Learn Winter Mountain Skills, Cairngorm Mountains, February 2019

Denise, Dimple, Jen, Julia, Molly and Rachel had all booked on a muchbetteradventures Learn Winter Mountain Skills trip to learn how to plan, prepare kit and travel safely in the mountains during winter.  Unfortunately winter had once again decided to reset a wee bit so I had to call upon my local knowledge and flexible approach to make things work!  By the end of the two days we had a strong team of 6, ready to take some steps of their own into the Winter Mountains.

At our briefing in Kinross House B & B, Grantown on Spey one of the first things I told the group was that we were ‘going for it’ on day 1 as this was the best weather window.  I didn’t sense any reservations from my team only complete trust in my decision and of course the excitement of an adventure the next day.  We then discussed the planning that goes on when travelling in the winter mountains – weather forecasts, avalanche reports, reliable local information and your own gut instinct are all mixed together to choose a route.  To help get across the preparations required each member of the team were given a piece of group kit in addition to their own personal equipment.  These six items were: two spare insulated jackets, an 8 person group shelter, a snow shovel, some tea/coffee/cups/spare head torch and finally a stove. I left the team to allocate these items themselves as I’d already sensed good spirit and cooperation.

We had a beautiful drive from Grantown on Spey through the busy town of Aviemore, collecting boots & crampons on the way, to arrive at the Cairngorm Mountain carpark ready for an ascent of one of the highest mountains in the UK…  Cairn Gorm 1245m.  As soon as we left the car I asked each member of the group to take us to a significant point on our journey into Coire Cas where I planned to do winter skills.  Change in direction, slope aspect and steepness of terrain were all considered as we moved steadily and surely up through the Ski Area.

Many other instructional parties had the same plan but despite there being close to 50 people using the east slopes of Coire Cas the atmosphere was friendly.  My team quickly became confident at moving up/down and across the snow slopes using their boots and ice axes for support.  The next step was to make sure that a slip did not become a slide so we practiced self-belay.  By the end of the session everyone knew what to do if their name was shouted out!  Now the self-arrest…  the snow was not hard, or steep enough to give a realistic bite but this was our best chance so everyone practiced the classic ‘sitting down’ self arrest then moved into the head first scenario with the need for a strong and flexible core.

We left Coire Cas after lunch and headed up into the strengthening wind to 1141m.  The 30+mph wind provided a great opportunity to illustrate how hard it is to communicate and navigate but my group were well up for this, as they had been all morning on the snow slopes.  We leapfrogged from rocks to snow patches and were soon at the summit of Cairn Gorm enjoying views across the Strath and all the way to the Moray Firth.  Someone remarked that it seemed a long way down compared to how far we went up – I think that was something to do with the amount of naviagtions/route finding and self-arrest that you did on the way up!

I was delighted for everyone that the change of plan to work with the conditions instead of against them paid off.  To celebrate we had a wonderful dinner in The High Street Merchants, Grantown on Spey

Sunday was going to be a challenge but I had a hunch that my team were up for it…

We were not the only groups seeking shelter from the 50mph winds that morning.  Ciste Gully was broken and uninspiring so I decided to take my group across to Coire Laogh Mor in the search of some firmer snow for cramponing.  Once again straight from the car park each team member was asked to navigate to ‘somewhere interesting’.  Flat sections, descending sections, traverses were all used to get us to a sheltered location where the 8 person group shelter was at last erected.  We had tea, coffee and tablet in this life-saving shelter and enjoyed the crack as well as discussing what procedures to take in the event of an emergency.

Next the pressure mounted to get established in the corrie and onto some ‘useful’ snow.  My group did a great job here and we found a deeper snow slope to try digging snow profiles using an ice axe and then more easily, with a snow shovel.  The snow pack confirmed what we all had read…  thawing!  At last there was a section of snow that would at least allow crampons to be used although not actually needed.  We made steps without them first to try and compact the snow a little which worked.

