In February 2008 (15th/17th) I organized a Group of seven people, led by Gareth Williams, owner of Striding Ahead LLP. and we all enjoyed our initial Winter Skills weekend in Fort William, experiencing snow and ice activities on Aonach Mor 1,221metres and in Glen Coe on Buachaille Etive Mor 1,022metres . Added to a wonderful weekend we were able to see a Broken Spectre which lasted all of 5 minutes. I have been looking for a Broken Spectre for many a year, so this was a very special occasion for me and the rest of the Group.
We were fortunate again to have gained the experienced skills of Gareth this year to lead us on the various activities during the weekend. Gareth is highly experienced as a Mountain Leader who has many years of knowledge in the outdoor world, at home and abroad, including Climbing, Trekking and Caving in the Himalayas and Alps. Both Gareth and the other Striding Ahead LLP team members are also fully qualified in the necessary First Aid skills as well being fully insured. There was a Group of nine.
We all arrived safely in Aviemore at 6.20pm on Friday 6th March and after a kit inspection to ensure crampons did fit boots etc. we went out to a local restaurant/pub where Gareth Williams went over the activities we were to undertake in the course of the next two days. The hope was that we might be able to climb Cairn Gorm and at 1,244metres it is the 6th highest mountain in the UK. The weather report for the weekend was also discussed and then sometime was spent on discussing avalanches, where they are likely to happen and how best to avoid them. After our discussion and question session we all enjoyed a lovely dinner with excellent and friendly service in the Winking Owl.
It was up early on Saturday morning for breakfast at 7.45am and we were away walking from the car park at 9am and we were active on the lower slopes of Cairn Gorm (initially in Coire an Lochain but later in the day climbing over Fiacaill Coire an t-Sneachda and into Coire t-Sneachda and descending in thawing snow conditions through the ski runs and under the Mountain Railway back to Coire Cas car park) until 3pm with all of us very much enjoying the activities of the day. It was cold and it did snow for most of the day.
Saturday 7th March 2009 included:
• Ice axe and crampon skills
• Ice axe self arrest drills
• Step kicking and cutting
• Avalanche awareness (The Squeeze Test, Snow Pit Analysis, The Walking Shear Test and The Hasty Pit), on both days the degree of this hazard was 3 (considerable) meaning the snowpack is moderately to weakly bonded on many steep slopes.
• Movement on snow slopes.
• Construction of an emergency shelter – Group effort in creating a Sitting Shelter. Tiring work but very quiet and relaxing when inside the shelter.
• We discussed A Shovel-Up and The Snow Grave.
• Rope use with anchors and belays.
• Buried axe anchor.
• Rope around snow bollard.
We were back at our B&B at 4pm for a welcomed shower and we went out for an evening meal at 7pm which was followed by drinks at the Cairngorm Hotel, listening to music played by a live band that were very good.
We were all packed up and down for breakfast again at 7.45am. It was snowing heavily so we were somewhat apprehensive about getting up to the slopes once again. It was a 9.30am start on a cold and snowy morning that we made our way up to Fiacaill Coire an t-Sneachda passing the ski runs.
Conditions had changed so dramatically from the previous evening where we had made our decent in thawing conditions and the path was virtually turning into a very wet one. While it was raining heavily around midnight in Aviemore it would have been snowing here and over the night period this soft and wet slushy surface had changed to that of a totally frozen and slippery surface with a good two to three inches of snow on top of it.
In addition to falling snow high winds whipped up snow spin drift and as we were making our way up the mountain side there were periods of whiteouts and people had to stop rather than be blown over. In these prevailing conditions we dug individual safety platforms in the show, sat in this level hole on the deep snow slope and fitted our crampons to our boots. This needs to be done as fast as is possible as with your gloves being taken of, your hands soon get very cold and become sore and are virtually no good to you. Goggles are essential in these conditions and all of us were wearing them. Gareth wanted all walking poles to be tied to our rucksacks and he wanted us now to use our walking axes, these to be held correctly in the upper hand (skills we had learnt the previous day) as we made our way up the steep ridge. From time to time we would see glimpses of the valleys below but for most of the time we were in snow spin drift as the wind furiously hurled this from the easterly mountain slopes and moved it in clouds of spin drift to the westerly sides of the numerous slopes all around. It is the accumulation of this frozen snow that creates the avalanche. We were in the middle of a white wilderness with very few people being brave enough to be on the slopes in these real winter conditions. This is what we came to Aviemore for and we were well on our way to the top of the mountain.
We estimated steady wind speeds of 50mph and severe gusts of up to 60mph and a wind chill factor of -13 degrees centigrade. It was cold but we were all in good spirit and we topped the mountain (Cairn Gorm) at approximately 11.50am. For some it was their first Munro and their first full walk in crampons. We did not stay long at the top and Gareth (armed with compass) led us down to the Ptarmigan Restaurant (closed due to the weather conditions) where we tried our best to take shelter and eat our frozen lunch as spin drift circled all around. At 1pm we were on the move again down the slopes of Coire Cas and by 2pm we were back in the car park.
Sunday 8th March 2009 included:
- Winter navigation.
- Weather and conditions.
- Security on steep ground.
- Avalanche awareness and route planning.
- Summit ascent. Here we went to the top of Cairn Gorm in blizzard conditions.
- Weekend debrief.
At 2.50pm we said goodbye to Aviemore and to Rachel and Joe who were traveling south by train. A road sign advised that the A9 was closed due to deep snow and an earlier road accident. At Newtonmore there was no alternative but to go by Fort William, Glen Coe (would the road be open?), Loch Lomond, Glasgow and then join the M74/M6. This we did with clear roads and we had a welcome stop at Tyndrum for fish and chips. Lee Gilmour a veteran along with myself from the first trip in 2008 had earlier in the day mentioned how he had enjoyed the fish and chips last year at Tyndrum – he was now getting his wish!! By 10pm we were back at Gareth’s home in Kendal where the group were splitting into two cars and heading south. We said our goodbyes and Steve and I were home in Chester by midnight.
It had been an excellent weekend, a great Group, a totally “down to earth leader”, with masses of enthusiasm and ever so fit. We all learnt so much giving us such more confidence to go out into the hills and to enjoy winter conditions. I would like to thank all of you who participated in a very special weekend. I hope to place a slideshow of photographs for the events of 2008 and 2009 on this website in early course.