Trying to stay motivated at the end of winter

I’ve just walked off the hill from another disappointing weekend of 70mph winds and a lack of activity it’s made me think – I’ve had difficult winter. I started with the intent to bag lots of winter days towards my winter ML log book and it started well, with a trip with to Glencoe with a friend also working towards her winter ML. (She passed this week). Almost right away it went downhill.

I felt demoralised as I wasn’t as confident as her and lacked belief in myself. I compared myself to her, seeing that I couldn’t keep up with her and she was much quicker at making navigational decisions.

Since then I’ve had 4 other trips to Scotland which have only established this feeling of not being good enough.

I’ve been left to do my own thing by my climbing friends in the Cairngorms and not having the opportunity and confidence to join them, and then two big days in Braemar which I was definitely on it with the navigation but lacked confidence in leading.

And then I went to the Ben, and didn’t manage to finish the CMD Arête circular, only making it to Carn Mor Dearg summit due to really strong winds.

I feel like I’ve had lots of failures and not just that one. There was failing to try Dorsal Arête out of fear and failing to try the Devil’s Ridge on a windy day.

So at the end of winter with one trip north left I’m thinking of not bothering and giving up and letting the spring seep in.

I can navigate really well. I know this. But I worry about being in whiteouts. I have all the skills but on steep terrain I still freak out, especially climbing rocky ridges in the ice.

I’ve suffered from spending the winter with climbers who are technically more skilled than me and have generally left me behind for doing their own adventures. You think this would work in my favour as I’d get to solo some peaks, but I’ve always had someone in tow who either wasn’t as skilled and lacked enthusiasm for effort or occasionally a climber who wished they were climbing and were demoralised they were walking instead.

In honesty, I’ve had some good days too. Snowshoeing in Glen Feshie was the highlight of the winter, gorgeous weather and conditions and I felt success being on my own in the clag in the summit.

I did enjoy the navigational challenges around Braemar too, gaining confidence in my abilities to navigate in poor visibility.

But on the whole winter doesn’t feel like a success to me. There’s been more disappointment.

How do you learn to winter climb?

I joined a mountaineering club to get out more in winter and while that’s happened, after three winters with them I’ve not yet climbed any winter routes.

Winter is so short and the conditions in Scotland so unreliable that climbers in winter lack the patient to teach others in the same way that you find at the summer crag.

How do you learnt to climb in winter without paying for an instructor?

I had a great club trip to Rjukan in 2017 which was aimed at giving people the chance to learn as well as progress. That’s the only time I’ve ever had that opportunity to try and learn.

I’m not against paying for instruction but with winter climbing how does that really build skills to get outside again without a support system?

Or is it my learning style?

Maybe I struggle to learn from the people around me because I lack the confidence to just have a go.

I met a guy this winter at the CIC hut who was in his first winter season climbing and had already lead a IV pitch. His attitude was to just get on something and try, to learn quick and have a go.

Maybe my cautious attitude is what holds me back. Maybe my fears and my reluctance to push myself and find myself scared somewhere exposed, is what stops me just getting on and seconding behind an experience leader.

I had hoped to climb a few routes this winter with friends and the only opportunity I had on Dorsal Arête I bottled it. Since then there’s not been any opportunities, so I’ve failed in that objective for the season.

I’d also hoped to have more log book days completed, but I’ve done 12 this winter.

It feels like poor progress.

What now?

I’m heading into spring being grateful for the chance to whinge on the rocks with the more friendly and helpful trad climbing community.

I’m trying to be less critically reflective of myself and be more open to opportunities.

I’ll try this summer to not let fear prevent me getting on routes so that perhaps next winter I’ll get to try something.

I might still squeeze in one last trip this winter to Scotland but as for the future of my winter ML?

I think I need to be honest that I don’t know if it’s really for me. I don’t know if I’m really a leader in the winter environment, maybe I bit off more than I can chew with that particular challenge.

Ice Climbing in Cogne – Multipitches galore!

Having had an amazing time in Rjukan ice climbing last year I was very excited about our trip to Cogne this year, but very aware that it wasn’t going to be easy peasy climbing.

