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!”


A Load of Cobblers…

“I know what you’re thinking; did you hit it 4 times or 5? To tell you the truth, in all the excitement, I kinda lost track myself, but given you’re on the crux move of the route, your only runner is this half inserted warthog, and your belayer’s attached to a pair of axes buried in cruddy soft snow, you have to ask yourself “do you feel lucky punk – well do ya?

Still managing a grin!

Still managing a grin!

In truth, the little rock step half way up Great Gully on the Cobbler isn’t that complex a problem to resolve; better mountaineers than me would probably barely register it as they romped on past. Sadly, I am not a better mountaineer,  it wasn’t banked out, and the consequences of a screw up on my part for the other people on the rope didn’t really bear thinking about. At the other end of the scale from ‘better mountaineer’, I guess non-climbers might wonder exactly what the attraction is in standing perched on 4 little points of steel, calves beginning to feel the strain, with the gusting wind blowing armfuls of snow around and into your clothing. Contrary to what the Dorothy-Grace Elders of this world think, I don’t have a death wish – if I had, I wouldn’t have been having the internal conversation that was currently taking place. A couple of deep breaths, then I test the security of my crampon points – they feel secure, so I use them to push up a little higher, and that gets me within range of a decent handhold; one foot comes up onto a sloping rock that nonetheless offers enough friction to keep my crampon in place, and suddenly we’re moving; almost flowing, but we don’t want to be getting ahead of ourselves here. Hints and tips from better climbers, stored away in the mind over the years, come flooding back and I reach high with one axe, over the shelf and hook a decent little crack, which allows my other foot to come up, the second axe can now reach lovely frozen reassuring turfy snow, and suddenly I’m standing on the top of the shelf, body buzzing with the adrenaline rush that comes in the wake of receding nerves. A few metres up easy snow, and I arrive at a fracture in the rock which gulps down a meaty big hex, I clip the rope, and now I can relax and enjoy myself again as I make my way up to a big beautiful spike of a rock which offers a suitable spot from which to protect Katie and Alex as they make their way over the rock step and up to join me.

I keep the rope tight as they take their turn negotiating the rock step, and then Katie leads up the last section and brings Alex and myself out onto the summit of the Cobbler.  Great Gully is listed in the guide book as a Grade II, but we’re all agreed that in it’s current condition, it’s definitely “stiff for the grade”; one of those wonderfully euphemistic terms that gets bandied about in our pastime that hints at all sorts of tense moments, clenched buttocks and butterflies in the stomach.  It’s a wonderful example of what a proper scientific study (which this is not) might term “commitment creep”; at the outset of the day, we’d had the usual chat on the way up the hill about our expectations for the day, during which the three of us had clearly stated our commitment to not sticking our necks out for the sake of adding a couple of grade II gullies to our logbooks, given it’s not the sort of climbing that’s going to have Mick Fowler worrying about his chances of collecting the Piolet d’Or later in the year.

First on our list in the morning had been Chockstone Gully, a grade II climb notable for the quirky finish which requires you to burrow out through the snow under a massive chockstone which sits at the top of the climb. At this late stage in the season, most of the hard work had already been done, but it still required me to slide off my rucksack and push it ahead of me before I could deploy the technical climbing technique of graceless ‘thrutching’ to squirm my way up and out and belay Katie and Alex up and out of the hole. Dusting ourselves off and sorting out our kit, we were able to take stock of our situation; the sun had come out while we’d been in the gully, and we had emerged to a glorious view as the sun played over the snow plastered summits of the Cobbler.

Up ahead of us, the second part of our outing beckoned; Great Gully is a slightly harder proposition, especially in the current lean conditions as the start to the route involves negotiating another chockstone, although this one involved some proper rock climbing, rather than squirming about in the snow.  Above this, an easy angled snow slope led to the rocky step, although the soft, slabby nature of the snow meant care was still required. I worked up to the base of the step, then spend a fruitless 10 minutes digging about in the snow looking for cracks in the rock which might offer a solid placement. Sadly, nothing was forthcoming, which meant we were going to have to work with a reinforced buried axe, which given the current snow conditions, wasn’t the most reassuring option. Above us, the tricky rock step loomed, and as I found myself perched on my crampon points a few minutes later, this morning’s commitment to non-committed climbing seemed to have evaporated somewhere along the way. Never mind that across the mountains of Scotland better climbers than me were cruising harder problems effortlessly; this was my problem, my chance at my own internal ‘Piolet d’Or’ on a crux that would be laughably easy for others, a chance for an exploration into the internal workings of Neil Pratt: Punter Climber. Somehow, there is the awareness that, at this precise point, you exist in a quantum state; two possible Neils go on from this point; the one who steps back down and retreats, or the Neil who makes it to the top. Only one can exist; whatever happens, one Neil dies at this point – no way of knowing which would be the better husband, brother, friend…

“so, the question you have to ask yourself is; do you feel lucky punk? Well, do ya?”