Introductory winter skills with Inverness Backcountry Sports Club.

Last month I was asked by Nicola Jackson, a friend from Torridon Mountain Rescue Team to provide an introductory winter skills day for Inverness Backcountry Sports Club.  Blair, Anne, David, Susan, Simon and Zoe wanted to develop their winter skills in order to become more confident and independent to undertake more demanding ski tours.

I has carefully studied each of their booking forms and there was a wide range of skills to be introduced, or reviewed: navigation, self-arrest, route finding on steep ground, survival & emergency procedures, winer mountaineering kit and group management.  At least I wasn’t going to run out of topics to cover!  Early winter is always unpredictable and the planned weekend was no exception.  Earlier in the week there had been good snow cover, cold temperatures and plenty of early season activity in the northern corries of Cairngorm.  Unfortunately by Saturday morning it was apparent that the thaw over Thursday night into Friday had depleted much of the mid-level snow pack.  Along with a 1000m freezing level and a westerly airflow I was going to have to be creative and have open-minded clients.

One by one almost all of my clients arrived at the Mountain Cafe, Aviemore for a briefing over breakfast.  By meeting in the glen first we were able to to stay free of the faff and rush of meeting right up at the top carpark.  Over some great coffee and the most amazing french toast I have every had our plans for the day started to take shape.  I had asked everyone to download the Scottish Avalanche Information Service ‘Be Avalanche Aware’ (SAIS BAA) app not to necessarily use on the hill today by to help prepare for future outings.  My main theme of the day was the  ‘B A D’ process…’Before Approach During’.  Before means do 80% of your planning before heading for the hill.  Listen to reliable local reports, track the changes in wind direction, temperatures, snowfall and what we might see ourselves.  Approach refers to what we see, hear or feel under our feet, or skis on the way into our objective.  Is everything confirming the preparation that we Before?  Variations to this will of course mean that decisions have to be made on our journey and the SAIS BAA app illustrates this very well.  During the day do things go the way we planned?  Does the weather encountered match the forecast or does the temperature rise instead of stay constant?  As we head off the hill is the snowpack tightening up in the refreeze or has a warm wind and rising temperature caused a thaw to start?

I chose to head into Coire an t-Sneachda as the winds were not as strong as forecast and there was a variety of terrain available to work with.  On the first hour or so of the walk in everyone took turns to pay close attention to the slope aspect, steepness and then stop at ‘an interesting place’.  This got us level with the rocky Twin Ribs which were black and wet looking.  Clearly not a good place to be after a thaw so David’s rope work was going to have to wait another day.  ‘A’  Instead Susan took us across towards the Mess of Pottage where a group shelter, stove, tea & coffee were enjoyed.  In the groups shelter the discussion turned to groups leadership, duty of care, what’s a manageable groups size for ski touring or mountaineering and finally emergency procedures.

The ‘windy col’ was now our secondary objective .  Whilst still comfortable in the group shelter I got each member of the group to set a bearing from ‘windy col’ to ‘1141’.  The purpose of this was to do it in a calm manner, not under pressure if we topped out in poor conditions.  As it turned out we didn’t ascent this snow slope because due to the poor snow cover I did not have a suitable opportunity to safely practice self-arrest with the group.  We did have a discussion about step-slip-slide with the emphasis on perfect steps very single time!  In the event of a slip on non-serious ground self-belay can be used to prevent a slip then becoming a slide which requires self-arrest.  Everyone in the group then practiced aelf-belay and how to adapt it to the conditions as well as how they move on ground suitable for this technique.

Before leaving this little wind-scooped slope folk took the chance to dig a snow pit to confirm what we’d expected to find, eg. the hard freeze midweek!  Crampons now on we took a descending traverse to the moraines to ascent/descent/traverse some harder snow slopes.  I demonstrated a couple of cramponing techniques before then giving my clients peace and quiet to practice on their own whilst I watched.    With darkness coming in within the hour it was time to head onto the crest of the moraines for a while before dropping down to the ‘interesting flat bit’ on the path into the corrie and then back to the Coire Cas carpark.  As we walked out I was able to have a chat with each of my group about what they had learned during the day and their next steps.

Thanks very much to Nicola for asking me to provide this Introductory winter skills with Inverness Backcountry Sports Club.  Also thanks to Blair for his excellent organisation and communication skills between the group and myself.

I look forward to seeing and hearing about everyone’s adventures this winter!

Jim Sutherland


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