Winter Skills Day

Monday was originally planned as a winter skills day on Ben Lawers; as the highest hill in the Southern Highlands with a road access up to 400m, it’s a good bet for early season snow that can be accessed without too much of a hike. Sadly, the weather forecast for Monday on Ben Lawers was pretty minging, but a careful perusing of the Met Office, MWIS, SAIS and numerous other conditions forecasting sites suggested that somewhere up the west coast might offer better prospects, and I settled on the ‘wee Buachaille’ as a decent option for a dry day out. Snow conditions everywhere were fairly uninspiring for practicing movement skills, with high winds eliminating any realistic prospect of getting enough altitude to get into what was left of the snowpack after last week’s mild weather.

We had an early start at our base in Glasgow and, after a quick review of the weather and avalanche forecasts with Hannah and Myles, a safety briefing on “what to do if Neil manages to break himself while we’re out”, and of course the “be bothered” pep talk, we piled into the shiny new 360 Degrees Outdoor fun bus and off we went.

The weather was pretty uninspiring as we made our way up the side of Loch Lomond, but thankfully, after a short pit stop at the Green Welly, the weather began to clear and by the time we rolled into the car park at the head of Glen Coe, the rain had eased and things were looking a bit more optimistic. We made good time up to the bealach between the two Munros on the ridge, although the snow I’d hoped might be lingering around the area was pretty sparse. On top of that, I could hear the wind roaring higher up the ridge which hinted at pretty challenging conditions for trying to communicate on the larger areas of snow higher up. By way of confirmation, the two walkers we’d seen higher up the ridge came staggering back down, having found the gusting wind a bit intimidating.

We made our way upwards, stopping at a handy patch of snow to practice a little footwork and some self-belaying with our ice axes. The wind was making life pretty difficulty, and even in a little huddle, I was struggling to make myself heard; not the best environment for coaching. We moved on before people started getting cold, and gained a bit more height before finding a lovely little snow patch that was hard enough to allow an introduction to cutting steps.

Another three walkers passed heading up, returning a short while later with the encouraging news that we were nearly at the top – I didn’t have the heart to tell them that the cairn up ahead wasn’t the summit, which lies nearly a kilometre further along the ridge. Thankfully, as we passed the cairn and cleared the notch of the bealach, the wind died down and allowed us quite a pleasant walk along the gradually narrowing ridge to the Munro of Stob Dubh; the highest point of Buachaille Etive Beag. After a quick break for a snack, we made our way back down to the bealach where I gave Hannah and Myles the option of heading up to the second Munro of Stob Coire Raineach, doing a little more skills work on the available snow patches, or heading down. They were keen to grab the second ‘tick’, so off up the hill we went to bag the second peak of the day. The wind had eased, and life was much more pleasant as we made good time up to the summit before our third visit to the bealach and back down to the bus, making it back quickly enough to avoid having to get head torches out of the bag.

A great start to our programme in 2016, and a really enjoyable day out in the company of Hannah and Myles, who were really game in less than ideal conditions!