Pretending there’s snow for Winter Mountain Leader training

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:

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Key learning point here is that the three things to consider for avalanche risk are:

  1. Aspect – which way does the slope face and is this considered a risk by the forecast?
  2. Angle – is it between 30 and 45 degrees (most likely to avalanche)?
  3. 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.

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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:

  1. Distance – how far do you need to travel?
  2. Direction – what’s the bearing?
  3. Description – do you go up, on the flat, or down?
  4. Dead end – at what point do you need to consider checking if you’re going wrong?
  5. 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!

5th Feb

Live your dreams

“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?

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Ben Starav and the last adventure of the season

I’m never going to pass on an opportunity to head to the hills for an adventure so when I got the chance to gatecrash a Karabiner Mountaineering Club meet to Glen Etive I jumped on it, especially when it involved staying at the Grampian club hut and not camping.

The hut is small and hidden in the woodland by the roadside making it feel very secluded despite being right next to the forest currently being logged. And while there’s no running water, it is a still a great hut in a fabulous location, with everything you might need for a weekend (though by the weekend we were a smelly bunch!)

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On Saturday a group of us headed up to the hidden peak of Beinn nan Aighenan. Tucked away behind the Ben Starav range, its a long walk in up the stalkers path to the col to the east of Ben Starav before you can even see the munro summit.

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Having decided to slog up in winter boots and then find there was little snow on the summit of Beinn nan Aighenan I was more than grateful for there to be loads of snow still on the summit of Ben Starav and have the last outing for the crampons this winter. The scramble across the arete of Ben Starav was a relief from the endless slogging up to the summit.

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From the summit plateau the view down Loch Etive was amazing and we could also see across to the Etive slabs where the rest of the group were climbing.

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Munros of Glenshee – I need to learn to ski

Annoyingly Monday was my last day out, which was typical as the sun was shining and it was wall to wall blue sky- perfect for a long slog up to a bothy for an overnight adventure. If I had the time that is.

However time wasn’t the only problem, I’d damaged my Achilles on yesterday’s slog up Lochnagar, too much heel kicking in the snow. So I decided a shorter walk was preferable to being rescued by Braemar mountain rescue team, they’re already out searching for a man who has gone missing from a bothy in the valley. I hope they find him.

Despite wincing as I put on my boots I headed up to the Glenshee ski centre to bag three easy munros close to the road. Well I couldn’t waste the day!

I’m glad I persevered as it turned out to be a perfect day- well almost. Perfect would have been remembering to pack sun cream and sunglasses then I would have saved a sunburnt nose and squinting all day.

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Now I have to admit that I wouldn’t have been up these particular mountains had my foot not hurt so much the previous day, because lets face it, the ski centre is a bit of a blot on the landscape and the three munros of Carn Aosda, Carn a’Gheoidh and the Cairnwell, are hardly the prettiest or gnarliest in the area.

However, once past the ski area you can find this amazing landscape.

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As well as learning the importance lesson of always packing suncream (even just for Scotland) I also learnt that goretex make a fantastic way of getting down not too steep slopes when crampons are too much of a faff to put on.

I also met quite a few cross country skiers and decided, amongst all of the things I need to get good at this year, if I really intend to bag all of the Scottish munros I really need to learn to ski mountaineer to prevent the long walk ins and miles of snow becoming just a dull trudge.

Lochnagar in the snow

Lochnagar is one of those mountains that is popular to all, regular hill walkers keen to bag a Munro, mountaineers keen to climb gullies in the depths of winter, and possibly the Queen given it is a stones throw from Balmoral and Queen Victoria had a cottage at loch Muick nearby.

But even on a sunny day in March Lochnagar is a challenge, looking majestic and easy from the long wide track, easily accessible from a car park (with a visitors centre open even out of season!) it can fool the uninitiated. The mountain is impressive with three peaks – the summit, Cac Carn Beag, is on the far side from the usual route up.

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Once on the top of the ridge the wind was battering and walking across the top to the far side to reach the trig point required walking with a lean to prevent being blown away. In those conditions I’m grateful for walking poles to keep me upright. The wind was against me, throwing up spindrift into my face and pushing me back.

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Despite the conditions I wasn’t the only one up the mountain – it was a glorious sunny spring day when I left the car park, and the snow line still being around 500m there were plenty of people out making he most of the conditions. A mix of climbers, desperate to get up a line and almost running past me on the path, mountaineers heading for the summit, and of course day walkers carefully slide their way back down without crampons and axes.

