25th February to 1st March 2008

As you may have seen from the “About” page, I hold my Summer Mountain Leader (ML) Award from the Scottish Mountain Leader Training Board. Gaining my Summer ML was supposed to be a good confirmation that I could handle myself out on the hills in Summer. Bit by bit, however, I found myself being drawn to the idea of aiming towards the Winter ML Award. Encouraged by Donald and Mick from the team, who were also considering their Winter ML, so it was that the three of us found ourselves at Glenmore Lodge at the start of the week, contemplating the next six days of training in advance of eventual assessment.

The group of 12 was fairly mixed, but included the usual mix of aspirants and Mountain Rescue Team members (the three of us from Dundonnell MRT, one from Kintail MRT and two from RAF Valley MRT in Wales). From the start of the week, the weather was looking none too optimistic, with high winds forecast. This was one week where the forecasters were absolutely spot on! Nothing for it, this was a syllabus course and we were committed to being out on the hills by this stage. For a bit of fun I’ve plotted out the maximum and mean forecasts for the week. On two occasions during the course, the maximum wind speed reached over 100mph and, as you will see from the graph below, one week of wind!!

Monday saw the usual introductions at the start of the course, followed by a trip into Coire Laogh Mor where the context of the course became clearer. Winter ML differs substantially from Summer ML with much more emphasis on teaching movement over snow and explaining the use of crampons and ice axes to your group. As if to give us a taste of what was to come, the wind rose sharply at the end of the day. Getting off the hill and back down to the awaiting bus was fun!

That evening saw us immersed in lectures on Avalanches and Winter Navigation, along with a practical session on ropework to remind us about the knots we had forgotten.

Tuesday dawned bright and clear – and windy!! The day consisted on practising belays (bucket seats, ice axe belays and ice bollards) as well as arrest techniques, both for self and for a member of your group on a rope. All good fun. More lectures in the evening and then a chance to relax in the bar!

By Wednesday, the wind allowed us to venture up onto the Cairngorm plateau on a mountain journey with our instructor, Giles. Setting off up Coire an Lochain, testing for avalanche risk, we made our way up the Twin Burns and over to the summit of Cairn Lochan, checking out the tops of winter gulleys on the way.

One of the top tips from Giles that day was that if you check out the ice accretion on moss at the top of the hill, you can actually work out if you’re getting close to the edge in a whiteout. Could be very useful for the future!!

From Cairn Lochan, we navigated down to Coire Domhain and across to the now demolished St Valery refuge. Poignantly, this high elevation shelter was demolished following the Cairngorm tragedy in 1971 when five Edinburgh school children perished in blizzard conditions whilst trying to locate a similar place of safety.

Our navigation continued, taking us to Fiacaill a Choire Chais and back down to our awaiting transport. A free night that night and a bit more relaxing in the bar, as our two remaining evenings were to be a little more hectic…

Thursday saw us back out on the hill, practising our security on steep ground with belays, confidence roping and an interesting experiment in digging snow shelters. The lesson? Always take a shovel with you as you can dig far more effectively with a snow shovel than with an ice axe. Obvious when you think about it, but a good lesson well learned in practice!! A swift walk out at the end of the day and back to Glenmore Lodge to prepare for the snow holing expedition over the next two days. Most of us hadn’t snow holed before, but the interesting part of the whole venture was to be the wind – now winding itself up into a fury as the windspeed graph for Friday and Saturday shows!

Friday morning arrived, along with the wind! Weighed down by our packs and battling against the rising gusts, we headed off into Ciste Mhearad to dig our shelter for the night. Reaching Ciste Mhearad around mid afternoon, we selected our spots and started to dig. My group of six had already decided that we would spend the night together and, some three hours later, having tunnelled in to the bank of snow with our shovels, we had our palace for the night.

Dinner followed fairly swiftly and then into our bivvi bags and onto our sleeping platform for the evening.

Outside all was quiet, but we were in the lee of the wind. We set an hourly watch through to the morning to ensure that we didn’t get blocked in by the accumulating spindrift. 10pm came and it was my turn to clear the entrance. Took 15 minutes then back to a warm sleeping bag. Slept fairly soundly until 2am when the alarm woke me. No need to clear the entrance this time – looking good!!

3am and awakened by Ginge asking me to be ready to pull him back out of the entrance in case he got stuck. What was going on? It was becoming severely engulfed with snow which took the two of us a good 20 minutes to unblock. Once out in the open we realised that a large cornice had built up and was feeding significant quantities of spindrift and snow over the access to our chamber. Things then began to get busy!! Mick and Andrew were awakened from slumber and between the four of us we dug out a new entrance and back filled the original one. Duncan came to the rescue with a brew and at 4am we settled back into our sleeping bags with hot chocolate and awaited the morning. Wind speeds had topped the 100mph mark on the summit of Cairngorm that night resulting in the build up of the cornice and our consequential 4am excitement!

Friday dawned and off we set to the summit of Cairngorm. Couldn’t see a thing in the near whiteout and, being given the first navigation leg, I realised that my goggles were worse than useless. Head down, compass in hand and pacing out to some obscure map feature, somewhere short of Cairngorm, it was a battle with the wind to maintain a straight line. Having arrived at where I thought my destination should be, the next leg was Mick’s, to take us to the summit. His line was true, giving me the confidence that I was where I should have been!! Various other navigation legs took us back to the awaiting bus and Glenmore Lodge to a well deserved shower and change.

Debriefs over, the group departed with new experiences learned. For Mick, Donald and me it wasn’t over yet – we had a few days of team training to come. The question now remains – when to take my Assessment? Watch this space.

And that’s how I met my wife…..!!

(Acknowledgements to Heriot Watt University, School of EPS for Cairngorm Wind data)