As forecast the rain set in later in the afternoon so it was time to move out and importantly move into the strengthening winds.  I asked members of the team to route find out of Coire Laogh Mor across to the ridge above Ciste Gully.  The closer we got to the ridge the stronger the wind got.  Instead of ‘ducking down’ on the lee slopes I felt I owed it to my group to let them see how much they could take.  Some might be quick to question an MIC deliberately letting his clients get exposed to 50mph winds and more on the path on a broad ridge.  I believed that my team deserved the right to see how awful that can be.  Yes someone might have fallen over but that can happen on a flat path in calm and clear conditions right?  So on we went into the full force of the winds.  This strong team even took time to relocate themselves at a notch on the ridge.

After the notch things got pretty full on and I did at this point decide to take the team into the lee side of the ridge.  Not so we could scuttle off that way but so I could ‘ask’ them to sort out kit, pace and teamwork in order to come off the hill as a tight, supportive and capable group.

I am delighted to say that they did and I am proud of what they all achieved despite being pushed at times right to the edge.

Dimple, Jen, Julia, Molly, Rachel and Denise it has been a pleasure and I hope that your future adventures in the mountains are as rewarding for you, as this one was for me?

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University of Stirling winter meet 2019

This years meet for Stirling Uni proved quite challenging for the nineonesix-guiding team.

The group was based in Spean Bridge and the closer we got to their date of arrival the more the snow melted with the mild conditions. Fortunately, we were forecast some cold weather albeit with very little snow.

For day one I decided to focus on navigation and maybe throw in a bit of basic rope work if the opportunity arose. We used a piece of ground between Ben Nevis and Loch Linnie which proved excellent for navigating between a variety of different
features. As we climbed higher the snowless summit of Ben Nevis came into view making us realize that we were not going to find any useable snow in Lochaber!

For the second day we decided to relocate to the Cairn Gorms. Although there was no great amount of snow there either we would at least get the chance to use crampons and axe.

We met at the Ciste car park and headed up the Ciste Gully busily scanning the hillside for some decent snow patches. I decide to opt for the snow fence which had a strip of old snow running the full length of the fence. This proved excellent
for kicking and cutting steps, then as the snow became firmer we were able to use crampons. We followed the fence to its end then navigated our way into Ciste Mhearad in sub zero conditions which at least gave a wintery feel with some rime ice and pockets of wind slab in sheltered hollows.

Thanks to Milena, Hazel, David, Sarah, Britta and Joy for a great couple of days in the mountains.

Thanks to Mairi from University of Stirling mountaineering club for choosing us again. A big thanks to Nathan, Kirsty and Dunc for their instruction.

Blog by Dunc.

Introductory winter skills with Inverness Backcountry Sports Club.

Last month I was asked by Nicola Jackson, a friend from Torridon Mountain Rescue Team to provide an introductory winter skills day for Inverness Backcountry Sports Club.  Blair, Anne, David, Susan, Simon and Zoe wanted to develop their winter skills in order to become more confident and independent to undertake more demanding ski tours.

I has carefully studied each of their booking forms and there was a wide range of skills to be introduced, or reviewed: navigation, self-arrest, route finding on steep ground, survival & emergency procedures, winer mountaineering kit and group management.  At least I wasn’t going to run out of topics to cover!  Early winter is always unpredictable and the planned weekend was no exception.  Earlier in the week there had been good snow cover, cold temperatures and plenty of early season activity in the northern corries of Cairngorm.  Unfortunately by Saturday morning it was apparent that the thaw over Thursday night into Friday had depleted much of the mid-level snow pack.  Along with a 1000m freezing level and a westerly airflow I was going to have to be creative and have open-minded clients.

One by one almost all of my clients arrived at the Mountain Cafe, Aviemore for a briefing over breakfast.  By meeting in the glen first we were able to to stay free of the faff and rush of meeting right up at the top carpark.  Over some great coffee and the most amazing french toast I have every had our plans for the day started to take shape.  I had asked everyone to download the Scottish Avalanche Information Service ‘Be Avalanche Aware’ (SAIS BAA) app not to necessarily use on the hill today by to help prepare for future outings.  My main theme of the day was the  ‘B A D’ process…’Before Approach During’.  Before means do 80% of your planning before heading for the hill.  Listen to reliable local reports, track the changes in wind direction, temperatures, snowfall and what we might see ourselves.  Approach refers to what we see, hear or feel under our feet, or skis on the way into our objective.  Is everything confirming the preparation that we Before?  Variations to this will of course mean that decisions have to be made on our journey and the SAIS BAA app illustrates this very well.  During the day do things go the way we planned?  Does the weather encountered match the forecast or does the temperature rise instead of stay constant?  As we head off the hill is the snowpack tightening up in the refreeze or has a warm wind and rising temperature caused a thaw to start?

