Leeds Mountaineering Club Blog

Winter Skills in the Cairngorms17 - 18 January 2012


Having managed to successfully get two places on a heavily subsided Winter Skills course through the Conville Memorial Trust, Amy and I set off on the long journey from Bradford to Grantown on Spey. Approximately 350 miles and 7 hours later, we arrived at Ardenbeg Bunkhouse and after finding something to eat, meeting our fellow applicants and acclimatising to the typical Scottish temperature for a January evening (it was bloody freezing!!), we hit the sack in preparation for an early 8am start.

After meeting our instructors (Jonathan Preston and Mark 'Sammy' Samuels, both British Mountain Guides) and having our kit checked, we arrived at the Cairngorm Ski Centre around 9.30am. An hours walk and we found ourselves in the majestic setting of Corrie an t-Sneachda. Arming ourselves with our Ice Axes, we were taught out to 'edge' across very hard snow slopes by using the edges of our boots, how to cut steps (which is actually more of a slash than a cut) and various ways to descend safely in hard snow. After a quick fuel stop, we practised throwing ourselves down another, slightly more concrete like, snow slope - sorry, I actually meant we practised the all important ice axe arrest!! Our guide 'Sammy' decided the snow was too hard and bumpy to try them head first on our backs so we just practised the basic rolling onto one side. We all seemed to manage reasonably well although the falling around did result in a few bumps and bruises.

Ice axe to one side and on went our crampons!! Having used crampons before, both Amy and I were not complete novices and after walking up, down and across a frozen stream and remembering that it's wise to impersonate John Wayne whilst wearing crampons, Sammy taught us a few different techniques and after half an hour or so, he was suitably convinced that we knew what we were doing. Crampons back in our bags,
another fuel break before we moved to another part of the Corrie on to dig snow holes!! We didn't actually dig full size holes as we didn't have a couple of hours to spare but we certainly got the idea. It was amazing the difference our small snow holes made - you are able to get completely out of the wind - an absolute necessity if the worst happened. By this time it was around 3pm, the end of our first day and all that was left was an hour’s walk back to the car.

Day Two. The forecast for today was similar to the previous day, cloudy, a slightly higher chance of precipitation (we didn't have any on the first day) but stronger winds. Temperature was around 0 degrees but with wind speeds of 30-40mph (gusts of 50mph on the tops), it certainly felt a lot colder than that!! Due to the forecast, Jonathan and Sammy decided on Corrie na Ciste and specifically the 'West Wall' (which is actually an East facing slope but was given its name by skiers as it's on the left hand side on the way down the mountain....), as it was lower down and a lot more sheltered.

Given we practised with axes and crampons the day before, the first chunk of the day concentrated on various types of belays. These included a snow bollard, an ice axe belay, the 'Stomper', the New Zealand boot / axe belay and finally a simply bucket seat belay. After practising them all, it really is amazing how effective they all are. To test the bucket seat belay, I ran from above Amy down the snow slope (with plenty of slack on the rope which seem complete madness when you’re running down the icy slope!!) but thankfully the belay worked a treat - Amy didn't move an inch in her bucket seat and I fell flat on my face, which is a pretty good result, rather than flying down the side of the mountain!!

A short walk up the hillside and we learnt how to dig an Avalanche pit, looking at the different types of snow crystals and and the different layers within the snow pack whilst also testing the slope. Avalanches as a separate topic is incredibly complicated but at least I now have some kind of understanding which is all important when out and about in the winter, especially when considering which route to take and which slopes to avoid.

The second day was finished off with a bit of navigation although as the visibility was reasonably good on both days and as we stayed within the Corries, the navigation aspect didn't play as much of a part as I expected although this is obviously a fundamental issue in winter conditions.

All in all, an excellent couple of days and not surprisingly, I spent the following couple of days trawling the internet for snow shovels, ropes, avalanche related items although I have yet to buy any such gear but it's always good to look.

The Conville Memorial Trust offer other courses for anyone under 30 (we must have just scraped in!!!), all of which seem excellent value for money.


Dave McKechnie



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