It’s been a hectic last few weeks with various items of work and personal climbing made all the more challenging by unusual winter conditions. This has lead up to my “Mountain Instructor Certificate” (MIC) training. For those that don’t know the Mountain Instructor Certificate is the top level mountaineering award in the UK. It builds on previous mountaineering awards and gives you the skills to teach winter and ice climbing in Scotland. Part of the process for gaining this award is to undertake a five day training course which will assess your current abilities and give lots of input into improving your instruction.
It’s the end of day two and I’m working on digesting everything learned so far. Because of conditions we have strayed from the usual course schedule. The focus so far has been on mountaineering and how you look after people on varied terrain while moving efficiently. We covered lots of techniques and tips from ‘simple’ little details; like when it’s best to swap hands while using a technique called short roping, through to discussions on avalanche risk and planning a weekend of progressive learning for students. It’s a great process to be involved in and I’m really happy to be spending some time with other instructors. I’ve made some new friends and caught up with lots of old ones.
We’ve also been lucky enough to have winter arrive just in time for the course. This has allowed us to get some great mountain routes in. Yesterday we had a great mountain journey from Dinnertime Buttress (II) up onto Aonach Dubh and into Stob Coire Nan Lochan before heading up Dorsal Arete (II) then just as the clouds lifted we headed back down to the vans. Today has been a wild and windy day with snow being redistributed all over the mountains. We chose a safe route up Curved ridge and off Buachaille Etive Mor. This felt pretty full on with great “Scottish” conditions involving winds almost strong enough to blow you off the mountain and spindrift swirling from every direction. I was thankful for my goggles.
I’m very much looking forward to the next three days of climbing and learning while in the Scottish Highlands.
Today I met up with Mike Lates of Sky Guides for a day out in the Cuillin. We were treated to some spectacular views on the way up to the summit and then a ‘fine airy’ traverse on the ridge. Check out some photos below.
Today I was in Coire an T-Sneachda. We had planed on climbing Fingers Ridge but conditions made it look pretty lean so we opted for one of the gully lines instead.
Four teams were making their way up The Runnel so we nipped up Crotched Gully instead. Probably about III in current condition but really enjoyable. Jen had two good lead pitches at the start and I finished off up the steep and imposing cornice.
At the top we got compasses quickly to hand and did a few nav points on the way down as practice for Jen’s Winter ML.
Below are a few photos of the coire to give an idea of conditions.
After a through soaking yesterday. I caught up with two aspirant MIC’s again today in the form of Mo Barclay and Adam Harmer. Today’s object with to check out the options for guiding Tower Ridge on Ben Nevis. One of the all time classic winter route.
Unfortunately I had to start a little later than Mo and Adam so the beginning of the day was a bit of a blur as I raced to catch them before they got to the ridge making it (just).
Initially there was only a dusting of snow on the lower sections of the north face but this was added to during the day. Check out some of the photos below to see:
So I’ve not posted for a while. It’s been a pretty busy time on the west coast of Scotland. Both Jen and I have been lucky enough to have some great friends visit. I’ve also been playing with more photography and trying to get round to learning a little about creating video. All this has left me with little time writing blog posts.
So we’ve now just over a month left working at The Torridon. It’s been an interesting season. Since my last post I’ve led guided walks over all of the main Torridon Munro’s; Beinn Alligin, Liathach and Beinn Eighe. The weather has varied; from verging on winter with sleet, to t-shirts on the tops. As well as mountain guiding I’ve run one to one climbing sessions where I’ve been able to take complete novices to experience the delights of climbing as a pair on multipitch routes. The gorge has gone from being dry to scary with alarming regularity. In between levels there’s been some great fun with guests where they’ve managed to jump into pools and swim behind waterfalls. Arrows have been shot into targets and the sea eagles, otters, seals have made the paddling a pleasure.
