Having travelled up to the Cairngorms yesterday for a week of winter walking, today was a perfect day to provide an introduction to winter skills.
After a much needed thorough kit check before our first day out, we took advantage of the Cairgorm Mountain road and made use of the Coire Cas car park for quick access into Coire an t-Sneachda. While most where heading into the coire to enjoy some winter climbing routes, we where in search of appropriate slopes for teaching some basic winter skills that would come in useful during the rest of the week.
On our first very gently angled slope, we started by looking at the ice axe, it’s different parts and how to carry it. Next we moved on to boots. This often sounds a bit condescending, but winter mountaineering boots are extremely useful tools if used correctly, so it’s worth spending time getting these basics right. Using the edge of the boot to cut into firm snow, angling the cut to create a firm step, turning as you zig-zag upwards, kicking the toe in to head straight uphill and plunging the heel on descent are all worth practicing.
Putting crampons onto winter boots makes a big difference to how you use them. The trick now is to maximise the number of spikes getting a purchase on the ice or firm snow, so allowing your ankle to roll to get the boots flat on the surface is key and again takes some practice.
After trying out all these skills on a gentle slope, it was time to up the stakes as we headed for something a bit more challenging. We ran through the same skills but, this time, their importance was that bit more obvious with a longer and steeper run out below.
With the day rolling on, there was still plenty of time to introduce and practice the concept of ice axe arrests. This is all about stopping a slide before it turns into a serious fall and you really want to be able to do it in all orientations (i.e. on your front or back, head up or down, on your left or right). With a number of combinations possible, it takes a while to run through it all, but usually provided a high level of entertainment!
Today’s weather and conditions were perfect for introducing winter skills. There was sufficient snow, with temperatures below zero, but not so harsh as to make it hard for everyone to stay warm enough to concentrate and learn – ideal.
Let’s see how they use these winter skills during the rest of the week!