winter wanderings

Tue, Feb 9, 2010

At last, the snow cleared enough to get out of the village and just in time too, as I was booked on to the Winter ML refresher at Glenmore Lodge at the weekend. So I thought I’d bimble up Ben Wyvis on the way across on the Friday. The forecast was for light snow showers and winds gusting to 60mph. Still benign for this area but a bit wilder than anticipated. I hadn’t been up Wyvis in yonks but apparently there’s a spiffing path all the way  but from the word go it was slushy snow lower down with the path disappearing once I was out of the trees and I just plodded up squishy snow fields to the foot of the steeps of An Cabar.

An Cabar

From then on the going was superb on steep hard snow. Just perfect for kicking steps on the what seemed like endless ascent to the top where I huddled behind the cairn to get out of the wind. The summit area of Ben Wyvis is a giant plateau so I’d planned to give the GPS a real test. Now, this might sound a bit weird coming from someone who’s working towards Winter ML but I downloaded the GPS route from WalkHighlands and used that navigate across the plateau.

Summit of An Cabar

Nice and broad, not near any cornices and with map and compass backup, I strode off into the whiteness. The forecast was for the wind to abate during the day but by now it had closed in and visibility was 5m at best and quite often whiteout. All I could see at times were the ripples in the snow round my boots and nothing else. In fact, it seemed to be the same all over the area as Chris Townsend reported the same conditions in the ‘gorms. 2kph was all I could manage in the whiteouts.

I had fresh batteries in the GPS and I knew roughly where I was and could get back by map and compass but I realised that using a GPS to navigate in winter takes balls. I have the most basic model that supports USB and it has the type of compass on it that requires you to be moving for it to work, so when you start walking after a quick look at the map, the needle jumps all over the place and you stagger around, a slave to its indecision, until you’re walking fast enough for it to work. It also doesn’t like being moved around too much. When I let it hang down by my side it went haywire and took a while to settle down again. Not a nice feeling in a whiteout, watching an electronic needle have a panic attack!

Eventually I started to come up to the narrowing of the plateau just above 1000m and as it was down to less than 5m viz I decided to call it  day. I couldn’t see a thing and I knew there would be cornices approaching and the GPS had +/- 10m showing, which was enough for me to become airborne as I couldn’t see the edge. In fact, at one point I was doing the March of the Greek Guards, as the ground seemed to be rising but was in fact flat. So I’d prepare to step up and then do the funny walk until I realised I wasn’t walking downhill either. If I was with a group, I’d have got the rope out and found and followed the edge (which we did a couple of days later) but on my own I thought otherwise.

So the next task was to reverse the route. A few button presses and searching of menus (it’s best to work this out the night before!) and the GPS was in reverse mode but when I turned round to face the whiteout the needle was still pointing the other way. Even when I started walking, following the un-pointy end of the needle, it still insisted I was heading the wrong way, until it realised itself what was happening and flipped the right way round. That took about 10m of walking to sort itself out. Then there was the interesting route back. I presumed I’d be following my own footsteps back, exactly, as I was following the exact route but in reverse. Well, not quite. There were 3 0r 4 diversions on the way back. I’d be following the needle and my footsteps when the GPS would take me off on a loop. It didn’t seem like a loop when it started, more a “where on earth is it going” moment until about 100m later it veered back onto the line of footprints. But to be fair it took me exactly back to the cairn at around 950m and straight back to An Cabar, just with a few diversions from the outward route.

So that was that. I was impressed by the accuracy of the GPS but I didn’t like its hesitancy to find the route after a stop and I thought it had packed in when I reversed the route. If a GPS is your only navigational tool in winter, you’re either mad or madder than you think. It gives you a, not false, but more ballsy sense of security I think. All those flashing dials and screens and beeping noises as you pass and leave proximity waypoints make you think it knows what it’s doing and in the main, it does. It’s an impressive piece of kit and it’s a Garnin GPS 60. The most basic USB model, with a naff compass, no maps but good battery life. But. If I’d stumbled while doing the Greek walk, dropped it and it slid out of view, which would only have meant 6m. End of. It was a very scary thought, relying on that collection of electronic bits ‘n bobs to find my way in a whiteout. I was glad I had the map and compass and was tracking my progress using them, just to make sure. And I had two sets of spare batteries but here’s a thought. A GPS is a sensitive bag of electronics and I carry mine in an Ortlieb case but changing the batteries means exposing it to the elements. Exposing its innards as you have to take the battery cover off. I didn’t like that thought.

So that was that, a grand day out and the cloud had lowered and heavyish snow was blowing from a leaden sky as I cramponned down the An Cabar steeps, off to Glenmore for a weekend of real navigation, following corniced edges (where I got to jump off the cliff on Fiacaill a’Choire Chais!) to show how to climb back up the rope! Digging holes and snow graves, more navigation and stompers and abseiling off bollards. Wonderful stuff! And just to remind myself I could navigate without a GPS I hit the top of the ski tow in 5m viz from Ciste Mhearad spot on. Mwah!

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