The evenings have sometimes involved running from the midges at others they’ve had spectacular sunsets. Visits have been made to Applecross, Kishorn and the Gille Brigdhe; sampling incredible seafood from the local coasts. Not to mention many many evenings enjoying the boulders at the celtic jumble.
My off days have been equally full. An Teallach provided stunning views to test my photography skills. Climbing and scrambling with Tim helped remind me of the process of becoming a Mountain Instructor as well as refreshing my skills. The Triple Butress of Beinn Eighe and the sports climbing around Gairloch have reminded me just why I love such a varied pass time as climbing and why I enjoy sharing it with others. Thanks to everyone who’s been able to visit.
I’ve been fortunate enough to use a lot of different manufactures clothing over the years. One of the key items that I use a lot is a waterproof jacket, sometimes referred to as a hard shell.
My current hardshell of choice is the Mountain Equipment Tupilak II Jacket. I believe this for a number of reasons.
Fabric choice – the Gore-Tex Pro fabric that mountain equipment have used provides second to non weather protection. I’ve tried it through a summer and winter season with forty plus quality days in the hills. This has included everything from 70mph winds with snow and hail, driving horizontal rain, steady drizzle for hours on end; even the odd bit of sunshine! Other fabrics I’ve tried such as Neoshell and Mountain Hardware’s Dry.Q do provide good waterproofing and feel more breathable but don’t provide the protection that you get from Gore-Tex.
Large hood – I have a love, hate relationship with the Tupilak II’s hood. it does easily swallow a helmet and works well without. When down it folds nicely and doesn’t collect rain like some do. It is also easy to adjust. Unfortunately it does need this adjustment regularly. There isn’t quite enough stretch in the fabric so putting a helmet on requires you to loosen the back and front toggles before donning the helmet then re-tightening, ensure you do the neck toggles first otherwise it will sit too far back on the head. The hood can also be rolled away to form a thick neck baffle, why you would do this though I don’t know. Good but with a minor annoyance overall.
Simplicity – While not a featherweight jacket the Tupilak II’s limited features provide just enough storage for map, compass, hat and gloves. This can be done with well proportioned Napoleon pockets. Other than these pockets the features are limited to one internal pocket, a hem-draw-cord (that I seldom use) and the above mentioned hood. This keeps the weight down and means there’s no faffing trying to find the correct zip or the like. Spot on for many conditions.
Durability – I’m generally tough on my kit. I tend to wear it a lot and drag it over rough rocks, go out in the wildest conditions, and use it for random tasks that it was never designed to do like cleaning a crag. With this jacket I’ve literally hosed it down, dunked it in the sea, chimneyed up steep rock climbs, forced my way through forests and subject it to snow, rain and hail. It’s held up to it all. To give you an idea my last waterproof lasted 6 months, this one is doing well a year on.
So what could be improved. Personally I still feel there’s room for improvement in the hood design. I spend time on the hill pulling toggles and releasing them again in order to get it to fit so the wind doesn’t blow it off my head and it doesn’t work it’s way too far back. This is particularly true when wearing a helmet. That said the hood is by no means bad and most are much much worse. I’m looking forward to the day a manufacture can make a waterproof hood that fits as well as my Arcteryx Gamma MX Softshell one. Though this is undoubtedly down to the stretch in the material.
Overall I’d give it eight out of ten and would recommend to people looking to purchase a tough do it all jacket for UK conditions and further afield.
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.
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.
I’m up in Scotland now running the stores for PYB at there hotel base – Alltshellach. The views have been stunning and my first week here was spent on winter mountain leader training with Stu and Spike.
The course was really good fun with challenging weather throughout (well except perhaps the first day). My roomy for the week has his own blog so why not head over there and check out what he thought of the week – http://bees-beans.blogspot.co.uk/
After the course I had my first day of work and a day catching up with some old friends who were up in the area for the weekend before heading out for a climb and a munro tick today. More of that to come over the next few weeks hopefully!
Anyway that’s it for now. I’ll try and update again soon.