Winter Skills

Winter Skills in the Cairngorms, 19-20 January 2019

A blog post from one of our mountain adventures in the Scottish hills and mountains. Two days of Winter Skills based in the Cairngorms Johnny Walker was leading.

Winter Skills in the Cairngorms

Day 1

After some very unseasonal, wet and mild weather over the Christmas period and beyond, trying to teach winter walking skills had become an object lesson in creativity, imagination and bloody mindedness. It was with some relief therefore that the conditions got a lot colder from the north west in the middle of the week preceeding our weekend event, and a lot of snow fell around Assynt where I was temporarily based. OK, my course was in the Cairngorms, but there would hopefully be enough of the white stuff to enable some more realistic learning.

On the Saturday morning, we met at Rothiemurchas for a kit check, and had the usual issues with people second-guessing our kit lists (though it has to be said, not as bad as normal). It has to be stressed (which we do often), that auld faithful summer walking boots are NOT suitable for Scottish winter conditions, however comfortable/faithful/worn in they may be. Indeed, being worn (in) means they have even less tread to rely on, and the level of flexibility makes them awkward at best, dangerous at worst. You normally DO need gaiters, whether or not you normally wear them in summer, ditto waterproof trousers, and YES, you need the size of rucksack we suggest to put it all in, not your normal 22ltr that you manage to squeeze everything into – trying to find your spare gloves in a blizzard when you have to pull everything out is more than just inconvenient and time consuming, it is dangerous if items blow away, which they can do!

(See this page for appropriate winter boots and this page for general winter gear.)

Sorry, rant over, back to our weekend ..... after some (hopefully) light-hearted digs at the folks, kit was lent and sorted and we set off. We walked into Coire an t-Sneachda alongside the hundreds of winter climbers keen to try out their shiny Xmas presents and about 30 MRT folks on exercise, as well as a good few other winter courses. As a consequence I thought my chosen spot for getting some crampon skills would be busy, but was pleased to see not so when we got there. The flatter area at the base of the "Goat Track" is a good place to get on some water ice in your crampons, and after building confidence, we were soon tackling steeper sections and step-ups with aplomb. After going a little higher, we even managed to find some powder-covered bullet-hard neve on which to practice self-belay techniques, albeit a little gingerly given the hardness of the ice and the rockiness of the run-out. Finally I demonstrated self-arrest using the axe, but as I said, could not have a session due to the conditions.

We walked over to the moraines to see the snow build-ups, and I found an old emergency shelter that someone had tried to dig, now turned to rock-hard ice. After a quick chat on emergency procedures (i.e don't dig in unless absolutely necessary, get off the hill!), we walked over the foot of the Fiachaill Coire Cas and down to the car park for dusk.

After all my whittling about gear, we had a still and bluebird day in the coires, and I am sure folks thought "What's all the fuss about ?". Sunday's forecast might change perceptions...

Day 2

Sunday promised a wholly different day. Gone was the sun, back was the wind, a NW up to 30mph, with snow showers most of the day. Visibility was greatly reduced, with cloud over 800m. Our plan was to go for a journey, applying our skills as we went.

As it turned out, navigation was the main challenge of the day, the snow always being soft enough and interspersed with rocks to make cramponing and ice axe readiness almost unnecessary, or indeed a nuisance.

We made our way up to P1083, where the additional cairn was noted for how easily it can mislead people, then it was on the compass and into the occasional whiteout for a dogleg up to the summit of Cairn Lochain and down to the top of the Goat Track. Here I had hoped to find some snow slopes to slide on, but the wind was funnelling through, and had scoured much of it, and in the spindrift, no-one was keen to stand about too long! After a break at the high point above Coire an Sneachda, P1176, (where the wind was being thrown over our heads, so reasonably calm), we headed off in the clag towards the Cairngorm. On passing the top of Jacob's Ladder, I pointed out the cornice build, and warned of how easily people can fall through the in-cut gulley when heading for P1141.

The walk up the Cairngorm was enjoyable, the snow not too deep, and the weather abating a little, the wind on our backs. We had a read of the weather station statistics on the board, once I had scraped the 6 inches of rime ice off it, and imagined what 180mph winds must be like, *shudder*. It was then just a simple matter of follow the cairns and posts down to the Ptarmigan ski area, and down what is known as windy ridge to the car park. Or at least it should have been simple.

What followed was a salutary lesson in ensuring 100% communication and understanding, as well as not assuming you know the way, when winter conditions and poor visibility mean even the easiest ground can be misleading. I had to pause with two folks to sort crampons, and rather than the other more confident of the group standing about in the wind, I allowed them to follow the very obvious cairns and posts down to the ski area, where they were to wait for me 'at the ski station'. We were less than 200m behind them, and I could see them arrive at the Ptarmigan....but then appear to carry on. It was too far to call them, and I thought they had maybe gone around the back to seek shelter. I walked around the building, to no avail.

I knew one in the party knew the ridge, as we had discussed it several times during the day, and presumed, correctly, that with this knowledge, had decided to continue, the others following. But, in the poor visibility had gone off down Coire na Ciste rather than stick to the ridge. After some phone calls, map-checking and a little choice language, it was ascertained that they had indeed done this, knew where they were, and were coming back across the hillside to meet us lower down. So all was well that ended well. But I don't mind admitting I had a few worried moments, despite the fact I had read the situation and called it right as to their location. Note to self – NEVER allow the group to split, no matter how experienced/confident they are, even if they have a map and compass. Indeed, especially if they do! ;)

A little frisson to end a great weekend, with a beautiful walk down the ridge as the cloud cleared for some late afternoon winter sunshine, and lovely views of a freezing-over Loch Morlich. A really good group who picked up everything really quickly, and who I am sure will be out enjoying our winter as it progresses. Thanks to all.

More photos by Johnny Walker are here on Flickr.

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