all day.
Later on, hauling myself back up the rope to get out I managed to jam my ascender (croll) at the top next to a knot. I was less than impressed with the ten minutes of wiggling it required to get it off. As you can imagine I was sweating in my rubber suit as I dangled, frustrated, trying to free myself. Ben at this point was being very reassuring with advice about how to free myself and was about to come and get me himself when I sorted it out.
It wasn’t a horrible experience but Sell Gill isn’t the most attractive cave, as Ben pointed out its more of a training ground for learning the skills, so I was still wondering what the point of caving really is. Aly tried to explain that reaching the bottom of the cave is what cavers go underground for, but I’ll be honest I still didn’t understand.
I was even more confused to discover some of the club’s cavers had spent the day digging underground, to excavate new caves. I understand the desire to be the first to do something, even if it’s be in a cave, but really?! In the dark, cold and wet, digging dirt out of the ground.
Venturing into Alum Pot
I admit to being filled with a sense of dread after hearing two cavers spent Saturday night trapped underground nearby and had not been rescued till 5am. So I was a bit happier that Sunday’s trip out was to Alum Pot, a day lit shaft that descends 80m into the ground. At least I wasn’t going to spend all day in the dark I thought.
We initially headed upstream, wading through the river to reach Dr Bannister’s Handbasin, a huge underground pool. We had an awkward climb up a short waterfall to exit the last bit of the cave, awkward enough but much more so in wellies.
Once back out in the real world, we walked back down to the entrance to head downstream and into Alum Pot itself. The route down wasn’t too complicated and involved mostly walking through passage ways or around the edge of pools.
It was along this bit of the route that I was presented with the option of squeezing through a narrow crack to wriggle through, or sliding further down rock to avoid a pool. I can confess that watching Jess crawl through the gap and even thinking about having to follow her, made feel sick and teary. I opted for the slide down and managed to avoid the plunge pool.
From here we continued to ‘Dollytubs’, a roped descent down 15m to where we could see Alum Pot and daylight. Descending Dollytubs required a traverse along a ledge and to reclip the rope past a deviation as we descended.
Even getting my descender (stop) onto the rope felt like a mental effort as I leaned over the drop. Ben did point out to me to just get my bum on the wall to balance, clearly logical thinking isn’t a skill of mine when I’m concentrating on not panicking! Despite always being clipped to a rope and therefore safe, I didn’t have faith in the gear, which is ridiculous I know. Clipped to a rope I wasn’t going to fall. So every time I had to faff with the stop I felt a bit uneasy.
I was happy to get into Alum Pot and see daylight, and the descent down Greasy Slab was actually pleasant in the daylight. Alum Pot feels like another world when you look up to daylight, surrounded by leafy vegetation, moss and slime.
It was like being in Jurassic Park, another world that I wouldn’t ever see again and that hikers who pass by the surface never get to see. I knew I was lucky to have the opportunity to be there.
The 45m descent down from below ‘The Bridge’ the large rock seen in the photo above, wasn’t really any more difficult that anything I’d done so far, only one deviation clip to get passed by unclipping and re-clipping.
Dangling in free space with daylight showing how far away the floor of the cave was, and the roaring sound of the waterfall pouring down made the whole thing feel a lot more scary. Plus having to sort out a deviation which was more than an arms length away and manage to re-clip it back on the rope without letting go of it was stressful.
By the time I eventually got to the bottom of the rope I only had to walk along and do one more 20m descent down to reach the Sump, an underground pool and the end of the cave system. But on seeing the last rope descend down into the dark again and trying to sort out my rope whilst getting soaked under a waterfall I’d reached the edge of my mental strength.
Am I disappointed I didn’t see the Sump? As I sarcastically put to Ben as he tried to encourage me to continue, “its just a puddle”. Ok, I’m sure to cavers out there the Sump is something special and worth a visit, but I just didn’t care enough at that point to carry on. I was mentally wiped out.
I’m still not disappointed either. I don’t have a great head for heights which is a problem with climbing at the best of time, but in dark and wet caves I’d found my limit. I felt bad for letting Ben down. For me it was a big enough achievement to have got to where it did.
Hauling myself back up the 45m rope was challenging enough for me.