Rjukan is the ice equivalent of climbing at Stanage, something for every ability, lots of single pitch ice making it nice and short and 5 minutes from the car. Yes there’s multipitch routes and hard stuff to scare the pants off you, but there’s options for not doing these routes and still having a great time.

Cogne is the opposite in everyway.

In the heart of the Alps, Cogne has two main areas for climbing, the Valeille valley and the Valnontey valley – with climbs being on both sides of the valley from the sides of the mountains. The routes form in mountain gullies or from the edge of crags with terrifying chandeliers to huge walls of solid ice.  All of the routes are committing multi-pitch ice which require abseiling to get off.  This isn’t a place to come for your first ice climbing or multipitch climbing trip.

It is however delightfully warm in the midday sunshine, which is something that you definitely don’t get climbing in Norway!

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Il Sentiero dei Troll, Valnontey

We had opted for our first route to be a WI3 in the Valnontey valley called Il Sentiero dei Troll.

Il Sentiero dei Troll provided a good initiation to ice in Cogne and set the tone for the week. If you want to get out and climb ice you need to be out of bed early (out of the door before 8am) and be prepared to climb all day.

We did the route in 4 pitches of 60 metres with two of these being at bolted belays. The joy of Europe is that many of the routes are at least partially bolted, when you can find them under all the ice! That said make sure you know how to do Abalakov threads as you will still need to do these for some belays.

It was freezing when we left the car park at Valnontey for the walk in and on getting out of the car we quickly put on extra layers. Close to the end of the valley it wasn’t too far to walk in but did give us change to check out some of the other routes. With the warm temperature the week before we noticed some of the routes at the end of the valley weren’t quite formed.

While Cogne is committing ice climbing, it is still pretty accessible with most of the routes being fairly well sign posted at the bottom of the valley (though a guide book is needed to know which is which) and the walk in was on a clear track adjacent to cross country skiing runs.

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Ascending the steep snow slope to the bottom of the ice was the first task, reminding me that the best place to put on crampons and a helmet is long before you actually need them.
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The route was a mix of steep ice pitches and graded snow slopes and by pitch 2 we were climbing in the sunshine and had taken off quite a few layers of clothing.

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The climbing was fantastic and when we reached the top of pitch 4 we decided we’d enjoyed the best of the route and so abseiled back down.

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At which point I stopped to take this photo of Jared next to the ice on pitch 3, did I really climb that?!

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Disappointed by Fenilliaz

I have to start by saying Fenilliaz isn’t a rubbish route. Had I been in Scotland I’d have been super happy spending the day in a snow covered gully. Having flow to Cogne though to get my axes into some ice I was a bit disappointed by the lack of ice on this route.

Fenilliaz in the Valeille Valley starts by ascending another long snow slope (a recurring theme in Cogne). We started the actual climb from a good belay spot under a huge boulder.

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From here the route takes a long steep snow slope to a short ice pitch, before another snow slope.

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Unfortunately that was where the fun ended and the route seemed to pitter out. Disappointed, and with not enough time left for another route we opted for a short day and a chance to check out the popular Cascade de Lillaz.

Snowshoeing in the Cairngorms

After a day wading through deep soft powder snow in the Lairig Ghru and feeling like swimming was the only option to make any progress, I was incredibly excited to be offered a pair of snowshoes to borrow for the day.
I’d never snowshoed before, so the chance to have a go was very appealing, particularly if it meant that I could still get some winter mountain days completed without over exerting wading through snow on my own.
If you’ve never snowshoed I’d definitely recommend it.
You step into snowshoes in much the same way you do a pair of crampons, so you do need your boots to be B2 or B3 for them to have the rear gap for the clips. Beyond that they need no real experience to walk in them, just a gait like John Wayne. You do need to have a pair of walking poles to provide the momentum to move though!
Having snowshoes on as I left the car park at Glen Feshie meant that I made really quick progress up the forest track and out on the mountain. Not quite as quick as the smug cross-country skiers but much quicker than the wading i had done the day before.
I could have been in the Alps or Scandinavia the weather was fantastic, not at all like Scottish winter!
As I ascended Sron Na Gioath the benefits of the snowshoes became very clear. I was following the line of the skiers who had left the car park ahead of me, and while I was sinking slightly more into the snow that they were, I was not sinking anywhere near as much as the walkers footprints indicated the couple of walkers ahead of me were.
In fact I had a cheery smugness as I passed them near the top of the mountain, I wasn’t exactly bright and breezy but I was not as sweaty and wrecked like they were.
This also gave me a massive confidence boost. Having been up a few munros this winter with considerably fitter people than myself I had started to feel like winter mountaineering was out of my league, when actually I’ve just spent most of the winter so far wading in the snow.
From the summit ridge I headed to the munro top in the mist and continued across to follow the mountain tops back round to the woodland.

