Scottish Winter 2011
Photos courtesy of Zac Poulton, James Morrison and Mark Scales
So having just returned from my first Scottish winter, I thought now would be a good time to share the experience.
It’s hard to know where to start, as packing my bags for the trip seems a lifetime ago. I guess a good place is in fact the packing. So having seen the kit list from AP, and confident I had most of the kit; I set about the challenge of packing all the kit into two bags. This went strangely to plan, and left me with only my boots which would have to be worn on the plane. Being yellow, I knew they wouldn’t fail to turn heads in the exotic departure lounge of Luton.
Being on the flight was a relief, as I hadanticipated being questioned about having an ice axe and crampons in my luggage. I spent half the flight amused by the Scottish dictionary that Easy Jet had kindly provided, so you could navigate your way around the Scottish slopes like a pro.
I then spent the rest of the time with the realisation I had a 5 hour wait at Buchanan bus station in the centre of Glasgow, how bad could it be?
The bus station was an interesting place, where birds came for the relative warmth, but then realised it was colder inside the bus station than outside, so spent half an hour trying to operate the bird proofed automatic doors. As all this excitement unfolded, I sat on a low backed metal bench, the most uncomfortable type of bench possible, shivering away for 5 long hours.
Eventually the wait was over, the bus to Onich arrived, and after a long drive through dark wilderness, I reached the hotel about 6pm, after a 16 hour journey. This gave me an average speed of 23mph, which is incredibly slow given the 600mph ground speed of the airbus.
That night after settling in at the Onich hotel, I finally met my course companion, James, a first officer for Ryan Air; and our guide/instructor Zac. Also having a passion for flying, it was great to meet James, the first pilot I have ever met, which was a great talking point for the week. After discussing our hopes and aims for the course, sleep soon followed.
Up early the next day, we drove out to Glen Coe, but after realising the snow was far from ideal, we drove back up to the Fort William Ski Centre, and took the Gondola up to about 700m to begin practicing the basic boot work skills. This then progressed to the famed ice axe arrest, with all the possible variations, including the possibility of being handed an axe whilst hurtling down the mountain at break neck speed. Eventually, we donned crampons, and with great aesthetics, plodded up to Aorrach an Nid, the high point of the day, before eventually descending to the van, and meeting a guy from the SAIS, who told us the snow pack was ‘one finger, pencil, four fingers’. After dinner, Zac gave us a lecture on avalanches that padded all the information we had been given throughout the day, and even explained the ‘one finger, pencil, four fingers’ as a way of ‘exploring’ the snow pack.
Both James and I gained a great deal of respect for avalanches, but also a variety of methods we could use to create a good picture of the snow pack, to help avoid avalanches in the future. We also found out that James is a trained meteorologist, which was a great addition to our weather forecasting system, and unlike many weather presenters, gave a excellent forecast for the whole week, and being a pilot, he would say to 96.725% accuracy. At some point that night, I managed to vaguely sort my kit out into a rough drying system, that I would go on to perfect in later days.
The second day saw the introduction of a rope, to protect on steeper ground. This day also saw the introduction of the infamous walk-ins, which by the 4/5th day, I actually began to enjoy. Over the 5 days, I got particularly well acquainted with the walk-in to Stob Coire nan Lochan, which was the walk-in of choice for day 2. This was quite a shock to the system since the last walk-in consisted of a 5 minute walk to the gondola.
Eventually we reached a grade I gully that led up the North West face of Gearr Anonach, and after gearing up like only a guide and 2 ‘students’ can (students taking at least twice as long after putting on the harness backwards, and crampons on the wrong feet), we started up the gully to practice bucket seats, and rope work. Reaching the top of the gully, we then unroped and climbed up the ridge to our first main summit, Stob Coire nan Lochan at 1115m. We then climbed down to the top of Broad Gully, created a snow bollard in the soft, wet snow, and abbed down the first pitch, before descending the rest of the gully in a very un-Ueli Steck style, and eventually found a snowman at the bottom.
A final presentation from Zac on an expedition to Baruntse, gave me a much more professional insight into the preparation I would need for the northeast ridge on Everest, and in a few days, completely changed the way I thought about my preparation schedule.
From this point onwards the course became far more climbing orientated on steeper and more exposed ground. The previous day’s snow was soft and wet, but from the third day onwards, the temperatures dropped, and on the fourth and fifth days especially, hard névé formed, and the avalanche risk dropped.
The third day was our first introduction to steeper ground, on the grade II ledge route. Of course the first obstacle to most climbs is actually getting there, so we began the walk-in, roughly four times the length of the previous day, but much more manageable thanks to its steady incline. I did develop a worrying method of passing the time in my head, by counting the pattern of streams that crossed the path. Most were path, rock, stream, rock, path; however double rock crossings are also encountered leading to a path, rock, stream, rock, stream, rock, stream, rock, path pattern, however this was rare… moving swiftly on.
On reaching the CIC hut, we geared up, and started into the snowline. The snow was still soft, but the forecast was improving all the time. After completing the first two pitches, and seeing 3 people solo up past us, we gradually improved, and learnt the various methods for protection, and moving together. Having said that, I am still not sure the method of arresting a fall on a ridge by jumping off the other side counts as a straightforward method of protection. The weather was gusty with the occasional shower of spindrift. I assumed it could get much worse, after all, I was still unexpectedly warm and dry.