I chose to head into Coire an t-Sneachda as the winds were not as strong as forecast and there was a variety of terrain available to work with.  On the first hour or so of the walk in everyone took turns to pay close attention to the slope aspect, steepness and then stop at ‘an interesting place’.  This got us level with the rocky Twin Ribs which were black and wet looking.  Clearly not a good place to be after a thaw so David’s rope work was going to have to wait another day.  ‘A’  Instead Susan took us across towards the Mess of Pottage where a group shelter, stove, tea & coffee were enjoyed.  In the groups shelter the discussion turned to groups leadership, duty of care, what’s a manageable groups size for ski touring or mountaineering and finally emergency procedures.

The ‘windy col’ was now our secondary objective .  Whilst still comfortable in the group shelter I got each member of the group to set a bearing from ‘windy col’ to ‘1141’.  The purpose of this was to do it in a calm manner, not under pressure if we topped out in poor conditions.  As it turned out we didn’t ascent this snow slope because due to the poor snow cover I did not have a suitable opportunity to safely practice self-arrest with the group.  We did have a discussion about step-slip-slide with the emphasis on perfect steps very single time!  In the event of a slip on non-serious ground self-belay can be used to prevent a slip then becoming a slide which requires self-arrest.  Everyone in the group then practiced aelf-belay and how to adapt it to the conditions as well as how they move on ground suitable for this technique.

Before leaving this little wind-scooped slope folk took the chance to dig a snow pit to confirm what we’d expected to find, eg. the hard freeze midweek!  Crampons now on we took a descending traverse to the moraines to ascent/descent/traverse some harder snow slopes.  I demonstrated a couple of cramponing techniques before then giving my clients peace and quiet to practice on their own whilst I watched.    With darkness coming in within the hour it was time to head onto the crest of the moraines for a while before dropping down to the ‘interesting flat bit’ on the path into the corrie and then back to the Coire Cas carpark.  As we walked out I was able to have a chat with each of my group about what they had learned during the day and their next steps.

Thanks very much to Nicola for asking me to provide this Introductory winter skills with Inverness Backcountry Sports Club.  Also thanks to Blair for his excellent organisation and communication skills between the group and myself.

I look forward to seeing and hearing about everyone’s adventures this winter!

Jim Sutherland

nineonesix-guiding

 

Early bird riding on Lethandry Hill with Travis.

Friday night and I am planning the final details of yet another training ride for Saturday when a friend phones to ask if I can do some bike guiding tomorrow…  Travis and his family are getting towards the end of a trip to Scotland and he wanted to get out early tomorrow before heading for Edinburgh, then home to the States.

After a discussion of what Travis was wanting to experience, the weather forecast and the time we had to ride I made the decision to head to the trails at Carrbridge and Lethandry Hill.  We’re spoilt here in the Cairngorms for trails to ride on so I could have suggested at least another two or three venues but I wanted Travis to spend as much of his precious three hours riding.  We agreed that Travis could use my Merida 140mm travel full suspension bike and I’d use my Brother Cycles BigBro 29er.

Travis was already ready when I drove into the Muckrach Hotel at 7:00am.  We introduced one another, checked out packs, food and fluid before the 15 minute drive to Carrbridge.  Travis’s relaxed, friendly style meant that long before reaching Carrbridge I knew we were both going to have a great morning!

There are many ways of accessing the swooping, flowy trail that descends Lethandry Hill, this morning I chose the initial easy gravel track so that we could ride side by side to talk.  Soon we reached the first gate and the singletrack that gently climbs to the second gate.  The bikes were going well for both of us and after a short chat about flat pedals and the attack position we enjoyed the first of our descents towards the farm buildings at Lethandryveole.  Forks were locked out and low gears chosen as from here there was a bit of work to be done as we started to climb in earnest up towards the Lethandry HIll.

