Saturday, 29 March 2014

29th March 2014 - One Day Winter Skills Course

Gillian fitting her shiny new crampons

Visibility deteriorating 

Judging the terrain and knowing when to remove crampons

Removing snow from the crampons
Today I was out with Gillian, who had travelled up from Edinburgh for an introductory winter skills course, just to give her a bit of confidence going out in the white stuff! We wanted to incorporate a journey into the day, so I opted to take us to Buchaille Etive Beag, which is an enjoyable but smallish day out, leaving us some valuable time to look at the basic winter skills.

Whilst at the car park, we looked at what equipment to carry, and how to reduce the dreaded faff factor when winter hillwalking. We then made speedy progress up to the receding snowline, looking for a suitable patch to practice a number of skills. On route, we discussed all the important decision making that went into planning and executing a safe and successful winter excursion. Gillian asked loads of questions which was great, and our discussions took in all aspects of the winter environment.

Once we found a suitable patch of snow, we looked at and practiced self belays, various self arrests, using the boot as a tool and safely carrying and maneuvering with an ice axe. Before we got too cold, we packed up and headed off in search of a summit. Visibility was really poor, which was great as it made the route finding exciting, and added to Gillians impression of the changing winter environment.

Just before the final summit slopes, I got Gillian to pop on her crampons (which we had only bought this very morning!!!) so that we could look at appropriate and inappropriate terrain for crampon use. At the summit we enjoyed a well earned lunch, before heading back down as the wind really picked up, making movement a bit tricky! We stomped from snow patch to snow patch until the snow began to really disappear at which point Gillian removed her crampons. Interestingly, the only photos I took today was of Gillian putting her crampons on and taking them off again!!

It was an easy jaunt with one bum slide back to the car and onto Fort William. It was a really enjoyable day and hopefully Gillian got enough out of the course to give her some confidence in the winter hills. Thanks Gillian!!

Thursday, 27 March 2014

26th & 27th March 2014 - Two Day Winter Skills Course

Loch Linnhe and Loch Eil from Aonach Mor

John visualising his self arrest

John practicing his self arrest

Digging a hasty pit

Enjoying a stunning first day


A lovely panoramic shot

The weather looking grim on Day 2

The crux peeking out between showers

Putting on crampons

John negotiating the narrow section of the ridge

Evidence of cornice collapse on Stob Ban

The weather clearing a little bit

The weather coming back in....again
I think its safe to say it has been an interesting winter. Interesting by the fact that the climbing conditions have been mostly rubbish, the avalanche count has been sky high and the number of days I have had off have been far too few!!! I have been running skills courses for West Highland college, and working at Outward Bound and Kilbowie in the meantime.

However, on Wednesday and Thursday I was out working with John, who I had the pleasure of guiding over the CMD arete during the summer. He had come back up to Bonnie Scotland from the Lake District for a 2 day Winter Skills course, and he was keen to be treated like a complete amateur. With this in mind, and with a decent forecast, we opted to take the easy route up Aonach Mor using the gondola. At the car park, we spent some time looking at winter kit and how I personally pack it in my bag and why. On the gondola we discussed pre-planning each winter day we go on, and discussed the necessity to look at weather and avalanche forecasts and to understand snow conditions in the lead up to your trip out.

Once we got out of the Gondola station we made our way towards the Nid Ridge, looking at boot skills, weather and snow interpretation and walking axe use. At the base of the ridge we found a likely spot to look at self-belays, which we practiced a few times, before progressing onto self-arrest techniques which we spent quite a lot of time practicing and refining. John certainly seemed to have great fun sliding around in the snow in all directions!

We had a quick snack and headed off up the ridge towards the fence posts, looking at different tactics when moving on snow (including avalanche prone slopes). We discussed avalanche awareness, and techniques to analyse the snow pack, including hasty pits, trench tests, axe plunges, slope angle and basic snow pack interpretation. John was thirsty for as much information as possible and we certainly crammed loads in.

We then made our way back down the line of the ski lift, looking at descent techniques and possible hazards under the snow. Time for tea and cake, and a recap of the day before discussing plans for Thursdays mountain day.

On Thursday, I picked John up nice and early, and we headed up Glen Nevis to have a look at our target of Stob Ban. It looked in reasonable condition, with enough snow cover to tick the final learning boxes which we required.

We made steady work going up the steep north face, finally reaching the top where the ground eases off. The wind was quite full on at times, with strong gusts making walking and talking a bit difficult. As we approached the crux of the ridge, we got our crampons and helmets out and discussed the different types of crampons, and the boot/crampon compatibility issues. After a bit of practice moving around in the crampons, we made our way up the mixed terrain and onto the short narrow section above. John took this all in his stride, easily overcoming the difficulties and thoroughly enjoying the challenge the ridge provided.

A quick jaunt up and onto the summit of Stob Ban for a spot of lunch, from which we enjoyed some fine views and a few more strengthening gusts of wind. Then down on our way to Mullach nan Corraine. We had great opportunities to discuss crampon and ice axe limitations, where and when to use this equipment and practicing putting them on and taking them off.

We made the summit of Corraine, and made a hasty exit as the wind and hail increased, making things a bit more difficult. A long stroll saw us safely back down to the car, where we had a bit of a recap of the two days to ensure that John had his expectations met by the course.

It was great to see John again, and we had a really enjoyable two days in the Scottish hills. It was lively, educational and exciting at the same time. Thanks John!