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Sunday, 5 April 2015

Scottish Winter: Part 2

It's been another busy week here in the Wye Valley. Six days in the Brecon Beacons training a Duke of Edinburgh Award group means I've only just found the time to finish this off, so here goes: part 2 of the Scottish Winter Skills course.

Ropey Business

The penultimate day of the course began with more fairly clear skies and a good forecast for our walk up to Stob Coire Nan Lochan. Two of the 'Three Sisters' of Glencoe, the dramatic northern ridges of Bidean Nam Bian, converge to form the top of the mountain. After putting on crampons we made our way onto the middle of the three, Gearr Aonoch and ascended the narrowing ridge through atmospheric drifts of low cloud and mist. Nearing the top, the cloud parted enough to enable a view into the Hidden Valley to the east, where the Clan MacDonald used to hide their stolen cattle. I've heard it referred to as one of the most beautiful valleys in the area, but unfortunately didn't get the chance to explore it this time.

At the top of the mountain Adele taught us a couple of basic techniques for descents. Abseiling was a new technique for a couple of group members although not for me. Building a stomper belay was definitely something new for me though. The technique consisted of driving an axe shaft into the snow and running a rope through a carabiner attached close to the axe head in order to lower somebody else. It was quicker and easier to set up than I had expected, and although it relied on nothing but a bit of snow as an anchor, seemed to work remarkably well, definitely a skill worth knowing!

From Walking to Mountaineering

Our final day was spent back on Ben Nevis where we enjoyed the clearest day of the course. The walk in to the snowline gave us the opportunity to pick out several of the classic routes onto the mountain. Tower Ridge and Castle Ridge both appealed to me, and are definitely routes I'd like to tackle in the summer.

We headed around to the western side of the coire though and made for number 4 gully. Usually a descent route, this snow filled chute provided us with a first taste of winter climbing, at an easy grade 1. The first half of the route was fairly straightforward and we made good progress kicking steps into the snow. As the gully steepened though, we stopped and roped up. Working as a pair and a three, we 'trainlined' up the gully, keeping a tight rope between each group as we climbed, using a pair of axes in the hardening snow. 

I found climbing with 2 axes more tiring than I had expected, but before long we were all on the top, enjoying the mid afternoon sunshine. With the summit around 45 minutes away we opted not to top out this time and made our way back down towards the Red Burn and on to the car park again.

Part 3?

Five days in the Scottish Winter left me with a few basic skills, a couple of blisters, a touch of sunburn and a glimpse of what motivates so many people to head for the hills in winter. I hope I'll be back next winter, better prepared and more confident to tackle the mountains of Glencoe and Lochaber.

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