Last Friday night I headed up to the Cairngorms for a weekend of practicing the skills I need for my Winter Mountain Leader assessment in two weeks time. I got to Tesco in Aviemore just in time to stock up before heading to the deserted Ciste car park for a windy night in the back of the Berlingo.My plan for Saturday was to head up via Coire Laogh Mor and micro-navigate over longish legs (500m – 1km). Testing my pacing and bearings. This went fine except for ‘losing’ 100m on one leg. Perhaps I do need some beads to help me with the hundreds. I did find I was able to count subconsciously whilst thinking about other things, this was a little strange but at the end of counting about 4000 double paces I had tuned in the fine adjustments required for different snow conditions or gradients. The weather was not too bad, visibility came and went but was mostly fine it was just the fierce winds and spindrift that required me to wear goggles and a balaclava that was a good test. Whilst on this section of the walk I dug an emergency shelter with my axe. This must be able to be done within 20 minutes on assessment. I had difficulty with some hard icy layers and realised it has to be a lot bigger than you first think. The steeper the slope the better and don’t worry about having a large doorway, it is better to dig quickly and then block up the top of the doorway. I then headed into Ciste Meghaid to dig a proper snow hole. I made a good start but realised why this is usually a two person job. Once inside I could only dig so much snow before having to climb back out and clear it from the entrance. I did however, use my probe to check the depth of the snow and get quite a long way into the hill before deciding I would be better off heading to the Ptarmigan Restaurant for a hot chocolate. Fortified, I headed up to the summit of Cairngorm. Here I met a couple who asked me where the funicular was. I pointed out the cairns and told them to head straight down. We were all struggling with the wind but without crampons or axes they were finding it a little tough. From the summit I descended to pt. 1141 and then went straight down into Coire an t-Sneachda. This was a steep descent and a route I had not taken before.
At the bottom was a small bank of freshly drifted snow a couple of metres high. I decided to practice abseiling and setting up lowers over this bank. The snow was soft so I cut a huge bollard and then abseiled using both classic and south african techniques. The south african was more stable but care was needed not to lift the rope off the bollard. The classic was less stable but loaded the bollard at a better angle. I then dug a bucket seat and set up a belay. The rope loop for me should stop one hand span before the front of the bucket seat. I also set up stomper and buried axe belays, both went fine but I did need a long sling on the axe since it was on flat ground and had to be deep.
I had covered most of my agenda on Saturday and had a good burger in the Australian restaurant to reward myself before another night in the Ciste car park.On Sunday I headed straight into Coire an t-Sneachda and observed (from afar) some winter skills courses before heading up the Goat Track. On the way up I got talking to a man on his way down who had climbed Fiaciall Ridge, he said it was in good condition so I decided to descend that way. This was the route I had come up with Mark and Lauren before new year. The ridge had plenty of snow-ice and gave secure placements but I would have preferred a second axe. It was good to be moving on grade I/II ground comfortably and I was thinking about how I would protect some of the short sections in either ascent or descent.
So I’m feeling more confident. I know I can show all the skills in isolation but I hope that when the assessment comes I’ll be able to put it all together. In particular I have not had that much time in the ‘white room’ practicing nav and I expect that over the five-day assessment we’ll have some zero visibility navigation.