on the edge winter ml training

Sun, Feb 10, 2008

I had heard it was a respected qualification and that the drop-out rate for the six day training was quite high, so it was with some trepidation I turned up at Alltshellach last week for my Winter Mountain Leader training with Plas Y Brenin. I’d led from Alltshellach last year for the HF so I knew the house was superb and the new swimming pool and jacuzzi was open so I was looking forward to a soak or two. In the bar on the first night I met Phil, my HF assessor and got the low down on scrambling assessment to lead guests on the more challenging holidays and made a note to apply for that when I got back. I’m really enjoying the outdoors life. Here I was, preparing for winter leader training and was already thinking about another assessment! All good stuff.

To go on the winter ML training, you need to have your summer ML, so everyone starts from a known skills base, especially navigation, which is a real challenge in winter. There were six of us on the course and to help matters along, we were in the middle of a wild and snow laden period of the winter, the best conditions in seven years and I still had a little fitness left over from my deep snow stravaig up north.

Loch Linnhe from Aonach Mor

The first day we plodded up to the White Corries, beside the ski tows, closed due to high winds. Winds which whipped up blinding spindrift and at one point blew our rucksacks along the snow as we geared up for self-arrest practice. The MIC party ahead of us conveniently walked along the top of the practice slope, confirming it was avalanche safe and we didn’t need to dig a pit. Falling on your back, head up slope; on your front, head down slope; on your front, head up slope; on your back, head down slope. Practiced all these configurations of falling. Great fun too. It’s the most basic skill every winter walker should have. When it happens, the tendency is to panic and grab for anything, stabbing the axe into the snow but the key is to practice until it becomes second nature and you can go through the motions without thinking. Each way of falling is stopped in the same way, on your front, head up slope, feet in the air and looking down the shaft of the axe. The other moves in the sequence depend on how the fall started and dictate how you manoeuvre yourself into that final position. It’s the job of the winter ML to teach these skills, as well as how to use crampons safely. So when I lead in winter I’ll be starting off with a practice session like that, on an easy slope with a safe run-out. It really is good fun! The following video is from the MCofS and shows you what I mean.

The second day was our snow belay and avalanche training, on Stob Coire nan Lochain in Glencoe. What a day. It was sleeting and blowing a SW gale at the car park in the glen and very deep snow was waiting for us at the top of the path to the lochans, blowing around and generally making progress very slow and tiring. We did a bit of easy nav, just to get into the groove, which took us up to the bealach where we could barely stand up in the screaming wind and blowing snow. Superb! We did a bit of edge-finding here, which involves the party tying into the rope (which you always carry in winter) and sending a volunteer out into the whiteout to look for the edge of the corrie. This is how you follow an edge in winter. In summer it’s easy. You just walk up to the edge of the cliffs and follow them round to the summit. In winter, you can’t see the edge as it’s a whiteout, or it’s so heavily corniced you don’t know where it starts. So you rope up and and one person finds and follows it, with the others well back on the slope, tied into the rope. We then dug some hand shear pits to test the avalanche conditions and got some top tips from our instructor Stu MacAleese and our guest for the day, Alan Fyffe, who was acting as moderator for the course as Plas Y Brenin deliver it on behalf of MLTS. You can read shelves and shelves of books but when a guy like Alan Fyffe talks, you listen and you learn more in 5 mins that in 5 hours in a library.

The Mamores from Aonach Mor

The third day was steep ground practice on Aonach Mor, taking the gondola up and walking round the side of the hill into deep snow terrain, out of the scouring wind. We went over step cutting skills, which I rather like. You can get into a nice rythimn of cut step, step; cut, step step:

We also did snow bollards, backed up with a buried axe and sitting in a bucket seat, to lower someone down a steep slope. I rather enjoyed this day as we had wall to wall sunshine and fantastic snow conditions on Aonach Mor. We finished the day with a steep ascent onto Aonach an Nid and along to the plateau to discuss cornices. We stood at the top of Easy Gully, the normal approach to the winter climbs but which was inaccessible due to a massive cornice and chinwagged about how to deal with these conditions.

