The Ring of Steall

Its taken me a while to write up my Easter trip, so much so that trad climbing season is well underway. Anyway…. here you go.

There’s some routes in Scotland that are epic and have a reputation for endurance, requiring nerves of steel or providing amazing views. The Ring of Steall doesn’t disappoint on any of these.

The Ring of Steall is a classic Scottish route, covering 4 munro summits and narrow rocky aretes, made even more special in full winter conditions. The route is around 10 miles long with over 1800m of ascent, making this a tough walk in any conditions.

We tackled this route over Easter when winter was still dominating the mountain summits in Scotland, but snow and ice can lie on Scottish mountains well into the Spring so make sure you check the conditions before you set out and be suitably prepared.

Sgurr a Mhaim

Heading from Glen Nevis lower falls carpark, the walk up the first munro, Sgurr a Mhaim is a long tedious trudge of endless ascent. We didn’t reach the snow line until around 800m but once there the cloud lifted and we were treated to an amazing view of the Devils Ridge.

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I was a bit apprehensive as we crossed the Devil’s Ridge. Its incredibly narrow in places with a few spots of tricky scrambling which can test your head for heights, especially scrambling in crampons. This is grade I terrain in winter so don’t under estimate it; even in summer it would be a tricky scramble.

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Despite a few narrow places the Devil’s ridge wasn’t the intimidating crossing I had anticipated and we reached the other side in no time.

Am Bodach and Stob Coire a Chairn

From the end of the Devil’s Ridge we circled round towards Am Bodach, crossing over the summit of Sgurr am Lhubair. I knew what to expect on Am Bodach, having climbed the summit from the other side in December. However, much later in the season the deep powder snow had been through a winter of freeze and thaw cycles and the descent down to the north col was 200m of concrete-hard neve ice. For the first time on the route I was genuinely a bit scared. I’d slipped on old neve about 8 years ago, the fall resulted in twisting my knee, so I took front pointing the descent slowly and counting under my breathe to calm myself.

Thankfully once we’d descended the snow softened and we even dug out a bucket seat in the deep snow as we crossed to Stob Coire a Chairn, to have lunch in the sunshine. This munro summit is easy to cross without consideration after Am Bodach, but does provide a good view back along the route.

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From the third munro we descended more hard neve, though not terrifying, to our final munro.

An Gearanach

The scramble up on to An Gearanach summit isn’t difficult, but towards the end of the day it did require effort to pick through the snow and rocks to the top.

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Once across the summit the descent also required careful route finding to pick our way down through the rocks and crags. It took several false starts before we found a route down to the col from where we could head East to descend to the river. Don’t head West to the Steall waterfall, whilst this looks like an easier descent initially, you cannot descend directly from Steall Falls.

In winter conditions we had to front point down the steep snow banking to reach the river. From there we continued to descend the path to Glen Nevis and the boggy crossing to reach Steall hut and the steel rope bridge.

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We were lucky to be able to flag a lift back down to our car otherwise it would have been a long dull trudge along the road to finish. Here’s the route for a gpx file click the map to find it via OSMaps :

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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.

Cogne: Cascades de Lilliaz

We had checked out the popular and only easy to access climbing spot of the Cascade de Lilliaz at the start of the week. It looked like a good plan for when we would be too tired to do more long walk ins and when the weather was predicted to be less reliable.

The cascades is the only climb which isn’t a committing route as you can bail off at any point along the river route. This also means it is very popular with climbers and spectators.

We had only intended to do one day of climbing there but after Moliene wasn’t in condition we headed back there on both Friday and Saturday.

There had been heavy snowfall and any thin ice had been covered enough for us to momentarily forget about it. So on Friday we headed up and climbed pitch 3 on the right side.

The ice was actually quite good although it did have gaping holes in some places where you could see straight through to the waterfall below.

We went continued up the river gorge to climb pitch 4.

Pitch 4 felt much easier and while there was a mid way belay point we did it in one pitch.

We had such great fun we headed back down to do the left side of pitch 3.

The following day we couldn’t bear to pay for ski hire so we headed back to climb the first two pitches. Having arrived a bit late we discovered the truth about the Cascade de Lilliaz, it is a very popular ice crag. Especially for groups and for instructors to take clients. As such it took us a while to be able to climb up the middle of the waterfall.

I found this line incredibly tricky as the centre of the waterfall was cauliflower ice formations and very snowy and soft on the top. I didn’t feel stable at all so there was some severe whinging from me.