Whilst I’m unlikely to ever go caving again, I would recommend a trip into Alum Pot if you can find someone to take you. Its not somewhere to go without experience – you need to be able to rig the ropes and understand ascending and descending safely. Being able to do that with Ben and Aly was great.
I was totally amazed and grateful for Aly’s calm and cool manner in dealing with me, being stubborn and sobbing at the bottom of Alum Pot. She’s an amazing caver and clearly really good at coping with novices like me. She was also out in front the whole weekend rigging the ropes and taking responsibility for safety. Whilst I’m not sure caving would ever have been for me even if I’d started younger, I believe girls need more role models like Aly. I found her totally inspiring.
I’d also like to say a massive thanks to Ben for letting me tag along, for being a good teacher and being calm when teaching me skills, and giving me the opportunity to see the amazing world of Alum Pot. And for taking photos – without which I’d have manage to banish all memory of the day!
Its 11am – I’ve already got frozen snot across my face and my buff has frozen with my breath. The goggles I loved earlier in the week have failed me and I feel like I’m in a white out as they’ve misted up.
It was windy and cold as we headed up onto the Cairngorm plateau on Thursday, in search of somewhere to spend the night. We spent most of the day leading each other on navigational legs, predominantly heading into the South-Easterly wind. It was a time for head down trudge and holding on tightly to the map. Having lost one person from the group at the start of the day due to fitness, the pace had suddenly quickened and as we had to start breaking trail through the deep wind slab it was a lot of effort to keep up a good pace to keep from being cold in the wind.
Looking for obscure contour features in these conditions was a test of endurance more than it was of ability.
As you can imagine I’ve never been so happy as when we reached our snow hole spot at Ciste Mhearad at 3pm. Especially when we found old snow holes which we could get away with extending. It still took 3 hours of digging before we could sit in relative comfort for an hour of melting enough snow to eat freeze-dried food before we headed out for night navigation practice.
The one thing I’ve been both looking forward to and dreading at the same time is snowholing on the expedition section of the Winter Mountain Leader training. My technique for digging leaves a lot to be desired (as had been confirmed earlier in the week), and I would have still been there at midnight if I had to dig one on my own. I’d rather walk off the hill in a blizzard than spend 3 hours or more digging into the hillside. I’d night nav any day but dig another snow hole? No way!
The trick to snowholing in comfort is a good bivvy bag, a thick thermarest and a good sleeping bag. I had none of these as I’d borrowed kit from Glenmore Lodge to save weight on my train journey, which meant I had a decent bivvy bag, but a thin sleeping bag and one of those thin foam mats you give Duke of Edinburgh groups with an apologetic face because you know they’re not going to keep out the cold.
I did however pack a second warm jacket and another hat so that I could sleep in relative comfort – when I did wake it was only because my leg had started to go dead lying on the hard ice. Oh and for a wee about 3am but there was no way I was going outside, so I crossed my legs till dawn.
Cooking in a snowhole is a case of high calorie/ low taste food – boil in the bag or freeze-dried and a lot of snacks. I’d usually try to drink a lot of fluid at night when out on trips when I know I’ll struggle to hydrate during the day, but faced with a trip out at night for a wee I limited the bedtime drinks.
Navigating at night
I was lucky to end up spending the evening with Nigel, Glenmore Lodge’s navigational guru who gave me and Jo plenty of top tips for navigating in horrendous wind using only contours. We both aced the challenging navigational features we had to find.
Nigel gave us a range of obscure features, some of which like Marquis Well where hard to distinguish in the frozen landscape. It was a great lesson in navigating just using contour features – using the shape of the landscape to identify your location.
From an obscure feature on Cairngorm summit I had to find the cairn and Jo had to find the weather station. So we wandered on a bearing in separate directions with a fair amount of praying to find the right spot. I’ve never been so happy to find a trig point at 9pm on a Thursday night in a 40 mph wind and a sideways blasting of snow.
Nigel’s top tip is ‘travel to unravel, move to prove’ – always check where you are by moving around and seeing what the landscape does. He also recommends orienteering as a means of excelling in micro navigation, learning to read contours without using bearings and learning how to walk on a bearing without setting your compass (that one is really quick but seemed like magic in the dark and howling wind).
Jo and I got back to the snow hole about 10pm and both of us slept relatively well considering the cold (and urge to pee). Nevertheless I was pleased when morning came and I could head out into a calm morning. There’s nothing like a wild wee when you’re not worried about your bum freezing in the wind!
