My friends Cormac Lynch, Chris England and Ronan Friel from Dublin & Wicklaw MRT had visited Torridon a couple of winters ago to visit and spend some time in the mountains. We’d all kept in touch over the years so when Cormac asked me to put a Winter Training Weekend I was delighted. Dunc & Richard from Torridon MRT, who also work for me at nineonesix-guiding were also brought in to bring their very current mountain rescue team experience into the mix.
The first day was a bit of a shake down, a refresher in winter skills for some, while others were acquiring these skills for the first time. Just about every aspect of slope in the Northern Cairngorms, that was easily accessible had a considerable avalanche risk. With that in mind, we set off on the Path into Coire an t-Sneachda, practicing some nav and checking the snowpack on the way. We could soon see the massive crown wall of the avalanche which had released the day before in Coire an t-Sneachda. A good reminder of the conditions we were expecting to find.
We made our way to Fiacaill Coire an t-Sneachda where we found some scoured slopes perfect for cramponing and some ice axe arrest practice. Once everyone felt comfortable with axe and crampons we continued up the ridge until the rock section passing some extremely unstable snow on the way. After a quick bite to eat and some time to enjoy the sunshine and views we headed down into Coire an Lochan moving one at a time on suspect slopes using islands of safety. We decided to stay in the sunshine for some transceiver practice then wandered back to the carpark in what was a cold but beautiful afternoon.
Day two brought a change in the weather with strong winds and blowing snow making for a ‘gnarly’ day. Once the snow gates had opened at Glenmore, and to get some shelter from the worst of the elements, we walked up into Coire na Ciste where we split into two workshops. One group focussed on bucket seats and buried axe anchors whilst the other group looked at snow bollards, the stomper belay and boot axe belays. The weather worsened as the day wore on so we moved lower down in the afternoon before switching workshops and then had sessions on deadman anchors. Challenging though the conditions were, everyone had a productive day on the hill and got to experience some ‘proper’ Cairngorms winter weather to add to the weekend’s learning.
The plan for the final day was to take the principles, techniques and confidence developed on the first two days and put them into a very realistic mountain rescue context. The avalanche risk was still Considerable so the choice of venues had to be very carefully considered. We decided to visit Coire na Ciste again but this time on the harder, more scoured slopes that the forecasts indicated. Dunc & Richard, now joined by Jim briefed the Dublin & Wicklaw MRT group about prevailing conditions, the plan to practice a multi-pitch stretcher lower on intermediate angles slopes and how to go about this safely, as well as considerately for other hill users. We say considerately as we were going to be working below the West Wall of Cairngorm Mountain Ltd. and to the side of Ciste Gully. On the way in we met on of the piste-basher drivers who explained to us what his job was that morning – we also told him what we hoped to do. After a group photo with DWMRT beside the piste basher and and a friendly discussion about where exactly to go we continued up to the steeper slopes. Within minutes of arriving on the pisted track up from Ciste Gully everyone had helmets, ice axe and crampons deployed. The scene was then set: get a stretcher to the base of the slope via three intermediate stances as safely and smoothly as possible. Buried axe, deadman and snow bollard anchors were dug out in the hard snow below the surface. They were then combined to create multi-point anchors one above the other down the line of the lower. DWMRT do a lot of technical crag lowers/raises and this was obvious as the groups constructed, tested and used their anchors. Petzl iDs were the device of choice, along with a rope bridle arrangement to speed up the changeovers. At least three lowers were completed with each one being discussed, then modified if necessary before repeating the process. By the time we got to the penultimate lower the three of us were definitely redundant – always a good sign!
Hopefully we will see some of you back again next winter for another successful weekend – from all of us ‘ Thanks!’
blog by Dunc, Richard & Jim from nineonesix-guiding