While waiting for something difficult to do and keep my cold weather skills sharp I stumbled upon the Explorers Connect Winter Skills course. An opportunity to spend a weekend with fellow masochists learning how to traverse mountain slopes in crampons, use an ice axe and sleep in a snow hole encouraged me to sign-up.
The course took place in Aviemore in the Cairngorm National Park in Scotland. I’d never been to the Cairngorms and heard so much about the beautiful landscapes. I knew that the Highlands had a reputation for changeable conditions but was still surprised by the changes in the weather at the peaks and in the cistes.
Day one was an easy introduction at the Aviemore Scottish Youth Hostel to our instructors; Paul, Hannah and Rob by the founder of Explorers Connect, Belinda. We were briefed and issued with helmets, crampons and ice axes before being driven to our drop off at the base of Cairn Gorm itself.
Our route took in Loch Morlich, a still loch nestled among tall pines. As the road climbed the trees, like my hair, thinned out and the snow on the ground, like my waistline, thickened. I didn’t expect so much snow. when we walked along Coire na Ciste, as steep sided gully leading towards Ptarmigan ski station. The snow was knee deep in places and made walking up hill tough.
Once suitably knackered, our team leader, Rob, instructed us in the various methods of walking up and down steep slopes with and without crampons. I’ve never used crampons before and found them unusual, especially when stepping on rocks. The metal spikes might slip, I thought, but as long as you get all your spikes in contact with the rock surface you’ll be alright.
For our next lesson we talked about avalanch risk and how to make an assesment. Rob introduced us to the hasty pit – a square cut out of the snow using an ice axe to reveal different layers in the snow and then test their stability by trying to get them to move.
Our final lesson was the most fun. This was the ice axe arrest or how to stop yourself from sliding down a steep slope to your death. Paul’s team had already built a nice snow slide for us to use and we had a laugh hurtling down the slope then rolling and trying to drive the ice axe blade into the snow. Certain attempts were more successful than others, sometimes it was more fun just to slide down to the bottom.
Day two took on a more serious edge. We’d be spending the night in a self-built snow hole. This would be my second night in one, the first being constructed with Ice Warrior in Svalbard. Sleeping in a snow hole, though warmer than the wind-scoured snowy slopes of a mountain, is still akin to sleeping in a fridge. Sometimes they can feel just as cramped too.
We packed our rucksacks full of warm gear; spare dry base layers, warm jackets and waterproof gloves, a 4 season sleeping bag, a bivvy to keep it dry and a sleeping mat. To keep morale and energy levels up we took stoves and plenty of food.
Our route led us along an invisible footpath up to Ptarmigan Station where we headed east to Ciste Mhearad – a u-shapred gully. In the lea of the strong winds the gully had gathered plenty of snow and probing the snow on the north facing slope indicated there were several meters of snow for us to play with.
To begin we marked a line in the snow and began to dig into the face. forming a cavern of snow with raised platforms. The building of a snow hole for 5 people is a rigorous endeavour yet it is important when working in low temperatures to avoid sweating. Sweat freezes when you stop moving and cools you down, once you start moving again, it’ll melt and seep into your warm baselayers rendering them useless. Regular tea breaks were, therefore, required to rehydrate and recharge.
Shovelling enough snow to clear a cavern for 5 takes ages and we must have spent 4 hours building. Once complete the team; Frances, Ian, Matt, Paul and I climbed inside and admired our hard work.
There was little time to enjoy the shelter, however, we had one lesson to go. We could choose from belaying with ice axes, using avalanche transceivers or navigation. I chose navigation because it is a such a fundamental skill to master for those of an adventurous lilt. Up among the featureless hills and mountains, where snow and cloud can sweep in and limit your visibility to mere meters it is a skill that can save lives.
Hannah led the navigation and 6 of us took a bearing to a nearby peak, then measured from our known point at the source of a stream marked on the map to the highest point 350 meters uphill. An easterly wind hit us as soon as we left the shelter of the ciste. It carried snow with it and our visibility dropped to 30 meters. There was not much to see along our bearing except a wall of white. Luckily we had been pacing and knew how many meters we had traveled.
We struggled through thigh-deep snow and reached our goal. Hannah wasn’t finished with use yet and gave us another landmark. We donned head torches to read our maps in the gathering dark. The wind continued to whip snow and ice against us. Reading a frost-covered map and compass when you can’t see details of the map, having to scrape ice from the face of the compass while cold chills you to the bone is difficult!
Once at our next point – a more distinctive ski tow – we headed back to camp where we entered the shelter of the gully and the warmth of our icy hobbit holes.
Sleeping in a fridge is not easy. A warm supper, down sleeping bag, thick sleeping mat and a bivvy make it easier but I still found sleep hard to find. The aches of the day’s climb and effort of digging began their assault on my muscles as I lay on my ice shelf. As the night wore on and the winds howl dropped I managed to snooze.
The morning brought a clear sky. The temperature was still low and none of the team were eager to climb out of snug sleeping bags and slip on boots that were frozen stiff. First up, Ian, did the honourable thing and boiled-up water for the morning brew, another winter essential.
Once up and back in our layers we headed on back to our pickup and were rewarded with a view of the Cairngorm National Park as a strong winter sun punctured a hole through the high, white cloud.