Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Winter Mountaineering in the Cairngorms - Part One

Ron Walker MIC, of Talisman Mountaineering, is exactly what I'd hoped for when I sought someone to guide my ever-present hillwalking companion and I into the penumbra of the shadowy domain of the mountaineer. A diminutively wiry, unassailably indomitable character possessed of infinite calm and patience, he exudes practiced self-assurance which, by a process of osmosis, set us amateurs at ease - a fact which is of no small behoof to those of us venturing into the arctic tundra of the Scottish mountains in winter for the first time. When we arrived at Cairngorm Mountain Cafe in Aviemore, very early Saturday morning, to meet Ron and our other fellow students, we did not really know what to expect despite copious research and familiarity with the BMC 'Winter Essentials' DVD and various official texts on the topic of developing winter hillwalking and mountaineering skills. Learning new skills has always filled me with an odd marriage of passion and anxiety - the fear of failure is to me perhaps greatest fear of all. Also, as an experienced hillwalker but utterly without any sort of rock climbing experience, I felt a little under examination. That morning, the weather was generous to us, perhaps suspecting it was our first day and benevolently bestowing a gentler introduction than it might have done. We parked at the Cairngorm Ski Area and started our walk-in once Ron had given us some extra bits of kit - carabiners, slings and rope, and he had satisfied himself of our own choices.

The first day - as much to assess our skills as to teach the basics, was to cover movement on snow and ice, use of an ice-axe during walking and for self-arrest, and to begin using crampons. The sun cast a subtle gleam across the snow and ice, the hillside punctuated by tussocks and rocks amid the chalky veil. It was a truly lovely day. As we ascended Coire na Ciste, Ron demonstrated correct foot placement and the kicking of steps in various movements to enable clean and stable progression across difficult snowy and icy terrain, all the while discussing with us clothing choices and navigation. He is an easy, instantly likeable fellow, vastly experienced but keen to pass that knowledge on in a way that is without arrogance. A note here: correct boot choice is essential for walking on snow and ice with or without crampons - kicking steps is far easier in a B2 or B3 boot which will take crampons as well. It is a personal choice, of course. From time to time, he would stop and ensure we understood the nature of the snow around us, keen to pummel into us the importance of constant avalanche assessment. He explained the way the wind would carry snow and how we could use the prevailing wind to assess how stable the ground would be underfoot, at the same time having regard to recent snowfall and weather reports, and to the evidence around us - sastrugi, for example and raised footprints would tell us in which direction wind had been blowing and where windslab snow might have been deposited. We listened, diligently, and tried to assimilate all he was telling us. Homework, he chided, would be to ensure we understood all of this. We nodded conscientiously.

After about 300m of ascent across varied ground, without crampons, we stopped for lunch. I sat, gazing across the valley dominated by Loch Morlich and its forested cloak, and munched happily, warmed by PHD's finest down. At 800m, the vista that had unfolded before us was majestic and inspiring. I was, without a doubt, thrilled to be here. Soon after, we moved off to look for a suitable location for ice-axe self arrest training. I can see that selecting a spot is a skill in itself as ice-axe self-arrest is something that should be practised every season. We chose a spot free of rock, where we would stop of our own accord should the self-arrest fail. We chose different terrain - soft, deep snow and hard, icy stuff - to practice in different environments and to ascertain and feel the differences. Getting back up again was as much as test of our earlier-learned boot skills as it was of self-arrest techniques. For hours we did this - with and without ice-axe - until we felt comfortable. We learned how to use our axes to cut steps as we slowly, meticulously moved up icy-slopes. It was protracted, ponderous industry - clearly to be avoided if possible and to be practised in order to achieve almost metronomic efficiency. Only later would I realise how useful it could be. Once we had mastered the basics of the ice-axe discipline, we moved up the mountain to around 900m and to find another exacting spot for the use of crampons and to start some basic ropework and belay construction. 

