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!”

 

Ben Cruachan

If there’s any way to soften the blow of England and Wales installing the Tories with a majority government at Westminster, this has to be it; a day out on Ben Cruachan with a great bunch of people helping Wendy from Christian Aid clock up another peak in her 70 Munros Challenge.

Although Stob Daimh isn’t on the list of 70, I encouraged the group to make the most of the day by continuing along the ridge rather than heading back down the way we’d come. It became another fantastically rewarding day, helping people to push their boundaries, coaching a range of skills for moving on snow, easy scrambling and some techniques for managing psychological fears about steep ground. The highlight on the day was to see people’s faces as they reached the summit of Stob Daimh and looked back to see Ben Cruachan in all it’s  majesty, with the last of winter’s snows picking out the details of it’s rocky ridges.

Stopping off on the way home in my usual haunt at the Real Food Cafe (it’s worrying that the owner’s starting to recognise me!), I had the chance to catch up on the news about the General Election. There’s no doubt the result means it’s going to be five hard years for many of the people I work with back in Glasgow, but reassuring to be reminded that we have these beautiful, spectacular hills as a resource to help people cope with their struggles; to ensure that, in John Muir’s words, “people have beauty as well as bread”

 

 

  

  

  

 

Ben Nevis

I spent this Saturday working for Atlas Mountaineering on a large charity walk on Ben Nevis. The participants were young people from schools in the North Lanarkshire area. With a lot of lying snow on the upper slopes of the mountain, and the forecast low temperatures and snow showers, the young people weren’t able to head for the summit! So instead they made it up to Lochan Meall an t-Suidhe and then got a sneak preview of the northern side of Ben Nevis. 

It was great to see so many young people enjoying themselves out in the hills; hopefully their day out will spark a long-lasting passion to be out in Scotland’s wild places. Hopefully, they’ll not be expecting somebody standing halfway up handing out Jelly Babies on every hill they visit in the future 🙂

   

   

Avalanche Avoidance Training

probesECTI’m a big fan of continually honing my skills, especially the ones that are likely to keep me alive. When I’m operating as a mountain leader, I’m assuming responsibility for the clients I have with me and this responsibility takes on a whole new dimension in winter when the snow underfoot transforms the mountains into places of remarkable beauty, but also creates potentially deadly hazards which have to be managed.

Those hazards have probably been underplayed for many years in Scotland and, in comparison with the USA and Europe, our scientific understanding of snow and the hazards it creates is fairly rudimentary. As a result, when I was offered the chance to undertake on the American Avalanche Association’s Level 1 training courses, I jumped at the chance.

The course took place over 2 days at Glenmore Lodge, nr Aviemore, with tutor Mike Austin providing an excellent mix of classroom learning and sessions out on the snow to put the theory into practice. As well as developing our understanding of how snowpack forms, and how potentially hazardous transformations take place deep within it, and the various techniques available for investigating snow conditions on the ground. There was quite a bit of humour throughout the two days, but also some very sobering moments as we discussed the accounts of avalanche victims, some of whom had emerged broken but alive, and others whose lives had been snuffed out by a wall of snow.

The high winds put paid to any attempts to get high up the hill on day 1, but we were able to make it to the snowline and get our hands, axes, shovels and saws into the snow to explore the layers. The weather on day 2 was much better, and we were able to carry out some companion rescue scenarios using transceiver searches, along with a chance to undertake an Extended Compression Test, which is a fairly recent innovation that tests the propensity for any shears in the sample snowpack to propogate.

Over the course of the two days,  Mike passed on a lot of helpful avalanche avoidance ‘kung fu’; here’s hoping the snow lasts long enough for us to practice them a few times before we’re back to green hills and t-shirts for the summer.