By Troy Wardrop.
We met at Aviemore youth hostel on a driech Spring morning, full of hope that the forecast was right and it was only going to be a few showers and the wind would die down early afternoon. After a brief introduction, Mike, Nicky, Sam, Mark (instructor) and I went inside out of the cold and discussed our expectations and after we told Mark our present skill levels, he came up with a plan.
We headed up to the ciste car park and sorted out our gear for the day, it was pretty cosy in the back of my van looking at the horizontal rain and Mark’s hood puffing up with the wind, we wondered if a theory day might be a better option, but we convinced ourselves challenging conditions are more realistic, we zipped up and made our way over to the snow. We spoke about the usefulness of ice axes in winter and practiced some skills, new to some and a refresher to others. It was then time to practice the dreaded kick turn, I think everyone will be glad I forgot my camera/phone. We skinned to around 800m up An t-aonach and spotted the old generator hut for the ciste chairlift and decided that’s where we were heading for lunch. After looking at navigation techniques involving aspect we skied down in pitches practicing down hill kick turns and jump turns with a few back and forward side slips, all excellent techniques to get you out of trouble on steep stuff. It was great to get a wee respite from the rain in the old hut for lunch, but as we packed up the rain got heavier, we gazed out the window , it reminded me of the film ‘300’ when the Persians let loose their arrows at King Leonidas’s men. The fact that we were keen to learn new skills and were enjoying it despite the conditions got us back out there for more, we skinned up again to around 800m and jump turned our way back down again to collect our packs that we left to ease the burden and once again skinned up. I was delighted to see Mike with a huge grin on his face, so happy to regain his confidence which had been lost after a couple of hairy steeps we had faced in the last few weeks. It’s amazing what a difference a few pointers in the right direction from a professional can make. We made our final decent of the day and stopped at around 400m to do some transceiver training which highlighted to us all that this is something that should be done on a regular basis.
Cold and wet we all made our way to the vehicles, I don’t know about anyone else but a roaring fire, shower and steak dinner (being a butcher has its perks!) was all I could think about.
Well, the day didn’t start well, Mike and I had a few too many, stayed up too late and totally forgot the clocks were going forward. We were on the back foot from the word go, I checked the weather and MWIS said high winds, snow, rain and lightning, it didn’t bode well. However, it was a fine morning setting off from Grantown and after meeting the rest of the team at the youth hostel we headed up to cairngorm lower car park and assessed the conditions. We decided to head over to lurchers staying low to hopefully link up snow patches, navigating our way over to the bottom of lurchers we discussed the Avalanche report and how it doesn’t tell the complete story, actually being there to judge and make your own decisions is all part of the process. We started to ascend Creag an leth-choin and stopped for lunch, by this time it was a fine day with the winds dropping and we were all thankful that again MWIS had got it wrong. We ascended once again and Mark showed how well he knows his patch, it was ideal for what we wanted, around 30 degrees and icy. We took off our skins and after an individual talk from Mark we descended one by one and then received feedback on our skiing, it truly is amazing how one wee small thing can make a world of difference. We took on board the feed back and skied again under Marks watchful eye tweaking little things like hand position and balance on the ski’s. We skinned up again all smiles and happy at our individual achievements and decided one last transceiver practice was in order, this time Mark buried his shovel (sadly not enough snow to bury a pack) and we had to use our probes and again I can’t emphasise enough we all need to do this on a regular basis, it should be second nature. We picked our way down to lurchers and had our last blast of the day full pelt to the bottom and then made our way back to the car park.
In summary, I’m a believer in courses and this weekend kind of proves that there’s always something new to learn, even a true veteran mountain man like Mike Cawthorne came away with some new tools that he will be able to call upon when needed.