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Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Winter in Scotland

Winter walking is something that has almost entirely passed me by until recently. A trip to New Zealand last year found me trekking to the snowline of some of the country's highest peaks, but feeling as though I was missing out by not going further with an axe and crampons. So when I got the opportunity to take part in a BMC Scottish winter skills course in Glencoe and Lochaber, where I'd hoped to go in October I quickly signed up.

All the Gear

Working and playing in the outdoors can be an expensive business. I've spent years building up a stock of kit for climbing, paddling, caving, hillwalking, camping... so I was a little hesitant about getting into another new activity. I managed to borrow an axe and crampons from a friend though, so was left to buy a pair of winter boots second hand on Ebay! Normally I wouldn't advocate buying used boots, but they were cheap enough that I could afford to get rid if they didn't fit well. Fortunately they were a pretty good fit, although I did pick up a couple of small blisters.

No Idea

I reached the Alex McIntyre Hut on the Friday evening and, chatting to some of the other attendees I have to admit I felt a little out of place. I'm pretty sure I was the only person there who'd never used crampons before, and several other participants had a fair bit of experience already. Most of the others seemed to be there to sharpen up existing skills, but I was starting from scratch. 

Fourteen participants were split into five groups: Three pairs were there for a winter mountaineering weekend, tackling technical climbing routes in the area while the remainder of us had signed up for winter walking. Four of us had arranged to stay on for the three-day extension course after the weekend.

A Sunny-Snowy Start

Clearing skies greeted us on the first morning of the course, and by the time we had warmed up on the stony track up Buchaille Etive Beag, the sun had appeared, making for a pleasantly surprising warm winter's day. The original plan was for some ice axe arrest practice on the lower slopes of the hill, but our instructor Nick suggested we make the most of the fine weather and hit the summit first. Glorious sunshine remained as we donned our crampons and made our way up a snow-covered ridge to the top. A little out of breath but happy nonetheless, we were rewarded with views into Glen Etive and across the rolling hills beyond. 

I enjoy the UK Hills whenever I'm out walking, and I'm a big fan of the Ogwen Valley in Snowdonia, but this was something else entirely. In Ogwen you can climb to some beautiful high tops, but are always aware of the roads cutting through the valleys below. Looking south from Buchaille Etive Beag, the mountains just seemed to go on endlessly, tailing away into the distance. It felt like somewhere truly special.

Making our way back down the hillside, the weather stayed fine and we caught up on the missed skills session, tumbling down a snow-covered slope and learning to stop using the ice axe from all sorts of different angles.

Making Progress

The second day, on the Ballachulish Horseshoe, was equally sunny but there was less snow in evidence. The long walk in and out through a forest took a little away from this day, but the views from the high ridge across to a cloud-free Ben Nevis on the way up helped to make up for the duller parts of the day. At the end of the day it was time to have a chat with the excellent Adele Pennington, a highly experienced mountaineer and our instructor for the next three days.

Several options were discussed for the next few days, but a favoured option was to tackle the CMD Arete, the narrow ridge leading up onto Ben Nevis from the north. This was a route I'd hoped to tackle in the summer at some point, so I was excited about the thought of having a go now in late winter.

The weather forecast was pretty good the next day, but as we slogged up Carn Dearg, low cloud obscured the arete and threatened poor visibility all the way. As we began to traverse the ridge, taking care to stay close to its crest, a little snow began to fall, blowing onto the left side of my face and freezing in my beard! The clouds parted briefly beneath us, allowing a view down to the coire far beneath us and offering a reminder of the seriousness of the route. The walking was easy, but the consequences of a slip would have been severe.

At the end of the arete we plodded slowly uphill towards the summit of Ben Nevis, eventually reaching the trig point, almost buried beneath several metres of snow. A few minutes rest in the cold was all we had time for before heading back down, following bearings to take us away from the dangerous gullies on either side and safely off the summit.

From winter walking on the CMD, we moved on to something a little more adventurous. More on that another time.

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