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Client’s Eye View: Sam’s Story…

After a rather nasty leg break while backcountry skiing in 2015 that left me with a cutlery drawer’s worth of metal work around my right shin and ankle bones, I’d resolved to find a way to enjoy the mountains that didn’t involve chucking myself down them at high speed. So, in January 2016, following a recommendation from the interweb, I dropped a line to Neil at 360 Degrees Outdoors, enquiring about a winter mountaineering skills day in the Arrochar Alps. Close to Glasgow, and not expensive, this fitted the bill perfectly. A plan was made.
I met Neil at his base in Glasgow city centre, and after talking through the plan for the day, the weather forecast and, crucially, the avalanche forecast, we were off. Even on the car journey to Arrochar I was learning how to build a mental picture of the mountain in advance, drawing from clues in previous weather reports, forecasted wind direction, temperature, and understanding how all this would interact with the shape of the hill itself. These were important considerations that would inform safe route selection throughout the day.
Once up at the bealach between Ben Narnain and the Cobbler, the weather and visibility turned against us, highlighting the unpredictability of Scotland’s mountains in winter, and punishing those less well prepared. Neil demonstrated how to read the snowpack, and I was quickly tuning in to “sastrugi” in the snow, the sound of “windslab” under foot, and other subtle signs that informed our decisions and allowed for safe navigation on our route, round pockets of avalanche danger.
IMG_6459 - Version 2Crampons on, ice axes out, and correct usage of both honed under Neil’s watchful eye, we summited Ben Narnain, despite the poor weather. After greedily scoffing some calories, and a hot drink, more ice axe and crampon practice followed on the descent. Safely back at the car, despite aching legs I was in good spirits, with new skills acquired, and confidence built. I couldn’t wait for round 2.
A couple of weeks later I was out with 360 Degrees Outdoors again. This time I’d brought two friends along; Chris and Wim, persuaded by the heroic Facebook photos from my previous adventure, and the assurance that Neil’s craic was “quite good” too. Neil sorted kit hire for them, and as with my first day at Arrochar, they began their immersion in his well of knowledge, forging the skills of safe route planning and selection.
Our mountain of choice was Ben Vorlich, selected over Ben Lawers based on Avalanche forecasts, but even this ‘safer’ route still required careful reading of the snowpack, and proper use of crampons and axe. Hard work through tricky conditions was rewarded with some atmospheric summit views as the clouds parted.
An excellent day had by all. Wim and Chris were fairly experienced in the outdoors, but the day illuminated and subsequently filled many gaps in their knowledge, building significant confidence to do more.
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By this stage I had really caught the winter mountaineering bug. A superb day was had in late February when I joined a guided group with Neil on the famed Ptarmigan ridge route up Ben Lomond. Blue skies, and a spectacular alpine feel to the ridge made it highly memorable. By this stage in my winter mountaineering journey, ice axe and crampon techniques were becoming closer to second nature, and I was building the confidence for something a little more ambitious.
A plan was put together for the 19th March, and just a little over a year after my horror leg break I found myself with Neil at the foot of Ben Nevis, about to tackle the highest summit in the UK, via the Carn Mor Dearg arête route – a narrow spine of rock and ice, sweeping round a dramatic alpine bowl, and reaching skyward to the looming cornices and buttresses of The Ben’s northerly aspects.
This day had it all – crampons and ice axes tested while threading a route up the vast slopes of Carn Mor Dearg, scrambling along a precipitous  jagged ridge, stunning 360 views from the summit, blue skies above us, and a cloud inversion below us that evoked the lonely peaks of the Himalayas. Incredibly atmospheric, and utterly involving. The type of day you feel truly humbled to experience in the Scottish mountains.
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I’d certainly come along way since the first day in Arrochar with Neil and 360 Degrees Outdoors, with a wealth of newly cemented knowledge and skills, and my comfort zone significantly expanded. A number of epic photos for the Facebook and Instagram accounts were an additional bonus – looking is cool is of course an important aspect of mountain pursuits.

As winter turns to spring, I’m looking to my next adventure. Undoubtedly Neil will be asked to help if he’s not yet tired of my distinctly average banter. Building experience and skills in the outdoors is a never ending journey, but if the stages to come are as rewarding and memorable as those so far, then long may this journey continue.”IMG_8024 - Version 2

A Veritable Ice Palace

The last few days have been pretty busy, with the highlight being a few days spent snow holing up in the Cairngorms. The snow holing trip had originally been my mate Chris’ idea. He runs his own photography studio, and wanted a chance to get some sunrise and sunset pictures over the Cairngorms. Disappointingly, he had to call off at the very last minute thanks to some plumbing problems; house, not personal, which meant he was understandably reluctant to disappear off and leave his wife looking after a toddler and a bathroom in need of repair.

I met up with Wendy, who was also coming along, at Glenmore Lodge on Wednesday night for some food and a final check of the weather forecast and the SAIS reports. My original suggestion to Chris had been to make our way towards Ben Macdui, giving the opportunity for some sunrise photography over Garbh Coire. However, I noticed that there was a WML assessment group out from the Lodge and, as they often use the Ben Macdui area for snow holing, I suggested an alternate plan; we’d walk down Glen Feshie to the bothy at Ruigh Aiteachain, stay the night there, then head onto the Moine Mhor and have a look at some of the potential snow hole sites up there. If time and snow conditions permitted, we thought we might head as far as Monadh Mor and Beinn Bhrotain, the two Munros out on the eastern edge of the area.

