After the euphoria of our first Scottish Winter Grade I climb the previous day, we were all mindful of the fact that our upcoming Alpine trips would benefit from some targeted learning. Alpine skills develop in a slightly different direction than those used in Scotland and we would require more than simply tying into a harness in order to flourish as alpinists. Glacial travel, for example, requires that the group moves together roped up - particularly on a 'wet' glacier (that is to say, one covered in snow). This requires some polishing as a skillset, not least sufficiently fathoming the taking in of coils, as well the diversity of situations entailing different rope lengths between those roped together. But I digress and I certainly don't want to begin this post in media res so I'll start at the beginning.
We congregated again at the Aviemore SYHA as the belligerent Scottish weather perpetrated its final coup de grace. Ignoring the elemental misery, we commenced our walk in and conversed cheerily about the previous day's exertions. We felt seasoned now, our winter virginity shattered, and each step in the new powder snow was taken with a more practiced poise. We were on our path now, our tao ritually engaged. As we approached the Fiacaill Coire an t-Sneachda, shrouded in a veil of thick mist, the frigid arctic wind swirled around us, menacingly chiding us of the folly of our intended bearing. Ignoring this exhortation, we continued on to a small patch of rocky ground in order to take on some calories, hydrate and prepare. The Fiacaill was an intimidating character, steep and covered in new snow which would ball up under our crampons. The going would be tough but again, it would be a serviceable introduction for us to Alpine techniques.
Donning our harnesses and tying in, Ron then began to demonstrate the process of taking in coils, securing them to convert a seat harness into a full body harness, as well as the principles of moving together. We should be able to do it in bad weather, he reasoned, so we concentrated and assimilated all he said as the heavens assaulted our position with inclemency. For some time we practised the skills we'd need, and asked questions related to our own particular alpine endeavours. Our next step would be to ascend up to Fiacaill Coire an t-Sneachda in order to consolidate some of the skills we used the day before, as well as to learn how to hold a slip when moving together. This, to me, seemed an essential competency as I considered the glaciers I had seen in the Alps in August last year and knowing we'd be crossing those come August this year.
For those willing to learn, the BMC DVD 'Alpine Essentials' is a good place to start and this video demonstrates the skills we learned.
Eventually the time came to rope up together in pairs and ascend. Initially, it is a slow, cumbersome and awkward affair - a close relationship to your partner is the essential nucleus of the methodology - but eventually, as you both get used to the new ground, it becomes easier. Swift but disciplined progress is necessarily the safest course in the Alps with avalanches, and changes in the constitution of the snow underfoot, becoming increasingly likely as the day wears on but slow, slow is the only way to begin with. We practised holding slips and slides in the deep, fresh snow until eventually Ron gave us the behest to begin climbing properly. We soon reached our first belay, and whilst the terrain was nowhere near as steep as Jacob's Ladder the day before, it had its own set of unique challenges. We climbed together, kicking into the snow with our crampons and driving our axes into the slope as far up the shaft as the terrain would permit. As we skirted round a bouldery outcrop, the first belay was identified perhaps 25m above us. My partner headed up and began to set himself up as I found myself a place to stop and waited. I let out the coils so he could belay me when I ascended. En route, he set up and runner to protect his, and my, ascent.
Fortunately, my wait was far shorter than yesterday and I soon began moving off - again continuing the metronomic driving of crampon front points, followed by the plunging of ice-axe shaft, into the snow. The spike would frequently bite into the icy layer below after perhaps only a half-foot or so but, again, momentum carried me forwards. Each movement was deliberate and assiduously calculated. When moving together, a slip is to be avoided at all costs as, especially if there are only two of you, there may be little your partner can do to halt your fall which inevitably results in you both hurtling towards a frigid, possibly terminal, oblivion. This is serious stuff. I gazed up at my partner, who was diligently belaying my ascent, protecting me from that potentially grave fall. Shoving such negative thoughts from my mind, I retrieved the runner and moved on. Climbing and mountaineering begets a kinship with your partner characterised by trust and reliance that is mirrored by few other disciplines - there is a joint and direct custodianship of each other's futures that necessarily kindles a level of comradeship to be genuinely savoured.
