Wednesday 10 March 2010

OMWS2010 Cairngorm navigation & snowholing expedition, March 1st & 2nd.

After the departure of most of the OMWS2010 Winter Skills Group on the Monday morning, Iain & Kirstin and six remaining members of the group headed for Coire Cas to begin the next course.

By now, the road & car park at Coire Cas had been cleared and hundreds of skiers were enjoying the unusually deep
snow conditions. The depth of the snow can be seen here as this telephone box just above the bottom station was buried up to the roof and just beyond this we were stopped by a member of Cairngorm Mountain staff and diverted away from the slope which can be seen above left which was apparently category five.

As we walked up by the bottom ski tow dodging the skiers everyone "hotted up" resulting in a stop to remove clothing and an excuse to have a cuppa. The weather conditions were perfect with a light North Westerly wind and great views all around.

As we climbed the Faicaille a Coire Cas the views just got better & better and eventually, we could see as far as Ben Wyvis about 50 miles away beyond Inverness.

When we arrived at the summit of the Faicaille A Choire Cas, the weather changed into typical Cairngorm whiteout conditions. The group had already been practicing pacing, identifying features and taking a /walking on a bearing. Now walking on a bearing was essential to get from point to point without falling down the slopes of Coire An T Sneachda on our right.

As the visibilty dropped, the windspeed increased and it was well below freezing. The whole experience was now one of some foreboding and apprehension as the whole group were well aware that we were now wholly reliant on our navigation skills to get us safely to our snowholing site in what would be for less experienced parties - potentially lethal conditions.

After successfully navigating round from the Faicaille A Choire Cas via Stob Coire An T Sneachda, the group descended into Coire Domhain to the snowholing site. Everyone in the group were doing an excellent job of walking on a bearing and pacing and despite what was virtually zero visibilty, confidence was increasing. We arrived at the snowholing site at 5pm to find only one entrance visible - likely there were more snowholes buried due to the heavy snow of the previous week and subsequent strong winds, but we had to set to and dig our snowholes as unfortunately the one we found was already occupied.

This turned out to be a difficult task due to hard layers of ice encountered. The whole group had split into 3 teams to commence digging in, two teams were successful at excavating snowholes big & comfortable enough to spend a night in. The 3rd team had to give up after the roof collapsed on their second snowhole attempt and were only too happy to be offered room in the already occupied and excavated snowhole we had originally discovered. All three teams managed to cook a meal and get comfortable for a good nights sleep but digging the snowholes had been a hard "real" experience of just exactly what can happen out there on the mountains!

The above shot shows Kirstin in our snowhole after our night out.

Tuesday morning dawned clear & bright, still with a strong, cold north westerly air stream.

This shot shows the sun rising over Beinn Mheadhoin with the snowhole entrances dotted about the slope. Spindrfit can be seen blowing along the surface of the snow evidencing the strength of the wind.

Everyone packed up kit after breakfast and all were ready to continue with our navigation excercise by 09;30

From the snowholes, we navigated south west on to the summit of the ring contour above Hells Lum Crag.

Here we did some more feature identification exercises before taking a bearing to the summit of Cairn Lochain. In this picture the group can be seen with the expanse of the Cairngorm Plateau beyond them with the North Top of Ben Macdhui in the distance.

This picture was taken for us by a passer by on Cairn Lochain. Despite an ominous looking start to the day with grey overcast skies to the west and a strong cold north westerly airstream persisting, by the time we got to the top of Cairn Lochain the wind had died, the sky had cleared and again, we had fabulous views.

The group had found the ascent up the south east Shoulder of Cairn Lochain interesting in that most people had underestimated their paces per 100 metres of distance. This was almost certainly due to the constantly varying consistency & depth of the snowpack - one of the factors that gives people the biggest headaches when trying to work out distances travelled and one of the main reasons for navigation deferrals on Winter Mountain Walking Leader Assessments!

On approaching the summit of Cairn Lochain in poor visibility Iain made sure that he was ahead of the group to make sure no-one walked over the cornices and fell down into Coire An Lochain and not without good reason too!

This picture shows the cornice overhanging the No 1 Buttress by, in places a good ten feet. The whole rim of the coire was overhung by a cornice that was massive in places and all of the slopes below were banked out.

It was indeed good to see that climbers had had the sense to avoid the place as the avalanche risk would have been extremely high and climbing would have been treacherous.

Half an hour away from the car park at Coire Cas, a tired but satisfied party walks along the Choire An T Sneachda trail with Choire An T Sneachda and its Faicaille ridge in the background.

After leaving Cairn Lochain, the group had traversed west to avoid the coire cliffs and gullies and descended to the hanging valley above Twin Burns before traversing across to & descending the ridge between Coire An Lochain & Lurchers Gully.

Trudging through windslab of varying depths made us all somewhat jealous of the sensible people we saw making easy progress on snowshoes, but we all made short work of the distance. The group arrived back at the car park at 3pm with everyone feeling tired but having a deep sense of satisfaction at what had been experienced and achieved over the past 28 hours.

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