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Winter Skills in the Cairngorms

23-24 January 2016
A return to mild temperatures ! John Walker was leading this weekend's winter skills, here's his tale....

Mountain hare One prerequisite of teaching winter skills really is winter, and temperatures of between 8 and 12c on the mountain aren't really that welcome, irrespective of how much more comfortable they are! You also benefit from snow and ice, and the two don't really go together, do they?

So, after a couple of weeks of nice, cold, snowy conditions, we were faced with the above, and four eager beavers keen to learn new skills. What to do?

On A'Bhuidheanach Bheag The trick is knowing where the snow is going to be lasting, as well as where you can get out of the wind, so we spent an hour in the Active Cafaidh discussing kit, route planning, weather and avalanche awareness before going out to find the snow.

We went up to the Coire na Ciste car park, and walked into Coire Laogh Mor, where we joined a couple of other winter skills parties in finding snow - That is one of the challenges as the snow diminishes, in that we often need to go to the same areas! There was enough for us to comfortably find our own area well away from the others, and we covered moving over snow, edging with the boot, step kicking, ice axe use, self-belay, and finally self-arrest techniques. We had great fun sliding on the relatively easy-angled snow slope, a benefit of the warmer temperatures, and in no time the group were upside down on their backs and whizzing down, before arresting the slide and stopping like true pros!

White out We finished the day by digging some emergency shelters, experiencing the hard work required, as well as the difference between digging with ice axes and shovels, the moral being get off the hill first if absolutely possible...these are for emergencies only, ( or a nice place for a sheltered lunch of course)!

Carn na Caim Sunday was even warmer, and still as windy, so we opted for a walk into Coire an t-Sneachda, where we hoped for some shelter from the wind, and some ice to practice crampon work on. The shelter was sporadic, with the wind swirling as it does around the corries, but we did find some good ice, along with various other groups. On the way we discussed the extra effort required in snow, and techniques for making group walking easier by sharing the trail-breaking.

We shared the space convivially, (as we were all in the same situation of course), and had a great session on the crampons. On water ice, (which is harder), crampons are invaluable, and the guys were soon traversing, descending and climbing steep ice confidently. It is fair to say there were some nerves, as crampons take some getting used to, but everyone did splendidly. Indeed, one or two surprised themselves.

Descending to Drumochter We watched various groups brave the steeper slopes onto the coire rims, but with the avalanche forecast suggesting cornice collapse, and the strong wind, we opted for a civilised finish time and a hot chocolate back at the ski centre. There we had a chat to round off the course, and explore what other options there were for extending skills, before sorting kit and wending our merry way.

More photos take by John are on our Flickr page.

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