Ptarmigan Travels

Regular viewers of our Facebook page or Instagram account will be aware that, despite appearances on the blog, we haven’t been sleeping for the last year, and have in fact being doing the odd bit of work here and there! When I kicked off 360 Degrees Outdoors, I saw it primarily as a means to provide support for the work we were doing at SiMY Community Development and, as that work has developed, keeping up the blog on here has taken a bit of a back seat. However, I do enjoy writing stuff other than reports, funding applications and process documents, so you’ll be delighted to know that I’m going to try and elbow some ‘blog space’ into the cramped confines of my diary.

Last weekend provided me with some perfect fodder for a post, as we took a group of the young adults from SiMY out to play in the snow on Meall Nan Tarmachan. They’re all regulars on our summer hill days, so the arrival of snow on the Scottish hills gave us an excellent opportunity to extend their experience and help them begin the process of developing the skills needed for independent travel in the mountains in winter.

We arrived at the Ben Lawers Nature Reserve car park to be greeted by the slightly underwhelming sight of a snow line that was a good bit higher than we’d anticipated, and left us with a brisk hike up to around 850m before we got our boots on snow. Small patches of wind slab had formed over the previous evening, which gave us the chance to stop and chat about ‘safe travel’; how the wind speed and direction shape how the snow lies on the hills and how that should guide our route finding. We were just below the summit itself when we finally found a shallow gully with sufficient snow to get the ice axes off the bags, stick a helmet on and start to work on movement skills. We left ice axe arrests for another day, (with more suitable snow) and concentrated instead on how careful footwork and axe placement can minimise the risk of slips and trips and allow safe movement. Little pockets of soft slab gave the opportunity to introduce ‘self belaying’ to stop a slip becoming a slide, and offered a little experience of how to use boots to improve footholds in variable snow conditions. At the top of the gully, a layer of refrozen snow provided scope to introduce step cutting, but a stiff wind across the main ridge encouraged us to move on to keep warm. Just short of the summit cairn, the discovery of another patch of soft snow led to the young people introducing me to a winter skill that seemed to have been omitted from the Winter ML curriculum; making snow angels.

Conditions on the summit were not conducive to hanging around, and we moved on as soon as we’d taken the obligatory summit selfie. With good visibility and benign snow conditions, I was happy for Cat to reverse our outward route with two of the group, and I continued along the ridge with two of the girls who were keen to visit the pointy summit of Meall Garbh. We made it there in good time, encouraged along by the wind which whipped spindrift across us as we negotiated the icy path.

Making our way down the south ridge, we could see Cat’s group crossing the grassy slopes on the other side of the corrie, and it wasn’t too long before we reached the land rover track that contours round the south side of the Tarmachan ridge and made our way back to the car park with the setting sun adding an atmospheric backdrop to the final leg of our journey.

It’s always tricky to anticipate how people will respond to the experience of Scotland’s hills in winter, but as we arrived back in Townhead, one of the girls left me in no doubt of how she felt: “the best day I’ve ever had in the mountains!”