I love introducing people to the winter mountain experience. Winter mountains are probably my favourite environment to work in – the snow transforms the landscape into something with the potential for such incredible beauty and yet the ever present threat of harsh and threatening conditions.
I’d had a couple of folk interested in this year’s trip up to Scotland which went to the Cairngorms. Unfortunately, there were some last minute drop outs, so it ended up being a 1:1 experience for Alfie who joined me for the journey up north. Great for him, as he ended up with all the attention and the opportunity to cover more skills that we may have done otherwise.
Day 1 – Learning Some Basic Skills
Our first day on the hill started at the Coire na Ciste car park, which gave us almost instant access to the snow. In fact, within 50m of the car, you could see a set of snow holes that had been dug which was a good indicator of the amount of snow around. We headed up the coire in search of an appropriate slope to practice some basic winter skills. Although the snow was a bit soft, it was ideal for kicking steps and carrying an ice axe properly.
Further up the coire, things started to get a bit firmer under foot, giving us the chance to cut steps. We even managed to get the rope out, looking at different types of anchors using ice axes and the snow itself, and ways of using the rope to secure someone.
As we headed to the summit of Cairngorm, the conditions closed in, forcing us to use the map and compass with accuracy as we headed on into the whiteout. The weather station at the top was looking rather wintery with lots of rime ice having formed. It proved too much of a temptation for Alfie who thought he’d do his share of ‘defrosting’ for the MET office.
Days 2&3 – Snowhole Expedition
The next couple of days where spent on an overnight expedition, and the favoured location was close to where we’d been the day before. We made our way up Fiacaill a Choire Chais from the Coire Cas car park. As we ascended, things got more and more difficult as the wind speed increased. Coming from our right, the wind had scoured the south westerly side of the ridge and dumped it all to our left. This gave us the option of stumbling over the boulders to our right in 70-80mph winds, or moving left onto compact snow but near the drop into Coire Cas itself. The snow option won the day and, although we found ourselves on hands and knees at time, it was definitely the right choice.
The final climb up to the summit of Cairngorm seemed to go on for ever, again battling the wind, but also trying to keep walking on a steady bearing in very poor visibility. After a quick stop at the summit, we continued on to our planned snow hole site, carefully walking on a bearing and pacing out distances. When we arrived, there was nothing to see except white and a total lack of perspective. After standing there for a couple of minutes, we thought we saw a dark patch which resembled the entrance to a snow hole, and another dark patch beside it that looked like someones head moving. Between the 2 of us, we agreed to walk the 100-150m to chat with this ‘person’. After 2 paces, it became apparent that what we thought was 150m, was actually about 3m, and that the snow hole entrance and head were in fact an deposition feature in a steep snow bank immediately in front of us that we couldn’t see.
After identifying where we would make our accommodation for the night, we put the snow shovels to good use and got stuck in to what turned out to be a very long dig. The wind was still strong, and transporting a lot of snow, which was being deposited around us. This meant that the holes we were digging were filling in again depressingly quickly. At one point, we stopped for 20 minutes for a break and some food, by which time 3ft of snow had been dumped into the entrance I’d been making.
Our new home had an entrance hall for bags and kit and, tucked further back was a raised double bed, a changing area with full standing room and a small table for cooking on.
Alfie even decided to construct a sheltered toilet (a short distance from the snow hole) with the blocks of snow we’d excavated. All in all, it wasn’t a bad place to spend the night.
By the morning, the temperatures had risen considerably, and things outside where starting to melt. This was a good incentive to crack on, have breakfast, pack up and move out.
Once again, this winter mountain experience few days was a great chance to expose someone to the realities, harshness, demands, sense of achievement and beauty of the Scottish winter mountains.I can’t wait for my next trip into the snow.