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!
“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 around 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.
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!)
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.