Consolation winter day [WML Training Day 6]

Last glimpse of the Northern Corries from Glenmore Lodge

So that’s the end of the course, and winter, it seems, in Scotland, although today was the first nice day since Sunday.

The freezing level dropped overnight and was hovering around 800m today in the Northern Corries. Midway through the morning the cloud broke and cleared the tops, leaving great views over to Cairngorm and north.

We were in Coire an t’ Sneachda covering our steep ground journey day. We ended up on 0.5 Gully (not to be confused with the namesake on Ben Nevis, but simply because it is not quite Grade I ground) and put into context all we had learned about movement, crampons and ice axe, as well as simulating an exit from a gully with a bucket seat. We descended via the Goat Track, which is extremely thin and icing up, not that it will last.

The view into Coire an Lochain. N.B. The 'eagle' of snow on the right of the coire!

Overall, it has been a great week. A good team has helped to keep morale and enthusiasm high, and although we have not experienced the most wintry conditions, it has given me a good insight into the dynamics of being a winter mountain leader.

My potential timescale for assessment was next winter, which was similar to my reckoning, so I am eager to consolidate and, as ever, nail the navigation!

Winter out of the window [WML Training Day 5]

Looking into a wet Coire an Lochain. N.B. old avalanche debris on the lochan in the background

After the expedition phase of the last few days, it was nice to get out again, but dismaying to see how fast winter is retreating. Seeing photos from even a week ago reinforces just how rapid and damaging the recent thaw has been.

Even so, there is hope of some colder weather tomorrow, and never say never with Scottish winter, I suppose. On the other hand, you might not want to look at the synoptic charts beyond then…

Anyway, we managed to find some snow in the Twin Burns area of Coire an Lochain for bucket seats, buried axe belays, snow bollards and confidence roping.

There were a couple of highlights from the day: past avalanche activity could clearly be seen on the upper lochan, with the different colours between water ice and snow. We also used a snow slump on the left of the Twin Burns to practise lowering, which was handy.

Summer Conditions [WML Training Day 2-4]

Looking into the Northern Corries from Glenmore Lodge

With the prospect of ever warmer and wetter conditions, we began our expedition phase of the training at Glenmore Lodge yesterday. No report and no photos from Monday as it was just minging.

The Cairngorms are a sorry looking place currently, with reports coming in fr0m many sources of almost no complete lines, even gullies. I can concur with this. We were navigating and operating in what were really akin to summer ML conditions.

However, it was a good chance to hone navigation skills and techniques and continue to build on the teaching we had already received on group management, avalanche awareness and movement. We also managed to dig three snowholes in Coire Raibeirt between us and the instructors which mostly survived the night!

Hopefully we will be able to find some sort of snow patches tomorrow and Friday for ropework…

Winter Mountain Leader Training

Good views on the way back to the minibus

Today was the first day of my WML Training course at Glenmore Lodge.

The Cairngorms were looking fantastic after a couple of inches of snow yesterday. In cold, but relatively calm, conditions, we made our way into Coire na Ciste and looked at movement skills. We talked lots about avalanche safety and all things WML!

Riming in the Coire na Ciste area overlooking Meall a' Bhuachaille

Unfortunately, the forecast for the rest of the week seems to suggest that everything will go ‘ballistic’, so it will be interesting to see how we make the best of it.

Redemption on Smith’s Route

James had sufficiently recovered today to make a return visit to Ben Nevis, and as it was our last day of climbing, we felt we had unfinished business on Smith’s Route, V,5.

We made an early start to avoid poor conditions which would set in later in the day. Fresh legs made a difference on the walk in and trudge up Observatory Gully. Windslab was being put down thick and fast, but we reached the start of the route in good time.

I took the first pitch, which went smoothly, although I cut my nose open with my adze, leaving a trail of blood for James. I found placing ice screws with big gloves awkward, but was encouraged by my lead. It was then James’ turn to lead, and with renewed confidence of the route, he stepped out on the initial steep ice, which forms the crux. He was slightly nervous, but with good footwork and some shake-outs, was soon over the icicle.

Thankfully, the gear we left at the belay was still in place, so I collected that and made my way up the crux, which deserves its description in the guidebook as ‘a serious pitch’. It was definitely ‘out there’, but again, I was encouraged for future climbing that it was not too technically difficult, just requiring a steady head and courageous approach.

I then romped up the third pitch and topped out in a blizzard. We quickly took in the summit and then made our way off via the Red Burn, wet through, but very happy.

As we took more of a business-like approach today, we did not take any photos. However, you can get an idea of the route from the gallery on UKClimbing.

Big, bad world of winter climbing on The Ben

After a successful first day of climbing

Over the last few days, James, Chris and I have been out on Ben Nevis for some winter climbing, following the mountaineering in the High Atlas and skills course in the Cairngorms.

This has been my first taste of Scotland winter climbing proper, and first acquaintance with Ben Nevis, and it has been full on. The sheer physicality of a winter climbing day took me by surprise: big walk-ins and -outs, huge snow slopes, towering cliffs, steep ice and cold belays.

You really have to be a fighter if you want to be a winter climber in Scotland, and it is probably wise to ease into it, as the demands on the body are so great.

Leading on Thompson's Route, IV,4 (pitch one)Well, rather than take my own advice, we went for two routes on Monday, Central Gully Right-Hand (IV, 4) and Thompson’s Route (IV, 4). I took my first Grade IV lead on the first pitch of Thompson’s, which was not quite in the best condition, requiring a slightly delicate traverse out left from the initial chimney. Both routes contained great ice and were highly atmospheric, but by the time I got home I was on my last legs.

On Tuesday we upped the ante and had a crack at Smith’s Route, an iconic Grade V. It was climbed in 1960 using the traditional step-cutting technique, which is more akin to skills courses these days than climbing, but is testimony to the courage and skill of the early pioneers. The first pitch went smoothly, but thereafter we encountered problems. James got off route and took a fall after an axe popped. Plus, we did not have enough ice screws to safely negotiate the pitch. We ended up abseiling off a screw and peg, sacrificing some kit, frustratingly.

James on Smith's Route, V,5 (pitch two)

It is all part of the game, though, and it was helpful to go through a real, live problem-solving process to get down safely. James was unhurt, but received a nasty bruise on his hip, which ruled out yesterday, leaving today for a winter walking day. The weather was awful and I got up into the North Face before calling it a day in wet, windy and mild conditions.

More Winter Skills & Mountaineering

Yet another phenomenal mountain top view - en route to Puist Coire Ardair

For an update on the last three days of winter mountaineering and skills I have been assisting with, check out the Red Rock Adventures blog.

It’s been an amazing few days with a bit of everything, and some!

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