From here we walked around the gorge to pitch 2 which was much more fun.

Cogne: Valnontey ice climbing

Standing on mushy snow with my axes hooked around a thin lip of ice, I got that horribly familiar sensation in the pit of my stomach when I really don’t like where I am stood. And I had to traverse off the mushy snow to get on to the ice.

Valmiana

Having had a fantastic time climbing on Il Sentiero dei Troll a couple of days earlier, we headed back to the Valnontey valley to climb the waterfall next to it, Valmiana another WI3. My initial reaction was that the first pitch looked massive and steep, but I tried not to let that put me off.

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As it was the first pitch was steep and felt quite hard for a WI3, but it was stepped out from previously climbers so didn’t feel that tricky.

The second pitch was a nice snow plod with an ice pitch in the middle, by which time we were already in the sunshine. The third pitch was also straight forward too.
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It was the fourth pitch, when we were already about 120m up the waterfall that I met my match, the mushy snow and horrible traverse.

Just as the hard, not stepped out ice ended the mushy snow began, with a traverse aiming for the gap in the rocks.

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I didn’t really enjoy trying to kick out warm wet snow to get across to solid ice, so when I emerged out of the top of the pitch I wasn’t very happy. Thankfully the final pitch was a long steep snow pitch, (in the shade so not mushy!) and a solid bit of ice, which was hard on the calves at least felt more secure.

Flash Estivo

After 3 days climbing we had got into the rhythm of climbing but I was also starting to ache all over. Despite the huge walk in to Flash Estivo, right at the end of the Valnontey valley we opted to try the WI3 route.

So on the first over cast day of the week we headed for an hour and a half walk down the valley to the bottom of Flash Estivo. The first issue was that it was starting to snow and we were heading up a 500m 45 degree snow slope to get to the bottom of the route. This wasn’t exactly the quickest route to get to.

As we walked down the valley you could see the aftermath of earlier avalanches.

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As we started the route the snow set in for the day.

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As we set off up the second pitch it became apparent that the ice was either solid or totally unstable so after much effort in trying to find a good route up it we eventually bailed off.

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Whilst we were all a bit disappointed it was the right decision given how long it was taking to get up the route and the weather conditions.

Turning back on a route is never a bad decision. Others might have battled on, but given the remoteness of our route and the deteriorating weather it was the right decision. By the time we had abseiled back down and walked out it was dark and snowing heavily.

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.

Route finding

There isn’t a great selection of guidebooks in English for this area either. The new Alpine Ice guide by Mario Sertori is the only one and while it does cover routes in Cogne its isn’t a complete guide and only provide highlights of the popular routes. There’s plenty of French and Italian guidebooks, if you can translate them!

The best sources of information in English are:

  •  free comprehensive route maps online – Iceclimbing Cogne has route maps of Lillaz and Valnontey valleys
  • Bar Licone – the climbers bar in town but also THE place for climbers to share route information online. Many of the routes have handy topos created by climbers, so worth a look to check distance between belays and where the difficult sections are on routes.

Despite the challenges of finding information on the routes, ice climbing in Cogne is a dream for those with experience. There’s nothing better than the delightful warmth 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.

Ice Climbing in Rjukan

I never expected to love ice climbing. I also never expected to climb for 5 out of 6 days in Norway. I expected to find myself sight seeing and looking for a spa.

When I got the invite to go ice climbing in Rjukan, Norway from the Karabiner MC I genuinely though they were joking. To start with I’m not a full member yet. Then there’s the fact that any time I’ve been outdoor climbing with them it’s generally involved a lot of swearing, embarrassment and disco legs. And a few tears.

But I hate to pass up any opportunity – I live with the Fear Of Missing Out. What if I never get the chance again? What if passing on this opportunity prevents me from reaching my Big Goal?

So armed with borrowed climbing axes and an unusual sense of optimism I headed off to Norway with a group of climbers who were either very experience on ice, or really good rock climbers. I am neither. With years of winter mountaineering experience I do however have confidence in crampons so I didn’t expect to be overwhelmed by gear and technique.

Rjukan is a fantastic place to go for a first trip water ice climbing – so if you can find some experienced friends willing to teach you, get yourself there. Only 3 hours drive from Oslo its really accessible and also a great venue for skiing, (which I can’t do either).