The trouble with New Year goals

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.

Scrambling the Aonach Eagach Ridge

I’ve driven down the Glencoe valley numerous times and looked up at the jagged line of the Aonach Eagach ridge, impressed with the shape and both desperate and terrified at the prospect of scrambling the ridge.  I’ve wanted to tackle the ridge since I first visited North West Scotland aged 18, so when I was recently rained off a trip to scramble the Cullins I decided this was a perfect substitute.

I should caveat that as entertaining as the Aonach Eagach ridge is, if you’ve not yet completed routes such as Sharp Edge or Crib Goch then consider getting some serious grade 1 scrambles under your belt before you have a go at this. Its a serious undertaking, as nowhere along the route can you escape and some of the sections of scrambling are exposed and committing.

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First things first…

The first thing to note doing this ridge is that is essential to have a plan for transport between the start and finish as the last thing you want to do is end up walking back up the busy road for your car at the end of the day.

We had planned on hitchhiking – but a summer weekend is the moment to try this with traffic being too busy to stop. After 15 minutes of trying we were not getting anywhere; then two other hikers arrived with the same idea  – 4 of us had no chance of getting a lift. Thankfully they were off to do the ridge too so we decided to car share.

The car park at the start of the route is tiny and usually filled with tourists wanting to quickly photograph the mountains as they drive through the valley so I was lucky to squeeze my car into a spot.

Serious Scrambling

We set off from the car park at a slow pace; the path up to Am Bodach might be easy to follow but it’s quite steep. Initially the path is across a broad ridge and is easy to follow, but its not long before the scrambling starts and route finding is required.
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Scrambling on the Aonach Eagach ridge is really downclimbing, which requires good foot placements and a slow pace. The first of these sections comes after just leaving Am Bodach summit.

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I was surprised to find the scrambling isn’t relentless, there are sections of the route where you resume walking. It is apparent from the views though that you really can’t escape the ridge once on it and the scrambling varies from terraced ridges, knife edge aretes, greasy gullys and towering chimneys.
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Towards the end of the ridge are the Crazy Pinnacles, which we took by heading right and down climbing a fairly greasy gully. This is definitely not a route to do in the rain!

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Once off the Crazy Pinnacles and over Stob Coire Leith the serious scrambling ends. From here make sure you continue on to the large shelter and trig point at Sgorr nam Fiannaidh.

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From here in good visibility its possible to see the path heading south west down to the Claichaig gully – do not take this as it is widely considered a dangerous descent route. Instead continue across heading north west towards the Pap of Glencoe. As you cross the broader peaty plateau you will pick up the descent path to take down to Glencoe and the valley.

We met a group of older men half way along the ridge who were definitely having trouble with the scrambling and taken 5 hours to get to the Pinnacles.  Later when we were in the pub with a whiskey they were only just off the hill (12 hours after starting) – a reminder not to under-estimate the ridge.

Mountaineering on Pointe Lachenal

The snow was like slush and the rock beneath like sand, not reassuring as I climbed the rockface trying to find a secure crack to stick my axe in, to pull me up.