Just before heading back into the trees and onto the ridge I chose a viewpoint to show Travis the open spaces to the north and where the ‘Burma Roads’ were built here for practice in WWII.  When we reached a pylon clearing Travis treated me to a Lara’Bar which made my day.  I have been reading about riders stocking up on these on the Great Divide so it was great to know before hand that they taste great!

The connecting trail to the top of the descent is beautiful.  The brown singletrack, the grey tree bark and the green vegetation all combine to give a wonderful sweeping run to the top of the Lethandry Hill descent.

Travis and I lingered at the top to take photos, enjoy the rainbow and discuss the other road and trail rides to be had in this fantastic location in the Cairngorms National Park.  Once we’d had our fill of the view it was time for the main event and I was absolutely delighted to watch Travis confidently and fluidly ride this fantastic piece of trail.  Take a look at the photos to decide for yourself.

Once we exited the ride I then moved to the front to guide Travis onto a wonderful wee sheep track that continues the theme of flow, flow and more flow.  I knew that my companion for the morning would have no problems with the testing wee climb back up to the first gate before heading down via even more flowing singletrack through the trees right back down to the car.

Travis said that when he got home to New Jersey he’d be getting himself a mountain bike to ride the trails near to his home.  You can’t get much better feedback than that can you!

blog by Jim Sutherland, nineonesix-guiding

see more photos on our gallery

Technical scrambling

20180923_122459Having previously had some experience of mild scrambling in Wales and winter mountaineering in Scotland, finding the time and the right instruction to consolidate skills was the key objective for my trip to Torridon. A colleague at work, who is now a Mountain Leader and mountain rescue member, recommended Jim, who had coached him. Before arriving we had a good chat to go over experience and aims so that by the time I arrived Jim had already produced an impressive plan.

I arrived in Sheildaig on a Friday evening and settled into a cottage just outside the village which stands on the shores of Loch Torridon with a lovely view and which is run by a very hospitable couple involved in local conservation. That evening Jim and I met at the local restaurant to go over plans for the next day.

On the Saturday we were joined by John, who is going for his ML. As a day of hard skills, having the extra person made it a lot more interactive and reinforce what we were learning. The day was conducted in hills around Sheildaig, which offered variety in different things that we wanted to practice. In the morning we started literally from the ground up by practicing footwork. The weather helped as well by making the rock nice and greasy, thereby making us concentrate. We then got onto rope work revision on the hills, practicing anchoring, belay and abseil. These were then put into action on the ascent and descent on the higher rocks in the afternoon. The ascent was enhanced by the view of an eagle gliding above us.

Sunday started with a drive over the hills north of Loch Torridon to Diabaig. The day was perfect for the ascent of the mountain which comes straight from the sea and rises to a summit of around 400 metres. We started with a walk from the small harbour ascending through the woods over a tree canopied path where after 10 minutes opened up to a clearing. Here we kitted ourselves with harnesses and equipment while making assessments of the routes available up the face of the rock. This gave us a good opportunity to consider factors into making such judgements. Putting the practice of the previous day into real and consequential use was hugely motivating and engaging. Jim did the leading and let me make decisions on anchoring and preparing the belay. We had a long rope (60m), which provided a lot more flexibility to ascend that little bit more. Given the shape of the rock, Jim was quickly out of sight. I awaited the “safe” call and then started my own process. The next stop was a tight ledge, picking up the runners and teasing out the wires and hexes on the way. The following pitch involved a traverse (again the length of the rope came in convenient for that), with a runner put in at the right angle to keep everything running straight (with a fall or slip you don’t want to swing like a pendulum). We eventually got onto the third stage after spending some time removing an unhelpful hex. Careful footwork was required over some looser rock and we had to be careful not to dislodge anything in case of other people below us.

Lunch was spent on some more open ground by a gully with lovely views south to Skye, following which we went up the gully. Towards the top we had to make a choice on the next block of rock to ascend. There had been a brief shower which made either route a bit greasy, so sure footedness and grip was important and a bit tricky. I had to make some alterations to the route mid climb to get over one of the stickier areas, but it all worked out as we ended up on a rock plateau. A short walk brought us to the summit block. Again it was quite greasy and the wind was gathering, so after some inelegant but effective manoeuvres we made it to the top. The long views over the sea to Skye lay in front and the impressive Torridon Munros behind, although the summits did look quite angry in the wind and cloud.

