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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
Here’s to more winter adventures!!!
‘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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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….
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.
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!