Passing my partner, I climbed quickly towards another rocky crag to where Ron stood, indicating the position of our next belay. Clove-hitching into the anchor he had already placed, I found a small spot to sit and removed my rucksack. Glancing across at my partner, we took in the rope as he made himself ready to climb. I tied his rope off as an Italian Hitch and belayed him over to us. Shunting across when he arrived, we cows-tailed a sling each into the anchor and removed our clove-hitches before fishing some roast beef and horseradish sandwiches from my pack. Cosy on our tiny ledge next to the moss-strewn boulders snuggling next to us, we ate and relished our last ascent of the course.
The views from our tiny ledge were mantled in a thick veil of cloud which the westerly wind would drift away from time to time, uncloaking the Loch Morlich, Glenmore Forest and Rothiemurchus valley below and the Fiacaill a' Choire Chas. Across from us, Steve and Mark - experienced climbers as they were, took in a little rock before clambering over the boulders separating them from us to join the party. They sat above us, cheerily munching on malt loaf and supping tea from flasks - I resisted the urge to mention Ultralightweight principles - they'd have laughed anyway and it'd have been really churlish of me - they're priorities are different to ours. Our next test would be an abseil from here down to a set of boulders some 50m below. We'd then abseil again to the middle of the slope where Mark and I would construct a snow bollard.
The abseil was interesting. We'd abseiled using both rope alone and using a belay device (a Black Diamond ATC) so we were confident. Keep your feet apart and always keep some tension on the live rope holding you - sound words of advice. Mark went first followed by my partner. I soon followed, with Steve after me. Without any knowledge of what was below me, I slowly edged over the rocks I was standing on, to get a better look - a sheer wall of granite followed the initial bouldery anarchy to be negotiated. Concentrating on foot placement, I picked a line through, letting out small lengths of rope with my right hand in chorus with my micronavigation of the descent. With my crampons biting simultaneously into snow and rock, I manoeuvred my way down and reached the first stop point. I clipped into the anchor, took a breath and watched the rope disappear up to Steve. I kicked a small ledge for myself and relaxed. When Steve finally joined us, Mark disappeared down to the middle of the slope where he carved a ledge and anchored himself using his second axe. It was a steep descent so we abseiled using the ATC again. When I joined Mark, I kicked a step for myself and, finding the snow relatively easy to carve, I kicked and carved a bigger ledge for everyone else. Then I got to work on the other half of the snow bollard. Gazing down at the drop below us, at least another 70-80m, I knew this had to be good. Digging the trench with vigour, I ensured it angled into the bollard so the rope would not ride up.
Once we were joined by our two remaining companions, Ron checked the bollard. Content with it, he gave us leave to head down. Mark went first - ever the leader, followed by me. It was an easy abseil, the slope being relatively shallow, and we did not used the ATC - we simply roped down - careful to keep the rope low so there was no chance of it lopping over the top of the bollard. When we got to the end of the rope - knotted to avoid us simply abseiling off - we kicked our feet into the slope and drove our axes in to await the arrival of everyone else. We front pointed down until the slope was shallow enough to use hybrid technique. Eventually, we reached the flat, central nucleus of the Coire and began the walk back. As if to applaud our achievement, the sun drifted through the cloud to bestow on us Scotland's final radiant benevolence.
Again, I felt a surge of exhilaration - this had by no means been as tough a proposition as the previous day's escapade but it had been marked by its own examinations. We had finished the course too - perhaps enkindling a feeling of sadness tinged what was otherwise genuine delight. After 5 days of intense tutelage, we had learned so much and come so far. Our embryonic skillset had finally been born into a tiny bundle of postulant raw competence to be nurtured and polished until we were adolescent mountaineers and ready for the Alps. We had much to be proud of as we gazed at the long road ahead of us.