Snow shelters and emergency rope work – Day 4 of the Winter ML

‘I think I’d rather carry on walking in horrendous weather than dig a snow shelter’ I complained as I lay on the floor trying to dig out the back of my shelter. When I then compared my rather snug hole to everyone else’s I realised digging isn’t my forte. They had all made theirs much larger and added a seat in the back. If I ever find myself benighted or in gale force winds I’m likely to die before I’ve dug a snow shelter suitable to save my life….

Testing the snow pack

Testing the snow pack is essential to do before you head up a slope steep as a person walking can affect 1 metre down in the snow pack.  Thankfully testing the snow is really easy.

Shuffle your feet along the slope aspect creating a trench (in deep snow you need to go over it a few times to make sure its a proper trench) and then take a few steps up and shuffle diagonally down to see if there is a break in the snow layers. If there’s a weak layer then it will create enough energy to break off.

This isn’t a great photo but at least you can see the depth of wind slab which can break away in this test, and give you an indication of the energy in the snow and potential avalanche risk. And this slope was less than 25 degrees. Typical avalanche terrain is on a 30-45 degrees slope. So don’t be complacent about less steep slopes not being risky.

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Emergency rope work

Thankfully emergency rope work at winter ML level isn’t a million miles away from the summer award. Classic abseils and confidence roping are still used. Phew.

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In a crossloaded but safe gully (we did a lot of trench tests to check!) we had plenty of wind slab to dig into for our snow shelters so it also meant it was perfect for another go at snow bollards and perfect for stomper belays which would have been impossible in the hard neve we had yesterday.

The stomper belay I think is my preferred belay technique for the speed of construction, although it requires really soft snow to create. Dig a shoe box sized trench about knee depth and stamp your axe down to the depth of the head. Around the shaft slip on a karabiner and then thread through the rope with the end for the person to be belayed coming out of the bottom of the karabiner. Stand on the axe head and belay by wrapping the rope around your back as demoed by Doug our instructor.

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Navigation

After a quick break we then had a navigation leg, which despite the 40 mph winds I was really happy doing; I love navigational challenges. I also love teaching others and sharing my love of finer map details.

So working in pairs to find a re-entrant over the other side of the hill, I was happy to let Kim have a go and give pointers and tips and not take over. Whilst Kim is happy with the rope work stuff she’s less confident at navigating, so giving her chance to test herself and help was more useful for her.

Once over the other side of the hill we found a huge cross loaded gully which was perfect for one last snow bollard. This one had to be huge if we were going to abseil off it and deep to get past the weak layers of wind slab and into stable snow. So we dug this one with shovels.

Kim was first to abseil down over the small cornice, and despite her first fear she got to the bottom ok. It was easy enough to abseil off with a classic abseil, although I managed to break the cornice off stepping over it – I’m clearly way heavier than Kim!

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8th Feb

Snow Bollards and belays, in the ice…. day 3 of the Winter ML

What did you do today?

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.

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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.

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from Mountaineering.ie

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.

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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.

Here’s a great link to find out more – Be Avalanche Aware and a great PDF leaflet. If you’re heading out always check the Avalanche report at SAIS.

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….

7th Feb

Its a bit windy today…. day 2 of the Winter ML

What’s your favourite bit of kit for winter??

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.

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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….

6th Feb

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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#GetOutside 2017 – challenging myself and others

You’ve probably already worked out that I’m a Ordnance Survey #GetOutside Champion for 2017 – if not then you’re clearly not on Twitter or Instagram!

Having found my own project last year I’ve set my own goals for 2017 some of which will lead me some way towards this, and others just give me a chance to get outside. This is the only area of my life I set personal goals (the rest of my life would be loads easier if I put this much effort in!)

My #GetOutside 2017 goals:

  • February – Do my winter Mountain Leader training – although I have to say the current lack of winter conditions does not bode well for the type 2 fun winter I had in mind!
  • Ice climbing and Scottish mixed – again looking like this might be weather dependant
  • Lead VD trad climbing – bound to generate type 2 fun based in last years experience, probably with tears!
  • June – Finish a half marathon – since I had to bin this ambition last year due to injury it has made it off the life bucket list and onto my 2017 goals. In missing it last year I’ve upped that target to 25km and will be at Keswick Mountain Festival – if you want to have a laugh at me crawling across the finish line!
  • Reach 60 parkruns – who’s not a parkrun addict?
  • July – Lead Alpine routes – with a trip to the Alps planned for the summer I hope this will be achievable though I’m already planning bigger excitement for 2018
  • Try skiing – I tried snowboarding about 5 years ago with total failure but I really want to cross country ski to make isolated peaks more fun to bag, so going to give this a go

I applied to be a #GetOutside Champion for Ordnance Survey as I wanted to share my passion for the outdoors with others, help them find their own goals and projects. 

So alongside my own personal challenges for the year I’m also excited to help to inspire others to achieve their goals too.  Everything from expeditions with young people to running navigational courses for adults. Here’s a few other adventures I already have planned.

Completing a long distance trail with Sharon and Ted

Sharon is a good friend, and not just because I love looking after Ted when she goes on holiday and stealing him for dates when I need motivation to get out in the hills or an excuse to go to the beach.

Sharon wants to complete a long distance multiday hike and its been 3 years since I finished the Pennine Way so I’m up for the challenge of another route. Ted has never walked a long distance trail and his biggest challenge will be endless stiles and containing his excitement at sheep.


We haven’t finalised a route, but since we’re both knitters we’re thinking if we can combine a route with local artisan wool shops that would be an extra bonus.

Support Experience Community develop ideas

Working with Craig at Experience Community I’m keen to support them to develop a off road route suitable for their handcycles which is challenging and includes wild camping. This will be a first for me as while planning routes is second nature I know nothing about handcycling, but definitely keen to have a go.

 

What have you got planned for 2017??