Our blog - Winter Skills, 13-14 Jan'18

A blog of our mountain adventures in Scotland, hiking, biking, rock-scrambling and more !

Winter Skills in the Cairngorms

13-14 January 2018
Winter skills 2-day event based in the Cairngorms. Johnny Walker was leading....

Day 1

After a good few weeks of powdery snow that made coaching winter walking skills a wee challenge, it was nice this weekend to get some consolidated neve and ice to work with. The only but, (isn't there always a but?), is that Saturday was windy, and Sunday was, er, very windy. And I mean very, very windy!

We met in the relative shelter of the Rothiemurchas car park, and under the lovely Caledonian pines discussed kit, fitted crampons, and covered route planning and avalanche awareness. We elected to try the lower of the ski car parks first, at Coire na Ciste. I was looking for patches of snow that would allow us to cover the skills required to move safely in the winter hills, and also what to do in the event of a slip. There were many skiers huddled around, but the snow looked sparse and forlorn, so we pressed on up to the upper car park. Here we saw many other skills groups heading out along the path to Coire an t-Sneachda, obviously with the same idea as us.

The path was hard packed snow ice, and ideal for crampons, so without further ado, we got them strapped on, and away we went. Before long we could tell how hard it was going to be walking into the wind into the coire, so I was pleased to see a couple of ideal patches just off the path. You don't need to go for a long walk to get the basics, and we had a good few hours going through various skills, and culminating in a fun session learning how to arrest a fall. The group were a great laugh, and literally threw themselves into the session with gusto.

We then once again tried to walk up into the coire, but the wind was even stronger, and straight against us, so after enjoying some nice wildlife encounters with the many ptarmigan who couldn't fly away in the wind, and a fine hare, we made a wide arc across the end of the Fiachaill ridge. After appreciating the challenge of deep snow, but also the delights of cramponing on neve, we made our way back along the path to the ski centre. Someone decided to test their forward fall, snagging a crampon and going headlong, but as we say, better to learn what not to do on safe terrain.

We discussed the day over a welcome cup of tea in the centre, and covered kit questions and the likes, before heading down for a warm shower and a meal.

Day 2

Sunday really looked a challenge. The various forecasts were giving anything from 60-80mph SW wind, so after weighing up our options and desires, we opted for a walk out to the Chalamein gap, where I hoped to get some relative shelter. It worked a treat, and despite being somewhat battered by the wind on the path along the Allt Creag an Leth-choin, we did find both shelter and some lovely steep neve to work on. Here we were able to cover cutting steps, ascending and descending steeper ground, and various other techniques to make safe progress in the winter hills.

Finally we had a walk cum boulder-hop along the ravine that is the 'gap' proper, but as soon as we reached the high point, it was obvious we weren't going any further in the wind, so turned tail. So all that remained was the walk out, We knew it would be windy, but it was ferocious, and even an experienced big fella such as myself could not walk in it without being buffeted and blown over, so the smaller folks had no chance. We tried to make progress linked together, but it was impossible, so we had to drop down into the gully of the Allt Creag an Leth-choin and make our way along the reindeer trods back to the footbridge. It wasn't easy underfoot, but was a doddle compared to the wind. At one point a gust caught me even there, and I toppled into the burn, luckily only getting a splash, but it just showed the strength of the wind.

A good two days, crammed full of learning. The guys were great sports, and I think they took a lot away from them, not least effective route choice in rather challenging conditions!

More photos by Johnny Walker are here on Flickr.

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