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Heigh-Ho Heigh-Ho…

heigh ho
Glencoe Avalanche Report 24/2/2015
Glencoe Avalanche Report 24/2/2015

Today Jen was taken for a climb by a Mountain Instructor Certificate (MIC) Assessment candidate. This left me with a dilemma of what to do. The avalanche forecast wasn’t good (see right) and a quick hunt round for a climbing partner had turned up a blank. To make matters worse a frontal system is going to turn up sometime this afternoon / evening. Tim had reassured me, “conditions don’t look amazing today, but it’ll be ‘primo’ tomorrow.”

My options seemed to be, go and solo a climb or walk up a mountain wading up to my knees in fresh snow all the way. A third option appealed a bit more; practice the rope work and digging skills I’d need for my Winter Mountain Leader award assessment in a couple weeks. A gander at the map and I settled on Buachaille Etive Beag. This is a popular mountain with instructors and provides quick access to deep snow via a short but steep(ish) walk. Importantly this walk is over up the north western slopes to a col at 750m. I was hoping there’d be a group heading up there to put a track in and that I could get relatively high up without putting myself at risk of being avalanched.

I contemplated coining a new phrase ‘tactical van faff’ for my misdemeanour in the car park.

As I pulled into the car park I could see a group getting ready (tick number one). Unfortunately pulling into the car park proved problematic. Attempting to reverse back onto the road proved equally problematic. The van was stuck in about 4 inches of snow. Digging would start early today!

Thirty minutes later I was at a lay-by slightly further up the road. The group just visible on their way up the path. I geared up steadily now I didn’t need to rush as I’d catch them up rapidly on the track they were making. ‘Tactical faff’ I believe is the term. I contemplated coining a new phrase ‘tactical van faff’ for my misdemeanour in the car park.

Just before the col I caught the group up, exchanged pleasantries and set of to a slightly out the way snow drift to begin my excavations.

I’d been taught to draw what you dig on the snow before you start. Once you have done this, start removing small amounts of snow from the bottom of the area you’re digging with your adze or shovel. Work your way upwards and put effort in. That’s all you need to know. Well almost all – practice makes perfect as they say.

First, always dig a seat for your bag. One horizontal strike with the pick, an arch drawn and some strokes with my adze and I was done. Next I set about the rather larger task of building a one person shelter, with enough space to have my lunch in. For this I switched to the light weight shovel I’d been carrying. The short video below shows the results.

After a bite to eat I started on the next set of tasks, firstly with a bucket seat and snow bollard.

To construct a bucket seat, dig in the same manner as you would for your rucksack but make it big. It will need to fit you and your rucksack in it. Anyone who says just take your rucksack off hasn’t been out in winter enough. Half the time when you’ll need to do these it’ll be a gale and you’ve gone wrong somehow, the last thing you’ll want is to loose your rucksack under drifting snow. Be careful not to disturb the snow under the seat. This is where the strength comes from. To make the bollard, measure a full arm’s length plus the length of your axe and make a small mark. Walk up to this about half a meter to either side (not disturbing the snow, as with the bucket seat). Take a big step to leave you astride the mark. Place the spike of your axe on the mark and draw a semi-circle. Dig this out to place your rope in. Follow your footsteps back to the bucket seat and you’re ready to tie in. ‘Simples’.

My structure seemed ample so I tested it with a tied off loop followed by a traditional abseil. It held firm for both tests.

I moved a few paces to the right and started my next construction; a buried axe belay. To do this you construct a bucket seat and mark as with the snow bollard. however instead of making a semi-circle make a line perpendicular to the aspect of the slope (the aspect being the angle a snowball would roll down).  dig this to about a foot deep, depending on the snow conditions. cut a second slot to the middle of this one with one end of the slot at the surface and the other level with the bottom of you’re previous slot. This should follow the aspect of the slope. Clove hitch a sling onto the middle of your axe with an extra twist so it tightens rather than loosens, place your axe in the first slot with the sling running through the second, tight up against the wall. Make your way back to your bucket seat and you’re ready to tie in.

I also tested my buried axe. This would also hold more force than I could muster – not bad for snow.

Having been successful I made my way down to the van in time for an early finish and with enough time to spare to write this.

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