Krokan

The first day was at Krokan, the ice equivalent of Stanage – loads of short waterfalls of varying grades and a short walk from the road. Its a reliable venue for climbing in the valley due to its elevation. It is also as busy as Stanage so get there early, especially at the weekend.

I managed to top rope and second 4 routes at Krokan – with my first being a WI4 – Kjøkkentrappa. Steep sections but at no point did I feel terrified in the way I do on rock. In fact after a day climbing here I was really excited about the rest of the week.

I had such a good time at Krokan and I was feeling really confident seconding some of the lower grades and so I was keen to led by the end of the week.

Ozzimosis

The following day we headed to Ozzimosis – a series of waterfalls hidden in the woods. Again another good spot with easy grades and more classic routes. I seconded another 4 routes and I even perfected my abseil techniques.

I hate abseiling but it’s an essential skill for water ice climbing as most waterfalls require an abseil off the top. By perfected I mean after 20 minutes of dangling on my own with Andy laughing from the bottom I managed to get the jammed prussik knot to move so I could descend.

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Stuart climbing Anakje, WI3

Ozzimosis itself is a beast of a waterfall graded WI4 that I never got around to trying. Andy was leading the route, Steve was belaying to second it and I was going to top rope.

But as Andy was climbing he brought ice down on Steve’s arm, resulting in a lot of loud swearing a panicked rush from me to grab the rope from him while Andy made himself safe and a later trip to A&E to Steve – expensive but at least he was ok and back climbing later in the week.

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Andy leading Ozzimosis, WI4

It wasn’t the only injury of the day as Stuart bashed himself in the face trying to get his axe out of the ice and Jared twisted his ankle coming off a route. At this point I was keeping a mental list of injury free climbers in our group.

Upper Gorge

After a day off from climbing to hiked up Gaustatoppen in gale force winds and sub arctic cold (that’s another story!) I headed to Upper Gorge with Elliott, Alex and James to climb Lettvann, my first multi pitch water ice route.

Upper Gorge is the next series of waterfalls down the valley from Krokan and has some fantastic multi pitch routes.

Lettvann is only graded WI2 and 3 pitches, which after two days climbing harder grades I felt confident was well within my ability.

I learnt an important point on Lettvann. Whilst it is graded WI2 and well within my comfort zone, being a slabby route it was much more punishing on my calves than some of the short steeper routes I’d been doing, due to the need to keep your front points in and your heels down.

It took most of the day to climb the 3 pitches of Lettvann, with us eventually topping out in the sunshine in the woods.

James was our injury of the climb as he was hit by falling ice, though he was ok. (So thats 4 out of 8 of us….)

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Lettvann WI2

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Selfie at first belay!

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James passing by my belay

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Alex and James from second belay

Central Rjukan

The following day Elliot, Alex and I headed out early to do Fabrikfossen a 7 pitch route within walking distance from Rjukan town centre. The walk in to the waterfall isn’t fun; bashing through woodland to reach the bottom of the waterfall and it takes about a hour.

We started early to beat other teams but despite this we were climbing as a three and so were quickly overtaken by pairs climbing.

Fabrikfossen is a classic route to do but being in the shade all day it was really cold and being slow as a group of three I spent much of the time dancing on the belays in order to keep warm – despite having 5 layers of clothing on.

Due to the temperature dropping and the ice ‘dinner plating’ as it was being hit with axes we were also being pelted by frozen ice from the climbers above. Somewhere between being hit in the cheek and then on either wrist and then freezing while hanging about on belays I lost the love for climbing and we bailed out at pitch 3. Alex also got hit by a large ice block, hard enough to dent his helmet badly enough to finally make me realise ice climbing is actually pretty dangerous. (finally injury/ice smash tally  = 6 out of 8 of us)

Whilst disappointed with not completing the route, the abseiling back down  through the trees and then the walk back to the road took nearly 2 hours so we were glad not have finished the route in the dark.

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Rjukan as seen from belay 1 on Fabrikfossen

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Rjukan from above – Alex coming up to the belay

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Fabrikfossen above the houses of Rjukan at the end of the day

Back to Krokan

We finished the week with another day climbing at Krokan.

I had started the week wanting to lead a route. But after a week climbing I was pretty knackered and mentally drained so opted for pushing my grade on a top rope instead. So I was quite pleased to climb my first WI5 as my last route of the trip. Much more arm pumps by kinder to the calf muscles that the last 2 days.

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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