Wednesday 26 February 2014

Winter Skills Courses in the Cairngorms. February 17th & 18th 2014

Bryn Anderson booked this five day bespoke Winter Course for himself & his son Joel and friends Bill who came along with his son Jono; and also their mate - Martin. We were also joined by Iain's friend Cressida (Cress) Allwood who, contemplating her Winter Mountain Walking Leader Assessment had asked if she could shadow this course.

The first two days of the groups course consisted of a Winter Skills Course - undertaken in The Cairngorms. Photo one shows the team on the lower slopes of Cairngorm's North Ridge on our way to try & find a decent snow slope to look at Ice Axe Braking. We had already covered using the boot as a tool by this point.

Photo two shows the group at our Ice Axe Braking venue on Mam Suim (part of the north ridge of Cairngorm) and here, Bill is having a go at braking.

There are various permutations of Ice Axe Braking - on your front feet first is the way you want to finish up so that you can dig that ice axe pick into the snow under your chest and stop a slide. However, a slip can start in many ways - feet first on your back as well as your front or worse - head first on your back or front, or even a cartwheel! Iain demonstrated all of these types of fall and how to arrest before everyone else in the group followed suit. It was a good session!

It is amazing how quickly the day will pass when practising all manner of Winter Skills and before we knew it, there was only an hour left before it would be time to head off the hill. As the snow at the Ice Axe Braking site was suitable for looking at snow anchors Iain demonstated a horizontal buried axe belay.

This involves cutting a horizontal slot across the fall line of the slope the length of the axe and deep enough that when loaded, the axe will be braced against a layer of solid snow (preferably neve) which serves as the anchor. It is important that the slot is cut in such a way that when loaded - the axe will receive a sideways and downward pull. To attach the rope to the axe a sling is used attached to the axe with an inverted Clove Hitch and placed  in a vertical slot cut in such a manner that once again, the load on the axe is always sideways and down. The rope is then attached to a sling with a karabiner.

Photo two shows the whole group (six persons) trying to test a buried axe belay to destruction. How easy they failed would be an indication of just how well each individual had constructed theirs. Everyone had to make their own buried axe belay and then we had a fair bit of fun trying to destroy them. Most held with a steady pull, however, through tugging (shock loading) a few did fail. However, this was an opportunity to see that a well constructed snow belay in good snow can be quite strong!

The weather on Monday had been quite mild with the freezing level only at around the altitude we had been working. Winds were light and precipitation, negligable. Tuesday was looking similar so, in a bid to find better conditions, we had an earlier start in order that we might get into the upper car park at the Cairngorm Mountain Ski Area at Coire Cas and get high up on the mountains.

We had quite a walk to get to Ciste Mhearaidh - our venue for the day at 1050m just below the summit of Cairngorm. We had been told that conditions here were good for Winter Skills and on arriving, we found a massive snow hole (photo four) which was an ideal place to have lunch.

The walk in to Ciste Mhearaidh was quite interesting. We had to avoid the many skiers on our walk up to the Ptarmigan Restaurant and from there to our venue it was a walk in thick cloud (whiteout conditions) across around 500m of low angled slope to get there.

The whiteout conditions continued to prevail at Ciste Mhearaid. On arrival, we had some lunch in the snowhole and then ventured out to get our bearings and find out what snow slopes were available to use for our Winter Skills Session.

Amongst other things - we did find was this massive hazard - fortunately well consolidated! Photo five sees Bill standing underneath a ten foot high cornice and in places it was even higher! These are formed at the top of a lee slope when snow, carried along by a strong wind, is deposited creating an overhanging lip. Cornices are very dangerous things that can collapse creating an avalanche or frequently, people can walk over them in conditions of poor visibility such as a whiteout; or fall through them whilst trying to get a view down to ground below! From above, this was hazard was virtually invisible in the whiteout conditions today!

Time was getting on after our long walk in to Ciste Mhearaidh so after our discussion about hazards such as cornices we continued on with our theme of snow belays from the previous day. In photo six Cress is sat in a bucket seat and is using a body (indirect) belay to safeguard a person climbing the slope towards her.

A bucket seat belay is a very basic snow belay used to safeguard some one on an easy climb such as a grade 1 or 2 snow gully. If the integrity of the snow is in doubt then one would "back it up" by also using something such as a Buried Axe Belay, Snow Bollard or Deadman. Iain demonstrated all of these snow belays and then everyone had to construct and test their own - more fun for the group tugging on ropes again! Many might consider including snow belays as part of a Winter Skills Course unnecessary, but as a day of winter climbing was planned for later on during this week, Iain considered that thes would be useful skills to learn and indeed, these were new techniques to everyone in our group!

After practising the remaining snow belay techniques we had a wander around the various types of snow shelter that had been constructed by previous groups. As well as the obvious massive snow hole there were various "lean to, sitting bivvis" and a "snow grave". We discussed how to construct the various types of snow shelter before packing up and setting off back to The Ptarmigan Restaurant - doing the return journey to our vehicles in under an hour! Photo seven taken on our walk out shows just what the day was like - still whiteout conditions!

However, there had been no wind; and even though the MWIS forecast had predicted the freezing level would be around 800m, we reckoned that even at 1050m it had barely been freezing - if at all! Conditions had been pleasant even if the visibility was poor.

Today had not been a bad a day at all but there we still aspects of the Winter Skills Syllabus that were yet to be covered. However, there was still time with another three days of this Winter Course in The Cairngorms to run.

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