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Winter Skills

9-10 January 2016
John and Richard were leading our two-day winter skills course in the Cairngorms. Here's John's tale of the days....

Winter Skills 9 Jan 2015 - 1 Winter finally arrived after weeks of wet and stormy weather, and it was most welcome! Richard and I were planned to be taking a Winter Skills weekend in the Cairngorms, and we had been frantically doing a snow dance since Christmas to at least give us a chance of having some white stuff to play on - It worked, hurrah!, and the snow fell just after the Hogmanay weekend.

We met our group at the excellent Active Cafaidh, just as you drive into Aviemore from the South, and spent some time discussing the main challenges in moving from summer walking to winter - Route choice, avalanche awareness, kit selection, boots, hardware such as crampons and axes etc. It was then out onto the hill.

Winter Skills 9 Jan 2015 - 2 We opted for the lower ski car park at Coire na Ciste, and ascended the ridge between there and Coire Laoigh Mor, where we hoped to find some neve for boot-use and cramponing, as well as snow to allow us to practice self-belay and arrest techniques. The weather didn't let us down, and we had an inversion over Aviemore initially, crisp views of Ryvoan pass, interspersed with some windier, colder spells which provided a 'real' feel to the situations.

The day went quickly, and the group really enjoyed the different scenarios, commenting that they were surprised that there was 'so much more to it than just walking'! By the time we finished our last session, (rolling wildly down the slope to replicate a tumble, stopping yourself safely head-up, feet-down), dusk was approaching. We filed off the hill buzzing from the new skills and experiences, using the ambient light off the snow to make our atmospheric way down.

Winter Skills 9 Jan 2015 - 3 Our group 'bonding' continued courtesy of the live music in the Cairngorm Hotel that evening, but everyone was still at the cafe bright-eyed and bushy tailed on Sunday, ready for another day. We had an unusual forecast, whereby we were sat in the middle of a low pressure system, and the various weather sites were very unsure of the direction and strength of the wind. We therefore decided to keep our objectives modest, and set off up the Fiacaill a'Choire Chais, taking it in turns to break trail, and learning about the myriad of snow types you will encounter on a Scottish winter's day. The coastguard rescue helicopter was on manoeuvres, and was buzzing about all morning, demonstrating some skilled hovering.

The weather played ball, and we had great views into the brooding Coire an t-Sneachda, as well as the occasional glimpse of the coire rim and Point 1141. In fact it was still in the coire itself, and became very atmospheric in the mist that lowered later. We discussed avalanche awareness, dug a pit to look at the snow layers, and then practiced more cramponing as we traversed down into the coire, again over typical mixed ground as practice.

Winter Skills 9 Jan 2015 - 4 After lunch we had a session on emergency shelters, and had some fun digging them. It was interesting to compare the effort required with only an ice axe compared to a snow shovel, and Raymond did a sterling job as he persevered with his axe, well done! Finally, it was time to plod through the snow back to the ski centre and the cars as the light failed us again. On the way we happened upon a full-scale igloo someone had built, and we wondered at the time that must have taken!

All through the weekend, the group were animated with questions and queries, and Richard and I had a really enjoyable time sharing our knowledge and experiences. Thanks to Raymond, Martin, Gill, Anne, Lynsey, Louise and Paul for a being such a great group.

More photos are on our Flickr site.

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