Last December Tara and Malcolm spent a couple of days with me in The Northern Corries of Cairngorm as an introduction to winter climbing. By the end of the two days they were confident enough to begin their own winter climbing journey. So this year the plan was to come and stay at Kinloch in Shieldaig and get onto some routes at the grade III standard; unfortunately as we all know the start to this winter has been somewhat ‘difficult’.
At nineonesix-guiding all of us are experienced in working around the conditions and on almost every occasion can adapt to them. We will discuss with our clients what alternative activities they might benefit from and then put an alternative plan into action. I have already heard about some other colleagues being challenged this season about not providing what was booked, or poor conditions on the mountain preventing particular activities taking place. This is a pity because whether a British Mountain Guide, MIC or winter ML is hired, clients should do so safe in the knowledge that the person looking after them will have worked hard, trained and been assessed to provide a safe and educational experience in a wide range of conditions.
The forecast for our first day was for winds to quieten down after daybreak before strengthening again towards dusk. A day to take the bull by the horns and get up there early to make the best of the snow cover on The Black Carls of Beinn Eighe. I chose this route because it was a bit further east of the coast and would get the best of the weather as well as being a suitable standard for Tara and Malcolm to safely practice the techniques required on classic winter ridges such as this. On the approach to the ridge we had a great opportunity to use the ‘BAD’ mnemonic to evaluate the avalanche conditions; if our first piece stop had been a wee bit lower on the ridge we’d have been able to ask the SAIS Torridon forecasters themselves! As I expected the wind started to drop as we reached Creag Dhubh and we were treated to fantastic views across to Fisherfield, the Strathcarron Hills and importantly… our descent route. The snow on the ridge was incredibly varied and at a suitable spot we donned crampons to be ready for any harder, wind-scoured patches. Tara and Malcolm had already been given one of my famous hand-drawn topos for the traverse annotated with the suggested techniques. Nice simple, strong stances with body belays, Italian hitches or direct around big blocks were used on the initial sections. The image above shows Tara demonstrating how to use placed runners, such as slings, as well as utilising natural spikes and blocks. The level sections of the ridge allowed me to illustrate the seriousness and limitations of the dark art of moving together. The final tower is steep and serious enough to warrant a proper pitch of climbing which Malcolm pointed out felt a bit harder than Fiacaill Ridge earlier this winter. After our celebratory ‘selfie’ we headed southeast almost directly in line with Coulin Estate. Once at the bealach above Coire Domhain we discussed our earlier evaluation of the avalanche risk and were sure to move onto slopes that had been scoured earlier. A good pace was maintained on our walk out which meant that head torches were only used for the last half hour or so.
For the morning of the second day I showed Tara and Malcolm some simple techniques to solve problems such as a partner dropping an axe, having a crampon fall off or simply being unable to make the last move or to up to a stance. This was practiced in the shelter of my house and then done for real on a couple of crags in the village where the winds were so strong at times they nearly blew us off our feet even at sea level! After lunch it was time for a complete change of venue and activity so we took a 16km mountain bike route in the shelter of the woodland near The Torridon Inn. The route starts off at the back of the Inn and heads west to Balgy before taking in lots of little singeltrack loops down and around bays or through woods to little sections of downhill. We even improved on of the trail features with the help of my bow saw.
On our final day the plan was to ride a slightly more challenging route that finished at The Steading Bistro in Gairloch for the afternoon. Although recent forestry work has spoiled 200m of the start of the Old Road, the trail gets better and better with fantastic sections in Flowerdale Estate such as ‘the muddy track’ (which is more rocky than muddy) and ‘the waterfall descent’ with its drops, rock gully and tight hairpins. After these two routes Tara really did feel that she was now moving much better on the bike on features like this. Hopefully this will continue so that her and Malcolm can come back for some bigger adventures on some of the mountain rides we have in the Torridon area and beyond…
Thanks again to Tara and Malcolm for being so flexible, realistic and great company over these three very different days. Here is the link to the photos from the last three days.
blog by Jim Sutherland
‘BAD’ for me means: B_ for before, A_for approach and D_for during. So I consider the conditions in the days, or weeks before my mountain journey, check on the approach if the conditions are what I expected and finally keep an eye on them during the mountain journey.
Here is a link to the Scottish Avalanche Information Service page which will help with further education: