I’m now back in wales with the sun shining and spring in the air, time for rock climbing. But, before that it would seem appropriate to take stock of what I learnt from my time in scotland and to provide a little reminder for me in future to get ready for the next winter season. This is by no means a definitive list – more some random musings. So without further ado:
1. Never Say Never (or always) – the motto of both Spike and Stu on my winter mountain leader (ML) training was to question what you’re doing and consider why your doing it. It’s even more important in winter to understand why decisions are being made and to make them yourself so you’re learning how to adapt to a challenging enviroment. Remember what works for you might not work for others and vis versa.
A look at clothing:
2. Always set out wearing full waterproofs – wither the proviso of the above. 99% of the time I was up there I set out wearing the full battle get up. This involved Goretex salopettes which came up to my chest and a jacket. The only “softshell” days we had were with a blissfully sunny forcast for a couple days and I’d decided not to carry waterproofs then as I wouldn’t the extra weight.
3. Wearing waterproofs and baselayers with two layers in the bag is very versatile; make one of these a thin “active” layer and the other a warm “spend all nights in it” layer. The actual garments I used for these layers vairied quite a lot. Fleece was quite effective either a microfleece when walking or a thicker fleece (e.g. 200gsm). With a good (no more then showery) forcast a thin down jacket worked really well as the active layer when climbing. This seemed to provide a really good level of insulation without much weight or bulk. The do anything layer was a 100gsm Primaloft jacket which could go over everything or just about under my waterproof (when it was really damp).
4. Fleece is still a good active midlayer – As I mentioned above, it breaths really well and is warm for it’s weight though bulky. What is more comforting though is you don’t feel like you’d trash it no matter how long you spent out wearing it.
5. Hoods are great – I found a baselayer with a hood really effective at being able to control my temperature. You could just throw the hood up when cold or drop it down as you warmed up without faffing stuffing it in a pocket or bag.
6. Too many hoods get in the way – it becomes faffy and hard to manage when every layer has a hood so you end up trying to find the correct one to put up while wearing gloves. I think 2 – 3 seemed to work well for me. One of those being weather protection the other providing warmth like a hat would.
Some equipment tweaks:
7. Get a longer axe – 55cm is to short for me when mountaineering. A longer axe (60cm where I’m 5’10 or 178cm tall) allows you to set a better example of stability on slopes by having the point in the snow more often. 55cm is still good for climbing and technical mountaineering where two tools would be used.
9. Get new goggles – A decent pair of low light goggles would have made life much easier on many occations this season.
10. Consider warmer boots – cold toes and wet feet were the norm this season for my now eight year old Scarpa Freney’s. Feels like it might be time to invest in a new pair of boots before undertaking a two day snowholeing expedition.
11. A shovel is really useful for digging, take one rather then just axe; especially when going remote – Having spent some time digging shovel ups and other shelters and finding it to be really hard work. Normally better to just walk.
12. Carry a rope for nav near edges – poor vis and lots of snow made this the year for people falling through cornices. I’m not intending to become one so would always have a rope available when in a group.
13. Carry an altimeter/stop watch – crucial for nav in winter, an altermeter watch gives you another tick in the “we’re here” evidence box. When there’s little else but whiteness, guesswork and experience.
Things to think about
14. Nav in winter is simpler (straight lines on a bearing) – in many respects all you need to do is follow straight lines on your map between features or none points. This requires taking a bearing and pacing a distance before the next bearing and distance. repeat until the numbers are just going round in your head.
15. Nav in winter is harder (you often go to “none points” so get more unsure as you go) – Total white out and just endlessly following bearing to areas of snow and all start to look a bit the same. If you end up with many of these none points in a row its very easy to start doubting yourself. On top of this following a bearing for any long distance is hard especially with strong winds and generally bad weather. A small drift can lead to you being a fair distance out by the end of a leg. Keep those legs short to avoid!
16. Pacing of 70 as basic for snow (still add to this for up hill, deep snow) – over the course of my time in scotland I found that I was adding a significant number to my usual summer passing just because of the snow conditions under foot. As a guide my usual 100m pace for flat tracks would be 63 paces, however in snow I was regularly doing 70 paces.
17. Avalanches are scary – I’ve never seen so many large avalanches in Scotland. Remember to be vigalent and stay away from dangrous slopes.
18. Cornices are scary – if french guides can fall through them so can you. Be very careful near edges and remember to rope up when visisbility is bad.
Make myself a strong winter ML assesse
19. Simple statements help with client care – “follow me” over “lets go”, “place your axe” over explaining technique of get body weight back or forward. As with all coaching giving the right thing to remember at the right time and no more is a good skill and habbit to get into.
20. Spend some time in snow holes; still never done it – this should test out the kit and make sure the morning routine runs smoothly.
21. Consider why; different ways of burying an axe – good to have reasons for all the decisions made so you can provide a good discussion for why you’re doing something and why it’s best practice.
22. Techniques for digging – remember how good at digging Stu is; get that good yourself. Always draw out the item you’re digging. Start small and near yourself before working bigger.
23. Mechanical process for building snow anchors – perfect it.
24. Plan ahead for cornices / journey length; a big part of the winter ML and avalanche hazard avoidance it planning the journey ahead. Remember the knowledge you’ve built up over the weeks of a season and then plan appropriately. Listen to others who have been around if you don’t have first hand experience.
25. Have fun – sometimes with the rush of short winter days and the objective dangors it can be easy to forget that we’re all out there to have some fun. Take time to remember this.