I resisted the urge to tell them off – a mountain rescue incident waiting to happen, they’ll have learnt something valuable from the experience once back down and will be better kitted out in future. She looked at me embarrassed as she slides past me on her bum as I’m donning my crampons heading up. I also meet two winter climbers at the top of a gully – they’ve had an fantastic climb and I look at them in awe as we chat.

Lochnagar summit has a fantastic view of the rest of the Cairngorms and out to the sea to the south, it’s clear why the Victorians liked to head up here. I wipe snot across my gloves as I pull my buff up round my cheeks. I can see grey wet weather heading my way and head back down, avoiding the cornices over the gullies.

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An Socach – battered by wind

A weekend in the Cairngorms, how could I resist the offer of a couple of nights at the Cairngorm Mountaineering hut at Braemar? Nestled in at the end of the Linn of Dee valley where it is impossible for the outside world to contact you, surrounded by majestic cairngorm mountains and endless miles of tracks and moors – how could I resist?

The weather wasn’t looking great for me to want to trudge for a long walk in to only find I would have to beat a hasty retreat from a summit – I’ve not walked anywhere around the Southern Cairngorms so the choices were limitless. Conversations with other mountaineers indicated that the southern slopes were favourable as the northern were coated in deep soft powder snow making walking a difficult slog.

So An Socach it was. A bit random, chosen by shutting ones eyes and pointing at the map.

The walk in from Baddoch is a nice pleasant stroll along the riverside on a wide track and at the second river the route heads upwards and is a slow plod towards a plateau, where the snow wasn’t quite consolidated neve but definitely required crampons, particularly as the climb upwards gets steep.

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An Socach is a broad long ridge with the summit at the far end covered in rocks making it ankle twisting in crampons and on a windy day it is exposed and scoured of snow. Much like my face felt by the end of the day! Being away from the main summits of the Cairngorms it is also isolated and quiet, and crucially there was only us on the mountain despite it being the weekend. Perfect. DSC00865

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Stob Coire nan Lochan

On my final day in Glencoe it was inevitable that the next route choice would be Stob Coire nan Lochan, if only because two days previous the snow quality wasn’t great when I got into the coire and frankly it rained hard all day.

This time the route up to the coire didn’t seem like the same brutal slog and the snow had consolidated thanks to the rain and then cold evenings.

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The route up is relatively straight forward, heading first into the coire and then up the left onto the ridge, past where I’d seen a small Avalanche a few days earlier. This time the snow was soft but not windslab, and the ridge itself was also good going- with only one section to scramble.

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From there it’s a long slog to the summit of Stob Coire nan Lochan, an impressive mountain even if it’s not a Munro.

There was impressive cornices as I passed the climbing crags on the route down.

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In praise of Sgorr Bahn and failing a Munro again

So much has happened in the past eight years since I last stood on Sgorr Bahn in Glencoe. Everything it seems has changed.
I last visited here in 2008 using my parents for transport so I could get in some quality mountain days for my log book. It was raining hard, hailing, and being a lot less fit than I am now I bailed at Sgorr Bahn worried I wouldn’t make it to the Munro summit of Sgorr Dhearg on the mountain range of Beinn a Bheithir, before the weather turned truly awful. As it happened it didn’t and as I got back to Ballachulish it brightened and I was left disappointed at not being braver and bolder.

That year marked a watershed for me, as I bought my own home and eventually changed jobs to a new city. Both things ultimately changing me gradually into who I am today.
Now I am no longer bothered that my academic career didn’t lead me to a PhD as I’d wanted initially. Now I am lucky enough to have a well paid job working for an organisation that changes people’s lives (even if my own job is a mind numbing array of spreadsheets and contract negotiations). Now I’m a home owner and single.
Everything has changed.

This wednesday I set off from Ballachulish to tackle Beinn a Bheithir in winter, making the most of the fabulous weather and appropriate avalanche report to allow me to do Schoolhouse arête.

From the village this looks like a scary route and last time I was here I wasn’t convinced it was walkable at least not wise to try alone, but I wasn’t the confident person I am today.
Schoolhouse arête is actually mostly walking even in winter, but there are two sections with a few snowy rock steps which depending on the snow can make it a grade 1 or 2 scramble. The fact I managed it despite the deep powder snow suggests today it’s probably a grade 1.

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As I got to the top of the ridge and onto Sgorr Dhearg the wind picked up and despite goggles and loads of layers, carrying on do both Munros didn’t seem wise – it was also getting late. In summer this would no longer bother me, my confidence is now only impeded by my speed in winter and lack of daylight. And it was a strong wind.

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So for a second time I failed to summit Sgorr Dhonuill the second Munro in the range, and headed down the ridge that eight years ago I’d wanted to reach but instead retreated in the rain. But this time I’m not disappointed.

