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




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

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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

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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 to check them out and don’t forget all nineonesix-guiding clients get discount.  Enjoy the slideshow too.



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midweek bikepacking adventure

A pal of mine, Neil from Edinburgh and I had a midweek bikepacking adventure in and around the hills above Grantown on Spey,.  Neil and I had agreed on a microadventure as inspired by Alastair Humphreys, ie. travel, explore, eat, sleep, travel and return all within 12 hours so Neil could get a train back to Edinburgh the next day.


This was to be our second trip out together, the first had been a two day 100km, 1500m of ascent trip with myself and another pal, Ian.  We rode from Kingussie to Loch Morlich for the night then after a couple of climbs on trails near Nethybridge before travelling back across to Kingussie.  Neil had never done any bikepacking before and I obviously hadn’t put him off on this trip! Bikepacking – what is it all about? For some it is all about going as far, as fast and light as possible through some of the most remote terrain.  For others it is the chance to combine backpacking and biking hence the name. Nowadays you don’t need to carry your gear in a backpack, instead use dedicated bike luggage which cleverly attaches to the frame, seatpost or handlebars of your bike.  This makes for more comfortable riding and no bouncing panniers or rattling frames. For me the attraction is the journey with the planning, exploration, time out from ‘normal life’, connecting with nature and riding through spectacular scenery.


So after a coffee and a blether at my house Neil and I loaded up our bikes and headed towards Broomhill Station to spot the Strathspey Railway Steam Train.  A careful crossing of the busy A95 then leads to some delightful, but steep singletrack up into the pines before dropping in swooping and whooping turns into Dulnain Bridge.  The first few kilometres on a loaded bike can sometimes be a little edgy, especially after a train journey but Neil rode the trails with panache. The weather had been great here in the Cairngorms National Park for weeks so our tires made a lovely crunchy sound as we rode along the side of the Dulnain River.  We could have stopped and set up here for the night easily, there was fresh running water nearby, plenty of trees to rig up a tarp, views through them to the hills and nearby some interesting farmland. But I wanted our bivvy site to be further up in the hills with a grandstand view of The Cairngorm Mountains, so a little more climbing was in order.  I probably also wanted to ride a bit further on my brand new Brothercycles 29er bike which I had just finished building the night before.


Given that this was after all a microadventure Neil and I had both gone for a seatpost bag and frame bag arrangement, as we did not have a lot of gear to take.    Over the last couple of years I have been using bike luggage from WildcatGear who are now based near Perth, just down the A9. Their kit is strong, durable and well thought out.  With consideration about how much kit you really need and what items can make a difference it is surprising how little gear is needed on a bikepacking trip. Dinner was going to be cooked on the hill.  We had my JavaDrip coffee maker and the plan was to ride into town early in the morning for breakfast. I took enough layers and an insulated jacket to make the evening comfortable in a lightweight sleeping bag with bivvy bag under a tarp.


So we climbed up and away from the roads and trails until we reached that perfect spot I had checked out the week before.  There was a ruined building just off of the path which was shelter from any cool north winds which were forecast and importantly, a small wall which I could rig my tarp to.  Recently I have started using a Trangia stove again, but with one with three interlocking plates that form the base instead of the usual aluminium pot stand arrangement. The burner and these plates take up little more room than a small digital camera and I love the peace and quiet that burners like this cook with.  This meant we were able to enjoy the late evening bird calls and have a blether over a small dram. Fried rice with onions and chorizo tasted brilliant as we sat on the wall watching the the setting sun pick out the ridges and corries of The Cairngorms. For dessert we were treated to some real, fresh honey from my father’s bees on oatcakes – luxury!  Later on we watched some showers and darker clouds appear both down the Strath and behind us to the North! The tarp and shelter of the ruin did the trick and in the morning despite a few showers Neil and I were both dry.


At 0430 in the morning we were treated to a cloud inversion in the glen along with the rising sun slowly picking out The Cairngorms again and warming us up as we enjoyed our coffee and more oatcakes with honey.  The ride into town starts with a fast descent on estate gravel roads that have a couple of steep hills that demand determination and courage to keep the speed up in order to get over the top. You also have to have skill to corner a loaded bike as you blast down into the next corner.  After this excitement there is a rising traverse above Glen Beg with great views across to The Cromdale Hills and Bynack Mor which is never out of sight for long on this trip. As Neil and I approached a field with sheep and their lambs we slowed down and slowly rode past them as the Right of Way passed along the side of their field.  After 0600 now so there were the odd signs of life as folk went about their business of feeding livestock or heading off to work. As we reached the road at Dreggie I led Neil down a couple of steep short cuts that add a lot of interest to an otherwise easy freewheel to the Dava Trail. We’d plenty of time so I suggested a wee detour along this old railway line to the Forres road and the gatehouse of Castle Grant.


As planned we rode into town just in time for the Co-op to have opened.  Back in a more urban environment, if Grantown on Spey can ever be called that (!) Neil managed to sweet talk us the first warm and fresh pastries of the day.  We enjoyed them, sitting on a bench at the Square before heading our separate ways at 0730. Neil and I agreed that 28km and 280m of ascent along with the riding, views, weather, good food & company this was a successful microadventure.

blog by Jim Sutherland, nineonesix-guiding

more photos on nineonesix-guiding at flickr



Hostelling Scotland first ever Torridon Munro’s trip!

The weather was pretty kind for this springs Hostelling Scotland Torridon Munro’s. Ian, Eileen, Claire and Steve joined me on Sunday morning for what looked like being a very beautiful day in the mountains.

Our first objective was Beinn Alligin. This would give the group a chance to experience some scrambling and build on their skill before attempting Liathach the following day.

The views across to Gairloch were stunning as we made our way across the horns and onwards to the summit of our first Munro, Everyone made light work of the scrambling which boded well for tomorrows attempt on Liathach. We stopped briefly on the summit of Sgurr Mor as although it was sunny the air was quite cold. We took in the stunning seaward views out to Skye and back to the Horns where we had just been.

Another hour and we had reached Tom na Gruagaich and soon we were on the path down Coire nan Laogh where we passed a lonely soul with what looked like a very heavy pack, turned out to be a paraglider on his way to jump off the summit!

Day two and we are heading up the east end of Liathach. The path is steep and relentless here but eventually we gained the main ridge. Once again we were blessed with a fine day and even finer views. We stopped for a bite to eat on the summit of Spidean a Choire Leith and looked down to the Am Fasarinen pinnacles, the next challenge of the day. All being experienced scramblers the group had no difficulties traversing the pinnacles and we were soon on our way to Mullach an Rathain, today’s final Munro. The path down is very loose so we were slow for the first couple of hundred metres, however with improving conditions underfoot lower down we speeded up and were back at the roadside in no time at all.

Our last day’s objective was the traverse of Beinn Eighe. Unfortunatly the weather for today was not the best forecasting rainfall and substantial winds at 900m. We headed round into Coire Mhic Fhearchair and found that even at 600m it was quite windy and now raining steadily. The mist was down to about 750m obscuring the stone chute. I did have slight concerns that it may be full of snow but on reaching it we found it to be clear. The wind strengthened substantially as we exited the chute and we were now in thick mist. This was a day for just getting the Munros done, no views to enjoy today.

The wind was steady all day but became increasing strong on the scramble out to Spidean Coire nan Clach making this section feel particularly exposed. By the time we reached the road the tops had cleared with the improving weather, unfortunately the mountain was not prepared to share it views with us today.

Thanks to   Ian, Eileen, Claire and Steve for three great days.

blog by Dunc Maclennan of nineonesix-guiding

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