We descended by the side of the mountain through some deeper wet grassland and woods. The last obstacle was a high fence which we scaled and followed the river back to the shore. The drive back to Sheildaig was filled with more spectacular views and much enthusiasm for planning the next trip.

Blog by Ronan Lowney

August’s Hostelling Scotland Torridon Munro’s

This Augusts Hostelling Scotland Torridon Munro’s was a bit more challenging, weather wise, than our May trip!

 

The forecast was pretty unsavoury for all three days with a brief weather window on Monday which gave us the chance to scoot over Liathach, however the weather for Tuesday was going to be grim.

 

We started up the Beinn Alligin track, the first of our objectives, on Sunday Morning. The weather looking more promising than expected with only a few showers to deal with and the tops just clearing of cloud.

The group coped well with the scrambling on the approach to the Horns, all being experienced scramblers and I knew that they would have no problem traversing all three horns. The traverse was stunning with the mist enveloping us for a time then opening up to reveal the beauty of this stunning area.  

 

The group were very fast and we were able to reached Tom Na Gruagaich by just before three leaving us plenty of time for a leisurely descent into the coire.  

 

Monday morning and weather had improved slightly. The tops were in mist but the wind had abated making for a pleasant traverse of the Am Fassern pinnacles of Liathach.

 

The ascent up the east end is relentlessly steep with only a short section of flat walking about half way up to the ridge. With the cloud base covering the high tops but still above the east end of the ridge we had some views northward into Coireag Dubh Beag. Unfortunately the summit of Spidean was in cloud, we had a quick bite to eat then proceeded down the Southeast ridge and after reaching some flat ground I realised that we had come a bit too far. This is a classic error to make on this part of the ridge and there have been several rescues where people have continued down only to become crag fast on Pyramid Buttress. A quick 5 minute traverse brought us to the start of the pinnacles.

 

Once again the group made short work of the scrambling and we were soon on the summit of Mullach an Rathain. The descent was a bit slower than the previous day, some legs were feeling tired now.

 

The forecast for day three was not good with high wind and prolonged periods of rain becoming increasingly worse as the day progressed. For that reason we started Beinn Eighe from Coire an Laoigh to get the high section of the day completed before the weather really kicked in.

 

Everyone moved quickly knowing that the slower we went the longer we were going to be in the bad weather for. We raced up the coire to the trig point and did the short scramble that leads to Spidean Coire nanClach. We reversed our steps and made our way along the ridge taking the bypass path to once again minimise our time high up.

 

At the top of the stone shoot the wind was gusting 40mph and we had a brief period of decision making as to whether it was worth trekking out to Ruadh-stac Mor given the foul weather and lack of visibility.

 

Fast group, we’re here, let’s do it!   We headed off into the mist with a strengthening wind blowing over the exposed plateau. We reached the summit but could spend no more than a minute there as the wind was now gusting 50 to 60mph. We quickly made our way back to the shelter of the stone shoot and the relative warmth of the coire below. Now just the long slog out on the Coire Dubh Mor path which took us safely back to our vehicles, thankful that we were not still on the tops.  

blog by Dunc Maclennan, nineonesix-guiding

Some more photos on our Facebook page.

keep comfy, keep cool, get warm

Lately I’ve been training for the Great Divide.  This has taken the form of many, many short local rides in the woods on the endless trails we have here in the Cairngorm National Park.  When possible I have also planned and ridden multi-day rides through some of the spectacular mountain scenery of the Highlands in all conditions.  Of course riding my bike is important but equally important is learning about kit.  What to take.  What not to take.  What never, ever to forget…  my Armadillo merino Cougar, Falcon & Johnnies base layer and Commando socks fall into this category.  Click the link to head over to armadillomerino.com to check them out and don’t forget all nineonesix-guiding clients get discount.  Enjoy the slideshow too.

 

 

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Clients are treated as individuals and we listen to what you want to achieve in the mountains, on the crag or on the trail.