The SYHA Torridon winter skills course was looking very marginal at the start of last week with mild conditions and a rapidly disappearing snow pack, the mountains were more like May than February.
I met a very international group at Cairngorm lodge hostel which consisted of German, British and Portuguese. Everyone was really enthusiastic and eager to get crampons fitted to boots, some people did not have boots, which was a bit alarming but fortunately they were able to rent some the next morning.
Coire Na Ciste seemed to be still holding some snow so for the first day I thought this would make a good start. We left the Ciste car park and headed into the coire. The first snow we came across was very promising as the overnight frost and made the conditions bullet hard.
For some of the group this was their first time walking on snow we quickly covered the various techniques for ascending descending and traversing snow slopes on some low angled ground. We then had to move rapidly on to cramponing as we were going to be unable to make further progress up the mountain without their use.
We made our way up the Coire na Ciste and over to Ciste Mhearad to have a look at the quite elaborate snowholes which had been constructed. After a quick bite to eat the team put their navigation skills to the test taking a bearing on Cairngorm summit, the last objective of the day, other than getting back to the hostel! The view eastwards were obscured by some low cloud but the situation was still spectacular with views to Fiacaill Coire an t-Sneachda and Lurcher’s Crag. We made our way back to the car park making the most of the remaining snow patches to practice ice axe breaking.
The warm temperatures had significantly softened the snow pack and I felt pleased that we had the opportunity to do so much crampon work on the previous day. We focused on navigation, beginning in the car park by finding out what everyone’s double pace count was for a hundred meters. Then we broke down the journey to Fiacaill Coire an t-Sneachda into sections and navigated to the bottom of the ridge. Although the snow pack was wet and soft the steep snowless ground proved more challenging as it was still deeply frozen. For this reason, we put crampons on for the descent from the ridge into Coire an Lochan. Here the group experienced much steeper although more forgiving snow conditions than the previous day which stretched comfort levels for some people. Avalanche assessment was covered but more in theory than practice as the risk was Low with a fully consolidated snow pack. We talked about islands of safety and safe route planning using the previous day’s forecasts and the avalanche report. Some final legs of nav from Lochan saw us safely back to the car park.
Having spent two days in the Northern Corries I felt a change was required. I knew that the snow conditions would be very sparse elsewhere but the snow that was left in the Northern Coires was not going to provide the group with much more learning. We decided to do a Sgor Gaoith as a round trip from Geal-Charn descending down Allt a Chrom-alltain. Again safe route choice was discussed but in theory only due to the lack of snow. The group navigated themselves round the route using the techniques learned during the previous two days and we soon arrived at the dramatic summit with views down to the windswept Loch Einich, impressing some of the group who had summited this peak several times before. Once again, we were able to use the remaining snow patches to ease our way back down the mountain and practice our breaking skills.
A very satisfied group arrived back at the car park. Although the three days had not been typical winter weather we had made the best of the conditions available to us.
Many thanks to Marta, Sergio, Jamie, Jeff and Matthias for your great company and laughs during the three days.
blog by Dunc Maclennan, nineonesix-guiding