There hadn’t been good conditions for alpine routes the week we were in Chamonix so being able to get onto anything felt like a bonus. The Pointe Lachenal Traverse is relatively easy to access via the Midi cable car and the snow arête descent. There was some trepidation as we headed up the cable car with the visibility being poor and it being considerable colder and windier than it had been for the last few days. At least it had stopped raining for long enough so we could get high.

Crossing the Glacier

I led the descent down the snow arête noting a lot more fresh snow than when we’d climbed a few days before on the Cosmiques Arete. As we descended down to the glacier the visibility dropped to about 100m, and at this point we were also breaking trail with the only other climbers already out heading for the Cosmiques.

It felt a lot like a wintery day in Scotland, minus the horizontal hail against my face.

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As we headed across the blank space, being mindful of the glacier beneath our feet, we met two young alpinists looking for a route. With no map and little concept of how far across the glacier they had to descend to get to their desired climb, we made sure they had at least a good photograph of our map before they headed off into the fog.

Ascending the ridge

At least the cloud lifted as we got near Pointe Lachenal so we had a good view of the snow conditions on the route. Bare ice in parts. Due to the strong wind that had accompanied the last few days snow and rain, and the extremely warm temperatures that had preceded that, the ascent onto the ridge had been completely scoured and had become ice with the constant freeze/thaw.

Whilst the ascent onto Pointe Lachenal isn’t difficult we had to ensure we were properly protected, so ice screws were deployed. This was the advantage of moving as a pair as we could do this with speed. Unfortunately at this point my partner lost his sunglasses which merry whizzed off down the ice into the abyss below. For once we then started praying the sun didn’t come out otherwise he would be quickly snowblind. We climbed the bulge of snow on the left of the image below, and the route continues right across over the first two rock points to descend the snow on the right.

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The ridge is fairly wide with only one awkward step round a rock before you reach the abseil point half way along the route.

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With the abseil complete it was a straightforward traverse of a snow slope to reach the crux of the route. Ah lovely, more rock climbing in crampons.

As it was, the crux wasn’t actually that complex but due to the poor snow conditions and the loose terrain on the chimneys meant that it took a long time for my partner to find a good line to take up the route.

Here’s Andy topping out behind me; our group of three friends had caught us up on the ascent of the crux.

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Andy’s exclamation that the crux was like a Scottish III maybe a IV made me pleased, yes I’d had a few moans en-route, but I got up it on second. (So fingers crossed for a good winter this year!)

The rest of the group were off to the Cosmiques hut to do the arete the following day. Having already done this a few days earlier, and my partner minus sunglasses at midday, we decided to head back.

Don’t underestimate yourself

If there’s one thing I learnt doing Alpine climbing is that I have to stop underestimating myself and have more confidence in my abilities.

Before we had left the Midi station that morning there was a lot of grumbling within our group and amongst other alpinists about the poor snow conditions and poor visibility. We had already seen two groups return from failing to get up Mont Blanc – poor snow conditions had led the Chamonix guides hut to recommend people did not try the mountain. We had certainly seen avalanches.

But I had felt confident in descending the snow arete and taking a look. Being in the blank fog didn’t faze me, I had a compass and was roped to someone I trusted if one of us was unfortunate enough to end up in a glacier. And I was confident enough to deal with it if it was him.

My last trip to the Alps led me to decide to do the Winter ML training, this trip has left me being confident to winter climb this season and consider other options too… watch this space!

Causing a queue on the Cosmiques Arête 

“I’m going to struggle with that crux pitch” I said, as I watched an Italian guide following his client up the rock face and wobbling on his crampon points as he went. When his foot slipped it crossed my mind that if he was finding it difficult to keep his crampons on the tiny slots cut out of the face, I was going to do more than struggle.

Having Goals

I started the year with a goal to do harder Alpine routes, so when the KMC organised a trip to Chamonix it was a perfect opportunity to get high and tackle more complicated terrain. My ultimate goal requires me to have all the skills I need to no longer rely on anyone else.

I love being out the snow, be it the harshest winter in Scotland or Alpine days in the sunshine. I know though that these will always lead me to a moment where I’m muttering under my breathe, or worse swearing out loud.

But for all the complaining I know that I’m capable and just need to get on with it.