Navigating in the sunshine
The trouble with it being a gorgeous morning was that our navigational challenges were going to have to be a lot more difficult, given that we had such good visibility. In the glorious sunshine we bagged Cairngorm summit for a second time.
We then headed down into Coire Raibert to a couple of contour feature.
It was then my turn to lead the group and of course my leg was a relentless ascent through wind slab, break trailing all the way up to Stob Coire an T-Schneachda summit. This was a brutal leg in the blazing sunshine with heavy packs so I was relieved to reach the top. Just look at the view!
From here we bagged the summit of the peak otherwise known as 1141, before we descended down to the ski runs and the path back to the car park.
Debrief and reflection
After fueling up with my third cake of the day and a second hot chocolate, we each got a debrief for the week. I know my log book needs more work – but otherwise I just need to get out and get the required number of days in before I book the assessment.
Prior to assessment I need to do another 40 Quality Mountain days, but that doesn’t include days out leading groups or days which aren’t the definition of ‘Quality’ – long or complicated. I also need to have done 10 grade 1 climbs to prove my confidence on steep ground – I don’t see this being an issue as I’m planning winter climbing trips.
I headed into the Winter Mountain Leader training being a bit non-committal about whether I’d do the assessment since at the moment it’s all for personal development. Despite a challenging week I’ve realised I have more confidence that I thought I did in winter and while I have a lot to do, I’m super keen to work towards the assessment in the next few years.
I walked a few hours to dig some holes in the snow. Well actually it was rock solid neve that went down for half a metre and took forever to dig in. I felt like Popeye by the end of the day.
I can’t really complain, there had been a lot of snow fall over night so the walk into Coire an Lochan was fantastic. The visibility was pretty good and we could see up to Cairn Lochan and the Fiacaill ridge, though visibility eventually dropped as we got on to the edge of the ridge west of Coire an Lochan.
The avalanche report had said that northerly slopes were most at risk so we stuck to the west edge of the ridge for our rope work exercise, despite other groups being much further into the back of the Coire. Yes they probably had much deeper wind slab to dig through – making it easier – but it was a much riskier place to be. Always be avalanche aware.
So after a quick demo by Phil our instructor we cracked on digging our snow/ice buckets for belaying.
This is where I have to say my digging is pathetic, I clearly need to spend more time on upper body work out if I’m ever going to excel at digging anything in solid neve. It’s like chipping away at concrete. All I could think is that I really hope we don’t have to dig snow holes later in the week in solid snow.
Snow buckets, buried axes and bollards
Snow buckets are needed for you to have a solid position to belay someone from – they need to be a semi-circle at least 1/2 metre deep, past the weak layer in the snow, and have a front wall which is strong enough to support your weight and rest your thighs against.
After we had dug buckets big enough for ourselves to sit in and at the correct angle (perpendicular to the slope) so we wouldn’t fly out, we then set up buried axe belays and then snow bollards.
To dig a buried axe belay you need to dig a slot along the fall line of the slope, which is long enough for the axe to sit in and deep enough to be below any weak layer in the snow pack. The axe then needs to be placed along the lower wall of the slot with pick buried completely in the snow face down. In my slot this took a lot of hitting to get it in to the ice.
Around the shaft of the axe you need to reverse clove hitch a sling which is then placed in a vertical slot running down the fall line with a karabiner at the bottom. The rope is then tied around your waist and clove hitched through the karabiner to secure you into your bucket seat, and then the other end tied to the person you’re going to belay.
Snow bollards aren’t that much different in the principle of how they work but are good to do when you need to abseil down and be able to pull your rope through without leaving an axe or any gear behind.
The size of the horseshoe bollard you create in the snow depends on the type of snow. In the rock hard neve we had it only needed to be the length of the axe as an arc. In really soft wind slab it needs to be the length of your arm plus your axe to make sure the snow has the strength to hold the weight of a person. Again it needs to be below the weak layer of snow. The arc needs to taper inwards so the rope doesn’t pull out with weight.
I failed to take a photo of the belay in the neve so here’s one from the day after which we created in wind slab to abseil over a cornice. Abseiling on a classic abseil around the body is the simplest way to use this. If you’re using it to belay from a bucket seat, tie on to one end of the rope from the bollard and clove hitch the other end to a karabiner on the rope around your waist.
