Our blog - Winter Skills, 17-18 Feb'18

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

Winter Skills in Cairngorms and Orchy

17-18 February 2018
Winter Skills on the Cairngorms and the Orchy mountains. John King and David Buckett were leading, here's John's tale of the weekend....

Day 1 - Cairngorms

After a week of very stormy weather in the Cairngorms with 80mph winds as low as 600m it was a relief to see a nice forecast for the weekend. Despite a couple of showers pre-dawn, things were shaping up nicely when I met Allan, Ian and Richard in Rothiemurchus early on Saturday morning for a 1 day winter skills course. We spent a little bit of time fitting crampons, talking through our winter equipment and looking at the forecasts and how they inform the planning process. Then we were on our way up the ski centre road.

Cairngorm was a busy place on the day with deep snow and good weather combining to make some ideal skiing conditions so we parked in the lower car park at CoirenaCiste and headed up onto the slopes. We made our way up to some steeper ground to practice ice axe arrests, looking at route choice and footwork along the way. I introduced the self-belay – useful for catching a slip before it becomes a slide – then we got into arresting slides from different positions. The snow was a bit too sticky, so we continued on uphill in search of a better slope.

Recent heavy snowfalls had left a lot of unconsolidated snow on the hill so walking was hard work off the beaten track but as we went we found some nice older snow. This gave a good chance to get the crampons on and soon after we found a better slope for sliding. We did a bit more arresting before a well earned lunch.

By the afternoon the conditions were stunning and we went for a bit of a journey around the hill. As we went we looked at the different features of snow and ice on the hill that can inform our decisions around avalanche hazard and it gave the team plenty of opportunity to get used to walking in widely different snow conditions and with crampons on. To finish we made our way up a gully of good consolidated snow onto ‘Windy Ridge’ from where it was a quick descent back to the cars catching the last of the sunshine.

Day 2 - Orchy

On Sunday I headed west to meet a team from the Gentian Mountaineering Club who are up in Scotland from locations across England for a week of walking in the hills around Tyndrum and Orchy. They decided to start their trip with a day of winter skills, so myself and David Buckett headed out with them for a 1-day winter skills course.

We met our group at their accommodation and took a bit of time discussing the ‘Be Avalanche Aware’ guidelines, emphasising the importance of the planning process prior to heading out onto the hills. We looked through the details of the avalanche and weather forecasts and discussed how these feed into making our plans. As it was, temperatures were rising and there was a considerable avalanche risk for the day with north and east aspects most at risk. With this in mind we decided to head a short distance north to Bridge of Orchy and head onto the south and west facing slopes of Beinn an Dothaidh.

Starting off from the station at Bridge of Orchy, boggy ground soon became snow covered and, with a good trail cut by previous groups, we made steady progress into Coire an Dothaidh. It was a popular venue with lots of walkers and climbers out enjoying the winter conditions, although it was noticeably warmer than previous days. With a bit of sunshine it was very pleasant. As we went we could see several signs of transportation of the snow across the slope – useful for confirming whether the avalanche forecasts match up to conditions on the ground. There were also clear signs that the snowpack was beginning to thaw with meltwater runnels across the snow slopes.

Once in the coire we found a good spot for sliding and after a short break got into practicing ice axe arrests. The slope allowed some good practice of the techniques and after this we moved on up to the bealach at the top of the coire taking time to look at ascending and descending steep snow and moving in crampons. By the time we were at the bealach the mist was coming down and some drizzly rain was beginning to set in. So with time marching on we decided to head back down. It was good fun ploughing back down through the soft snow to pick up the trail once more and before we knew it we were back at the station after a satisfying day in the hills with lots of learning!

More photos by John and David are here on Flickr.

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