I had no experience hitherto of rock climbing, or scrambling beyond Grade I, so little knowledge of knots and belaying principles - coming from this background meant a steeper learning curve but not an unduly onerous one thanks, in large part, to Ron's patience. We moved up and down sheer, icy slopes, with and without packs, to become attuned to our crampons and appreciate their correct use. We walked and ran up and down these slopes, front pointing, flat-footing, and using hybrid technique, until we were one with our heavy metal. It is crucial to learn that edging with boots is essential in winter, edging with crampons is forbidden - crampons should have as many points driven into the snow as possible at any one time and the direction of your foot placement should be such as to not cause the crampon points to prematurely exit the snow or ice. We moved then to a small, snowy crag and began to climb up, and belay abseils down, it. We kept doing this until it was clear that we'd need to leave in order to get back to our vehicles before nightfall. Know the time and be aware of your limitations, Ron would instruct us. Safety first at all times. The first day was by no means a gentle introduction and our limbs ached in that exuberant way they do at the end of a 'good day', which this most certainly was.

Courtesy of Ron Walker, Talisman Mountaineering

Day two began even earlier. No Ron today - Fi Chappell IML was our instructor for the day's tuition. Again we travelled to the Cairngorm Ski Area, this time to begin our walk into Coire an t-Sneachda - our base of operations for the next 8 hours. The weather was moody and sullen, and foreboding of something rather darker and more intimidating than the previous day. It was cold and the conditions underfoot were icily treacherous. Still, we avoided crampons as long as possible and we were well into the Coire before we donned our spikes. The more skill possessed walking with boots alone, the better, as crampons can easily become relied on too frequently - resulting in deskilling in walking without them - a broken crampon is not unheard of. The wind, blustery and bitter, swirled around us - reminding us that yesterday was a boon. There were many others, of varying skills levels, making their way up the disparate routes to the ridgeline of the coire - Aladin's Couloir and Jacob's Ladder being the most popular with a few specks dotted on the route up the Fiancaill Ridge. Our aim for the day was far less ambitious - digging emergency shelters as well as working more with crampons.

From time to time I would remind myself that, although this was a day for skills, the views across the Cairngorms and the mountains of Scotland were awe-inspiring. Whilst it was cold, Páramo Aspira, coupled with a Patagonia R1 Hoody, was all I needed to stay warm, particularly as the work we were doing was hard. Excavating an emergency shelter in the snow is energy sapping toil and consequently very much a last resort. If the snow is hard icy old snow below the soft newer stuff, then it can be arduous indeed. Cutting lintels to form a buttress across the roof of a shelter is particularly tricky and challenging labour in hard ice and snow but there is warmth to be found within an emergency shelter - from your own body heat and as shelter from the weather outside.

Upon completion of lunch within the shelters and around our rucksacks at the bottom of the slope on which we'd constructed our masterpieces, we climbed to the stop of the small ridge and began to learn the art of digging snow bollards. This is a fundamental skill and mastery of it involves an understanding of the strength of the snow being used compared with the size of the bollard needed. It was crucial that we got this right as we'd be abseiling off the ridge using our own bollards. A snow bollard is a horseshoe-shaped trench in the snow around which your rope will go - the 'live' ends of the rope come out of the ends of the 'horseshoe'. As such, the bottom of the bollard trench is angled into the bollard slightly to prevent the rope sliding over the top of the bollard and it is vital that you keep your body and the rope low to avoid this too. How deep, and the diameter of the bollard, will depend on the quality of the snow you are using - hard, icy snow will require a smaller bollard and vice versa. As Andy Kirkpatrick points out, "...The snow bollard should be treated as a suspect anchor, with shock and load being kept to the minimum. The anchor can be backed up by having a person below it sitting in a bucket seat and ready to hold the ropes if they start to pull through. Once the leader is down it can be assumed that the bollard is up to the job."

We learned three abseil techniques (with rope alone and no belay device) - classic, South African and a quick, easy technique for less steep slopes which require swift movement rather than a slow, deliberate abseil. I prefer the South African, which creates a semi-harness under the seat and which is far more stable and comfortable than the classic technique. The South African is achieved by standing, facing the bollard (back to the descent), between the rope at both exits of the bollard, crossing the strands behind your back at waist level, and back round to the front, then pulling both strands together between your legs towards your back and then holding (in my case) in your right hand, slightly away from your body and to the right. A twist around the wrist will create more friction if necessary. As you move down the slope, you slowly let out the rope. Bear in mind that you are in complete control of your descent and therefore responsible for your own destiny. I advise proper training, therefore, rather than a quick read of a blog! Get this wrong and nothing else will stop your fall into the abyss below...