I felt like I was doing well, that all made sense and I remembered much of it from practice years ago. I feel like I’ve come a long way from someone who really struggled with the rope work bit of the summer ML.
Be Avalanche Aware
We had a detailed avalanche session in the evening. The Be Avalanche Aware principle is straight forward and as a process is a great way of forward planning and ensuring you’ve considered the risks before heading out.
While reading an avalanche report is something I would always do before heading out in the snow, reading the detailed snow profiles and understanding them is a whole other level. My unscientific mind needs a lot longer to digest the different ways avalanche prone snow forms, thankfully the SAIS website has loads of helpful guides and information. I feel like I need a field study guide to snow…. or an I-spy book….
Tough question I know. I’ve been known to have a half hour discussion with a friend just about different crampons, and then we moved on to axes.
I love gear. Not in a ‘all the gear and no idea’ way. I don’t buy gear to look good. I like the technicality of different gear whether that’s climbing kit or waterproofs. But that’s not to say I don’t hoard gear too.
But in winter my favourite bit of kit has to be my rose-tinted goggles which add a veneer of sunshine to the worst weather, and despite my love of gear I only own one pair. (Well except for the glacier glasses that have goggle attachments…)
Anyway, goggles are fantastic, especially for someone who wears glasses and doesn’t get on with contact lenses. My glasses fog up on the most peaceful days if I make the mistake of tucking my chin into my coat to keep warm. So goggles are brilliant for keeping me from stumbling around like I’m in a white out all the time.
Today everyone had goggles on before we’d even left the car park. The forecast was for 30 mph winds with it getting up to 50-60 mph by the end of the day. But as we got to the ski centre car park it was clear that the gusts had arrived earlier in the day.
Walking in to Coire an Schneadcha was a challenge to stay vertical.
Teaching techniques for crampons
So it was in wind strong enough to blow us off our feet that we headed up into the Coire to a spot tucked away on the east side out of the avalanche risk, to practice teaching each other techniques for walking in crampons.
Cue bunny hopping and frog hopping as useful techniques for encouraging novice winter walkers to use their crampons properly to flat foot and front point. Imagine hopping like a frog and ribbeting as you front point in gale force wind and spin drift blows up your nose…
It was useful to remember that whilst I was (happy is the wrong word) tolerating the frozen snot and stumbling in the wind, novices would be really intimidated and out of their comfort zone so a bit of ridiculous hopping around is a good way to reduce fear and give confidence.
Navigating in the wind
Nevertheless we eventually bailed out as the wind stopped gusting and became consistently 60 mph. We still had to practice navigating out though. Despite relatively good visibility it is important to not rely on visible features but focus on contours as the only reliable means to navigate. What is the ground telling you as you cross it? Are you going up, down, is it flat? Hard to say when you can’t stay upright.
Pacing, bearings and timing as all useful to get in more or less the right spot but reading contours is the only accurate way to know where you are….
I’m pretty nerdy about maps too so you can imagine how I feel about staring at contours….
I’d planned on doing my Winter ML last summer when I realised I had the ability and skills required. I knew my log book was a bit thin on days but I knew navigation wasn’t a problem and I was confident on snow and ice. So why wait?
There was an intimidating moment as we went round the table this morning at Glenmore Lodge, introducing ourselves. One Outward Bound instructor, 2 members of Braemar Mountain Rescue Team, someone who has returned from working with British Antarctic Survey and someone who’d done the assessment before and left it too long to redo the bit they’d deferred on so having to do it all again (so basically adept at most of the syllabus).
And then there’s me. Someone who’s done a fair bit of personal winter walking, some winter scrambling and only uses her summer award about 6 times a year to either take Duke of Edinburgh groups out or lead challenge walks. Out of my depth doesn’t begin to describe how I felt!
Planning a route
We spent the morning discussing winter weather, looking at useful sources of information such as SAIS, MWIS and the Met office – websites I regularly use for planning winter activities. I was then introduced to a load more I’ve never used such as XCWeather and WindyTV. So here’s the avalanche forecast for today:
Key learning point here is that the three things to consider for avalanche risk are:
Aspect – which way does the slope face and is this considered a risk by the forecast?
Angle – is it between 30 and 45 degrees (most likely to avalanche)?