Tackling alpine ridges

The Cosmiques Arête is a 350 metre ridge of climbing and scrambling. The guidebook recommends around 4 hours, but you need to factor in the 1 hour of descending the snow arête from the Aguille de Midi station and crossing the glacier, and any potential queue you might encounter on this popular route.

I’ve previously only done Alpine routes which require basic winter skills, ability to walk in crampons and front point up snow slopes. But after a winter ice climbing in Norway I was ready for routes that were more challenging.

I was excited when I led us out of the Midi station and we descended the steep snow slope. Looking down on Chamonix from 3800m is always exciting. The route to the bottom of the ridge is relatively straightforward,  following the arête to its end near the Cosmiques hut.

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Much of the Cosmiques Arête is nothing more than a winter scramble. We had been unlucky to be tackling the route on Saturday and hadn’t been able to get on the first cable car, so our first challenge was to overtake as many of the groups as we could. Particularly the slower guided groups.

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Trying not to self sabotage

My worst trait when I’m out is self doubt. Can I really climb that route? Is my prussic really wrapped right for this abseil and will it hold me? What’s after that difficult bit and can I do it?

I find that questioning myself like this leads to a negative cycle of feeling like I can’t achieve something and lack of confidence in the skills I have. I’m not rubbish – I’ve been climbing for 2 years now and while I struggle with confidence and fear of leading, I’m perfectly capable of seconding VS routes when I put my mind to it. Even the odd HVS.

So when I arrived at the first abseil and muttered out loud that I needed my partner to check my abseil set up before he headed off, I immediately sabotaged myself. In giving a voice to my fears I made them real and also made him worry about my ability; which just made it worse. I hate people assuming I can’t do something; I hate being taken care of.

The first abseil was straight forward and despite swinging into a chimney I had no problems. But voicing my fears meant my partner insisted on abseiling the next pitch together, which didn’t impress me.

Dangling the Crux

From the bottom of the abseils we traversed round to reach the crux – an 8m slab with a thin diagonal crack, graded ay 4c. Should be easy enough, especially since there’s pre drilled pockets for crampons, and especially as someone had left a cam in the crack to pull on. But climbing a rock face in crampons at altitude was not going to go well for me. Was it lack of skills or confidence? Did I just sabotage myself as I’d said out loud that I thought I was going to struggle?

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just look at the guy on the face! Thats not how I did it!!

As I was dangling, struggling to get my crampon points to stay in the pockets and get my weak arms to pull me up the crack I discovered a general dislike of Alpine guides.

Yes I caused a queue. But then there was one there before we arrived.

Yes I complained and took ages. But there wasn’t any need for the French guides to be rude and abusive. (I’m generalising by saying French as the Italian guide directly behind me was encouraging and helpful).

It was also clear once I’d dragged my sorry self up the face that the guides were dragging their clients along with little regard for them and relying on other climbers to help the clients make certain moves over rocks. Their only concern was to get the route done as fast as possible, with some of the clients not even understanding to pull out gear from a route. I collected 2 cams and a sling as swag before the end of the route.

I know I’m generalising there, as we met some other guides I met during the course of the week who were amazing with their clients – but the ones I met on the Arête were not.

 

The final gully

 

The final section of the arête isn’t complicated at all, a scramble up a steep gully onto the top and up the ladder to the top of the cable car. However, the queue at the crux and it being midday meant that there was a hoard of climbers now headed up the route and guides dragging clients behind them. It made me think of the images of climbers queuing on Everest and how I never want to be in that sort of place. Its not what I want out of climbing routes.

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The joy of being fatigued at the end of completing any alpine route from the Midi is that if you look sufficiently knackered you can queue jump the hoards of tourists to get back down the cable car by looking a bit tired and smiling at the staff. I can easily adopt my best pathetic-tired face if it gets me to ice cream quicker!

Day 5 and 6 of the Winter ML… snowholing and navigation

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.

Snowholing

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. 

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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

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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.

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We then headed down into Coire Raibert to a couple of contour feature.

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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!

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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.

Here’s to more winter adventures!!!

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