We eventually topped out on ledge route and onto Carn Dearg at 1221m. The Ben was still in the clouds at this point, and it would soon be dark, so we abbed off the metal flag marker of number 4 gully, and through the cornice which had been painstakingly cut a day or so before, leaving it just wide enough for a climber to squeeze through.
On the way down, we progressed with a bit more finesse than the previous day, and met up with Mark Scales, the guide just for the next day. After seeing Mark and his partner speed down the path to the car park, I became slightly worried at the pace the next day’s walk-in would be conducted.
After reaching the car park just after dark, we had time to think about what we had just achieved. A grade II route in Scottish winter conditions, not bad after 2 days on crampons.
After a deep sleep, and plenty of rehydration, I was just about ready to battle the next walk in. Mark in no way believed Zac carried the rope the previous days, but that was worth a try. After leaving, we headed over to Stob Dearg to try something on the north face, but the snow was far too patchy, turning the first half of the climb into a rock climb.
So we headed back towards the three sisters, and set off for the second time for Stob Coire nan Lochan. The pace as expected was high, and half way through the walk in, I was constantly dripping with sweat, which says something when the valley temperature was around freezing. We made our way over the coire and up into the snow line, and geared up. Dorsal Arête was the climb of choice; however there was another group at the base of Broad Gully, so we set off for a grade III variation on the lower fan-shaped buttress. On the way, we practiced some of the more advanced foot work methods, and the techniques needed to climb the mixed ground of the arête.
Now armed with 2 axes, I belayed mark up the first section, struggling to give him enough slack. Eventually, after taking at least twice as long, I reached the belay, and repeated the process. Being 6ft, Mark was able to place all the protection high on the rock spikes. Being nearer 5ft, removing the protection was a nightmare, although the axe does become a useful extension of the arm. Eventually, higher up, we decided to stick to the arête proper, giving Mark an ideal opportunity to place more ridiculously high protection. After a bit of mixed, and ‘Fred Flintstoning’ on the rocks, we reached the final pitch, where I just randomly asked if I could lead. The reply was ‘yes, but you will fall twice as far if you slip’… Although not the best confidence booster, it meant every step counted.
The view from the top was amazing, with cloud free summits on all but the highest mountains. It was in fact the first time we had seen the sun all week. After climbing over to the top of the lost valley, we descended down some steep névé which was the best snow we had seen all week.
De-gearing still took annoyingly longer than the instructors, but it was improving. We then raced down the lost valley at what felt like running pace, and 45 minutes later, were back at the van before dark.
Conversation at dinner that night revolved around James’s and my fascination of flying which truly is a never ending subject.
Friday was soon upon us, and that marked our final climbing day. The day before, I had decided to stay an extra night to avoid a 48h journey back home, which involved waiting back at Buchanan bus station for an hour, then sleeping over night at Glasgow airport, then waiting for my flight at 7pm the next night.
Fridays climb back again with Zac would oddly be our first Munro of the week, Stob Dearg, also known as The Beuckle, which was lower than previous climbs, but had the necessary prominence to count as a Munro.
The climb was relatively straight forward, up a gully to the col, then across to the summit. However today we focussed on moving without the aid of a guide, and making our own decisions. The snow conditions were still good, with the widespread frost making for good climbing, and the lowest avalanche risk of the week.
In an effort to show how to look the part, Zac demonstrated the art of coiling the rope, as true guides look. I noticed if you combine this look with a few hexes on the rack, you can both look and sound like a guide.
After summiting, we then raced around to Stob na Doire at 1011m, although still not a Munro. After racing back to the col, we abbed down the gully, and after watching two people foolishly try to climb a buttress without ice axe and crampons, subsequently dislodging a melon sized rock, we de-geared and made our way back.
That night was taken up with chatting to Zac about his invaluable advice for my next 2 trips in preparation for Everest, sharing all the photos from the week, and eventually talking to James about flying.
The next day, after finally saying goodbye to everyone, I was left in the hotel by myself waiting for the coach to Glasgow. The place was deserted, but it was the first time I had seen the place in the light, giving me a chance to see the beauty of the surroundings. The coach trip was the same, giving me chance to see and reflect on all the climbs we had done around Glencoe.
Arriving at Glasgow airport, the place was surreal, there was no one to be seen; the whole of Glasgow International Airport was empty! I counted the flights on the board, there were 7 flights for the whole night shown on a 3 screen board that had the capacity for 60 flights!
As James had predicted the flight was short and smooth; my car journey however was 6 times as long as the flight it’s self.
My first Scottish winter was over.
I could not possibly detail everything that happened. Even though I have almost written more than my dissertation, and even though it was a short 5 day course, so much truly happened. I experienced some of the best days on the mountains in this time, and really found the magic of Scottish winter climbing. Climbing over the week with 3 great people, I had the best week I could have asked for.
Special thanks goes to Zac, Mark and Adventure Peaks, who I will be joining in July 2011 to climb in the Tien Shan. I would recommend them wholeheartedly. You can find out more here:
Zac Poulton – http://www.zacpoulton.blogspot.com/
Adventure peaks – http://www.adventurepeaks.com/