Altitude – is it high enough to be in the risk area deemed by the forecast?
So after looking at the area around Coire Laogh Mor area to the north of Cairngorm summit, considering the potential avalanche hazards and wind direction, we plotted a route around the coire to look at snow conditions.
As we headed out of the door we collected avalanche kit – a probe, shovel and transceiver before heading out for a play in the grounds. I then had to embarrassingly admit I’d never used an avalanche transceiver before – why would I? I’ve never been into seriously avalanche prone areas, or to seriously high summits – oh hang on. Yes I have. And I’ve been to the Alps and walked alone in Scotland…. well that’s embarrassing. And scary I’d not considered it before…..
Whilst not in the Winter ML syllabus Glenmore Lodge consider it standard practice to make sure that everyone carries and can use an avalanche transceiver. So when we came to practicing with avalanche probes it made the theory much more understandable. (Note to self – get a transceiver!)
Navigating to find snow
We parked at the lower car park and took it in turns to contour around the hillside into Coire Laogh Mor, each being challenged to find an obscure contour line feature. As we ascended up the mountain to 800m it quickly became clear that the avalanche forecast might have been overly cautious. There was very little snow at 800m, we spent most of the morning bashing through heather. Which is at least physically challenging like wading through snow, although a lot less fun.
Key Learning points for navigation aren’t really that different from Summer ML navigation – the 5 D’s:
Distance – how far do you need to travel?
Direction – what’s the bearing?
Description – do you go up, on the flat, or down?
Dead end – at what point do you need to consider checking if you’re going wrong?
Danger – avalanche awareness – are you walking into somewhere with more risk?
Learning to teach snow skills
When we eventually found snow, near the col into Coire na Ciste we practiced kicking and cutting steps and how you teach these skills to novices and give confidence. Imagination was needed here, as we stood on a piece of snow surrounded by heather.
Moving slightly higher we found a big enough patch to practice self belay techniques should you fall – grabbing the top and bottom of the axe to keep it in the ground. Again imagination was needed as the snow was too warm and sticky to slide far. It is interesting that this is a skill that is a quick way to stop yourself falling far, but something that is often left out of winter skills courses as people expect to learn how to ice axe arrest. Is it not more important to learn how to walk properly on the snow and ice and quickly self belay without having to arrest and potentially fail to stop yourself??
There’s some great videos on the MLTA website for how to properly ice axe arrest – check them out here. Top tips – make sure you’re properly over your axe when you come to a stop and make sure when you spin round you dig the axe in properly to spin so it doesn’t fly out of your hand (that one I speak from experience!)
After all that I certainly feel like I have a lot to learn if I expect to teach winter skills!!
Coming down off the hill we a herd of reindeer had come to greet us. It’s like a belated Christmas now!
“So what are you doing with your week off work?” my boss asked.
“I’m off to Scotland to play in the snow, I’ll try not to throw myself off a mountain this time!” I replied.
I could see he was both confused that a week mountaineering in Scotland could ever be considered a holiday, and sweating with concern as I’d reminded him of the time I returned from a trip with a twisted knee, looking like I’d been in an RTA and spend 6 weeks hopping round the office.
So I legged it out of the door before he could ask why I was off to do a winter mountain leader course for a career that has nothing to do with my day job and would I have Wifi access to deal with any issues he might have while I’m gone.
How many of us have dreams of another life?
Almost everyone I know wishes they had a different job, lived somewhere else, had different personal circumstances. Hadn’t made certain decisions, or perhaps missed opportunities.
How many of us act on those dreams to make them happen?
Probably a lot less.
I’m not perfect by any means. It took me a long time to decide to follow my dreams. I love my day job, I enjoy the work (mostly!) and I have the luxury of money and time off to do the big trips I live for.
But I crave space, air, nothingness.
I’m not good behind a desk, I quickly go mad.
So I’m heading to Scotland to do my Winter Mountain Leader training. I don’t know where it will lead me, I have no strict goals when it comes to a career. The summer course years ago was the first step on that path, and I never expected to do freelance work when I passed that so who knows ….
… but I do know that the process of completing the Winter ML will lead me places I’ve never been, to adventures I do dream of and confidence to be the winter leader I want to be. Which will definitely lead me to those big goals I now live for.
What life do you want and why aren’t you living it?
What excuses are you giving yourself for not making them happen?