Perhaps because I’m having a truly amazing week in Scotland in winter and managing to get some epic days walking in. I feel confident about my abilities, about route choices and weather and navigation. And perhaps because I’d managed a route that I’d previously been worried about in summer and yet I’ve done it in deep fresh snow.

Over the last 12 months I’ve been edging towards doing more and more adventures and now it feels like something which shouldn’t be just a couple of big trips a year and a few weeks camping. It feels like ‘tinkadventures’ is actually who I am and not just a means of depicting myself. Social media allows people the ability to portray themselves as cool and adventurous without actually doing very much. I don’t want that.

When I passed my summer ML six years ago I flirted with the idea of jacking in my job and living the student life all over again, but forever, as an outdoor instructor. At the time life got in the way and I settled for suburbia. Whilst I’m not sure I want to commit to that lifestyle now as I want the big trips overseas that my current job affords me, I do want to push myself further. Being single I now have the freedom of time and this has allowed me to push myself further than I ever thought possible. And in doing so it has made me a more confident person and more daring. So much so I’m not sure I’ve tried anything properly outside my comfort zone this week – although its been fun.

I might not want to jack in the life I have completely but now the freedom of time allows me to flirt with the old dream again. Last year I embarked on much more outdoor freelance work. This year, stood in a crosswind with spin drift blowing in my eyes, snot trailing from my nose and yet smiling, I decided I want to have a go at working towards my winter ML. I know it’s going to take me ages, and I deep down I know I’ll probably never do the assessment – I live in the wrong part of the country to make it worth my while and I’ll probably never give up my day job that allows me to travel overseas for one that I can only afford to house share. But then I do work for a charity thats always teetering on the brink, so it’s probably wise to have a plan B to fall back on! So in that moment I decided to register for the award. And feeling so confident in my abilities now I might also have to add winter climbing to the bucket list!

Sgorr Bahn might not be a Munro but it reflects how much I’ve changed and where I want to go next. I’ve also decided I’m now saving Sgorr Dhonuill as my last munro since I feel it means something more to me than another one on the ticklist.

Monday’s don’t have to be awful

Last monday I woke to gorgeous sunshine and blue skies which is almost unheard of in Scotland. Having looked at the avalanche report and knowing there was still a lot of unstable windslab around on the northern slopes, I headed to the Mamores to bag a Munro.

There’s a very long walk in along the road up to the now derelict Mamores lodge before reaching the hillside track into the coire. It was certainly squelchy underfoot as I headed up the track, showing just how mild it had become, making it important to choose the right place to head to avoid avalanching the soft snowpack.

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In the end it was a glorious day to head up Na Gruagaichean, the Munro on the edge of the Mamores range. One of those unpronounceable munros but it had an amazing view across all of Scotland, just about.

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Ben Nevis and the CMD arête.The grey corries. Stob coire an Lochan. Even out to Schehallion.

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The route was fantastic and while the windslab was soft it was stable enough to be safe. I’ve never had a day in Scotland with such good views and where I’ve only had to wear a tshirt and a small jacket too!

Unfortunately the descent back to the road was long and tortuous at the end of the day.

The importance of SAIS – avalanche service

It was horrendous Tuesday. The weather forecast said persistent and torrential rain – one of those days you’d rather spend in the pub or enjoying the north face of Fort William high street.

Despite that I headed up into the coire below Stob Coire nan Lochan to look at the snow. As you do when it’s raining. The trudge up into the coire is brutally steep for a short walk, especially weighed down with climbing gear.

In order to practice buried axe belays I had to trudge all the way to the top of the corrie to find deep snow. The rain continued all day and even at that altitude it didn’t turn to snow, just sleet, meaning an avalanche was a big risk given I’d headed into the north side of the mountain to practice.

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After much practice and getting soaked to the skin I started to head back down, but not before seeing the unstable snow pack break off and a small avalanche head down.

There’s been a serious avalanche on the north side of Ben Nevis with two missing climbers unaccounted for. The importance of checking and understanding the avalanche forecast is not something to be overlooked in a Scottish winter, as is the importance of understanding how the weather will affect the snow.

Check it here: http://www.sais.gov.uk/

Days of dry weather with high winds had created lots of soft windslab on north facing slopes, with no thaw and referee this remained soft and unstable.

Today’s rain was not just enough to soak through my waterproofs to my underwear but it is all that is needed to turn soft unstable windslab into heavy and very unstable slush. If this is lying on top of a layer of more consolidated snow then it’s not going to take much for it to slide.

If you’re heading out this winter make sure you check (and understand) the Scottish avalanche reports.