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?