The night brought yet more homework as we practised ropework with ropes Ron had loaned us. It's a deeply amusing spectacle for the uninitiated to watch to grown men playing with ropes in a living room.

Day Three began with some classroom stuff in the Aviemore SYH as the weather was poor but due to improve towards the afternoon. With harnesses, crabs, belay devices and lengths of rope we practised getting into the harness, tying various knots, tying into the harness and using a belay device - all with gloves on and off. We did this until we could do it blindfolded. As we did so, Ron talked us through the application of what we were practising, both in the Scottish mountains and for Alpine use. The next day would be a day of using these skills in an ascent of Jacob's Ladder in Coire an t-Sneachda, followed by some Alpine techniques the day after. This is one of the strengths of Ron's tutelage - he is able to tailor the course to the specific requirements of his students. We had a need to learn some Alpine techniques such as moving together, and roping up for glacier travel, so he could do that for us as well.

As the weather improved slightly, we made our move into the still blizzard conditions within the Cairngorms again. Visibility was poor but we found a sheltered valley and moved inwards. We located, a short walk in, a reasonable slope thick with new snow to learn the gentle arts of the bucket seat (and dead rope box), the ice-axe belay and to dig more snow bollards. We then, having dug one of each, put them to use ascending, and abseiling down, the slope.

Courtesy of Ron Walker, Talisman Mountaineering

The first three days were intended to give us sufficient grounding to put into practice, over the final two crux days of the course, everything we'd learned so far. It was to be a stressful, tiring period marked with tremendous emotion and euphoria as we saw, for the first time, how everything we'd learned came together.


  1. Superb post! That South African abseiling looks interesting, will have to give it a go now.

  2. Great stuff and learning some invaluable skills! Hoping to tie up a week in Scotland myself in the next month.

  3. Hi Maz, you've been busy since you got back then?! Excellent post and an excellent trip. Any chance I can persuade you to email me some of the pics? If you and Bob are feeling inspired and fancy doing some climbing at some point then let me know. Cheers Mark

  4. Tomas: thanks! SA abseil is certainly more comfortable for us blokes than the classic version...

    Nigel: Going to try the ice climbing wall at Ellis Brigham, Covent Garden - if you're in the area, you should let me know.

    Mark: See my comment to Nigel above mate - if you'd like to try it out it could be a laugh. Rather than email you pics, I'll put them on a DVD for you (as I have large mpeg as well). My email is 34winchester at googlemail dot com - drop me a line and we'll make the arrangements. As for rick climbing - we're looking at a Plas y Brenin Advanced scrambling course for the summer to consolidate what we've learned.

  5. Maz,
    Stunning post. Well written. Sastrugi, now thats a new word for me.
    We just called them waves or lumps. good to know the correct term. Thanks.
    I did my climbing course with a wonderful chap who taught the NZ army survival skills etc and he had a number of 1st’s in the Dolomites. Even in his 60’s he was faster than me and fit as the butchers dog. He has since had a stroke. I cannot imagine how frustrated he must be.

  6. Thanks Alan. I find that courses are so useful - we can all walk but we seem to ignore that, as we progress to more serious terrain, we need teaching how to do it safely. I have alpine plans for the next few years and you cannot get that stuff wrong! I feel sorry for the chap you speak of and I genuinely hope he has found another outlet for his obviously considerable talent and determination.

  7. The realm of the mountaineer. Very interesting. Valuable skills you learnt there Maz. Look forward to trip reports when you go put those skills to use.

  8. Martin: yes, invaluable stuff whether for winter hillwalking or mountaineering although the line between the two is a blurred one (if it exists at all). Parts Two and Three are coming up and they deal with the last two days of the course when the skills were put to use.

  9. Great post Maz, really interesting stuff. You must have been pretty tired at the end of the day?

    Love the photos too.

  10. The mountains of Scotland provide some truly inspiring sights. Most of them are situated in the Highlands or uplands of Scotland and many of them have trails which can be walked; even if a bit steep at times.
    Cairngorm Mountain