The Mamores from Aonach Mor

The fourth day was updating general winter mountaineering skills on Buachaille Etive Beag. On winter ML you’re expected to be a winter mountaineer. There’s a separate course they run which introduces you to winter mountaineering but as a winter ML you’re expected to be well beyond that level. Most of the group were ice climbers, including myself as I’d done a few II, III and IV routes in the past. We had beautiful day on a gracefully curved mountain summit ridge. I forgot to bring the camera though. On the parallel ridges of Glencoe a good tip is to look at the snow loading on the ridge on the opposite side of the glen as it will be a mirror image of the snow loading on the side of your own hill facing away from the glen. We also made a shovel-up. This is hard work, involving digging a trench, laying the ruckacks across it, then burying them in as much snow as you can manage and digging them out again. What you have left is a snow cave which is superb as an emergency shelter.

Day five was the expedition. A two day jaunt into the hills to live in a snowhole overnight. Problem was, the weather had reverted to form and it was +5c at 900m and the snowpack was melting. So it was to Creag Meagaidh we headed and made our way up to the Window, a narrow bealach below the summit plateau. There was avalanche debris all over the place on the big cliffs of Meagaidh and we stuck to the opposite slopes, zig-zagging up steep, deep snow towards the window, passing a sheltering ptarmigan and scampering white hare on the way.

Looking up to the Window

We dug into the hillside and got the snowhole going. Four entrances dug straight into the slope, then linked together and hollowed out into a huge living area. 6 of us (including Keith, the instructor) dug in while the other managed the brew station and kept us plied with hot liquid. We started in squeaky neve and hit hard ice which made it tough going. When it was all finished (btw, a snowhole is never finished, you’re always tweaking something!) we had dinner and then headed out into the gale force winds and rain for our night nav over to Carn Dearg and back. It was just a pity it was almost like summer conditions as most of the snow on the plateau had either been melted or blown away. We did come across an amazing cornice on the burn, at the W shaped rentrants just down from the Window. In summer you would just have crossed the burn and continued on the bearing but in winter it was impassaible and extremely dangerous. A top tip is having a good headtorch in these conditions. We got back to the snowhole around 11pm and bedded down for the night. A miserable night indeed as the drips increased and by about 5am we had interesting water features all over the place as the rain outside percolated into the snowpack. I lay in my down bag, in my bivvy bag and watched a mini waterfall pour down just past my face and slowly erode my sleeping platform.

The last day saw us leave the snowhole around 7am and head back along the Stob Poite Coire Ardair - Carn Liath ridge in clag and violent winds. We were getting blown off our feet every few metres at one point. We had a really good situation to deal with as we descended on a bearing towards the bealach about halfway along but couldn’t find it in the clag. We stood on the edge of what looked like a considerable drop beyond a large cornice. The cloud decided to clear at that point and all was revealed. It was the bealach we were looking for but there was a small cornice above it and the cloud made everything look bigger than it really was. Again, in summer you wouldn’t have thought twice about descending the rough and rocky slope to the bealach but in winter we had a bit of a situation to deal with. It was gusting violently, enough to blow us over and we had a steep and hard snow slope to traverse to bypass the cornice and cut back to the bealach. We had a chinwag about how we would deal with this if out with clients. Put on crampons? Cut steps? To compare and contrast, we step kicked diagonally down towards the rocks, which was exciting to say the least in unpredictable violent gusting winds. Then we put the crampons on and traversed back into the bealach. The transformation was remarkable. Just having spikes on your boots gave you that stickiness to have the confidence to move quickly across the slope. At one point though, a gust of wind must have bounced off the slope and caught me in the face as my head jerked back violently as from a punch in the face. I actually felt a fist punch me below the nose and jerk my head back.

A pleasant but very windy walk over to Carn Liath where we were blown all over the place and melting snow was stripped off the slope and showered us as we staggered past. It was great fun on the level ridge!

And that was that. We made our way back to the van, passing the farm and the weather forecast posted at the information hut. Avalanche category 4 and winds gusting to 120mph! I expect nothing less on winter ML! It was just a pity the thaw had set in and to give you an idea, here’s what the Laggan dam looked like on the way back. I’ll off now and write up a post on winter ML top tips and to think about assessment. Perhaps in a year or two as I need to get some grade I routes under my belt (you need ten before you can go for assessment). I’ve got plenty II, III and IV but not a lot of I routes. If anyone is reading this and would like to experience grade I winter ground I’d be glad to lead a group up some of the classic routes.

You can see all the pics here and the videos here.

Granite Monkey has also put up pictures here.

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