Walking down Glen Feshie towards the bothy was an atmospheric experience; it was a cold, clear night with an awe-inspiring panorama of stars in the night sky above us. The path is well-maintained by the estate, but it’s suffered badly in this winter’s storms, with a couple of sections almost completely obliterated by the erosion of the river bank, and we had to tread carefully as we made our way across the damaged areas with heavy packs on.

Right Aiteachain is often referred to as ‘Landseer’s Bothy’; an allusion to the famous painter’s association with the area during the period when he was having an affair with the Duchess of Bedford. His time in Glen Feshie also provided him with the inspiration for several of his most iconic paintings, including The Monarch of the Glen; a painting which I hate with a passion, as a copy of it hung in the hallway of the little council house I grew up in for years. Landseer had a long-term struggle with depression, and it’s apparently possible to detect a much darker turn in Landseer’s work when his affair with the Duchess came to an end, and he was no longer able to spend time in the Highlands. As someone who has an ongoing ‘professional’ interest in the therapeutic benefits of being outdoors, I find the theory an intriguing one, although I’m not familiar enough with Landseer’s work to verify it’s accuracy.

Turning up at a bothy is always a bit of a lottery, as there’s no telling who you’ll find there, but on this occasion, the place was in darkness when we arrived, and we set about getting the fire going with the wood which the local estate helpfully supplies. After a quick brew up, we got our mats and sleeping bags sorted out and got our heads down, ready for an early start in the morning.

The temperature dropped well below freezing during the night, making it a real effort to drag myself out of my cosy down bag in the morning and get the stove going for breakfast. We packed up and got on our way a little before eight. If Wednesday evening had been atmospheric, Thursday morning was breathtaking; we were greeted by bright sunlight in a cloudless blue sky, surrounded by white mountains as we walked through the mature pine forest towards the track up to the Moine Mhor.

An hour’s steady plod took us up onto the plateau, where we were greeted by the sight of a ‘white desert’; rolling, snow covered hills stretching out for miles in all directions, with no tracks or trails to be seen anywhere. Conditions underfoot weren’t ideal, with a soft covering of snow that made breaking a trail fairly hard work. We were making slower progress than I’d hoped, and I began to recalculate objectives for the day, as it became obvious that travelling as far as Beinn Bhrotain had been overly optimistic.

As we stopped for a bite to eat we noticed movement over towards the western slopes of Braeriach, where two groups of 5 people were moving around. I guessed that they were the Winter ML course from the Lodge, which meant they were snow holing somewhere in the area; an additional little complicating factor in the decision making process. After some careful scrutiny of the map, I opted to head over to the east side of Tom Dubh, in the hope that the little reentrant there would be holding enough snow for our purposes. The cloud was beginning to come down around us, and I was relieved to arrive at our destination and find a nice chunky bank of snow all the way down the gully. My avalanche probe went to it’s full three metre depth horizontally and vertically, confirming that we had enough snow to work with, and I got to work digging out our home for the night.

With just two of us, it was always going to be a long process, and it took nearly two hours to get the initial tunnel dug to give enough room to start work with the snow saw. Once we could get the snow out in large blocks, everything began to move much more quickly, and we were finished within another hour. As it was Wendy’s first experience of snow holing, I’d opted to make the hole a bit bigger than necessary, to avoid it feeling too claustrophobic, so we now had a fairly spacious shelter. We got some extra layers on,  mats and sleeping bags sorted and then started up the stove to melt snow and get some food going. I love my MSR Reactor for winter; with the 1.5l pot, it melts snow and heats water for simple cooking really quickly, and is completely unaffected by draughts, making it a fantastic no-nonsense tool for getting hot food and drink into your system.

Wendy was still struggling with cold feet, so I warmed up some more water, popped it in her Nalgene bottle and, after popping it in a dry bag for additional security, she was able to pop it into her sleeping bag as a makeshift hot water bottle. After a bit of chat, fuelled by some extra-dark chocolate and Talisker Storm (for me at least – Wendy is off the booze for Lent), we settled down for the night. The weather forecast indicated the wind might pick up from about 3am onwards, and just to be on the safe side, I set my alarm so that I could check that the entrance to our shelter wasn’t filling up with drifting snow.

After a fairly restful night, we were awake and getting organised at 6.30am. By the time we were packed and ready to move, the cloud had dropped down across the plateau, and I was required to do some micro-navigation from the door of the snow hole, pacing a bearing back onto the summit of Tom Dubh, then setting off towards Carn Ban Mor. It was Wendy’s first time ‘in the white room’, and we chatted about navigational strategies in white out conditions as we went.

Thankfully, the cloud lifted enough to let us get our bearings, and we were able to pick up the pace. As we arrived at the base of Carn Ban Mor, we came across 5 or 6 snow holes, neatly dug into the side of the reentrant that runs down from the summit, and stopped to have a wee peek in at what we guessed were the Winter ML trainees’ handiwork.

Carrying on, we made good time over the top of Carn Ban Mor and dropped down towards the path on the western side that would take us down into Glen Feshie and back to the car. The temperature had risen significantly since the previous evening, and it began to rain as we made our way off the hill, through soft snow that made for frustrating travel, continually allowing us to sink to our knees in the deeper patches of snow and slipping and sliding away beneath our feet. It was a huge relief to finally drop below the snow line and reach the reassuringly firm surface of the estate path down through the woods and back to the main road.

All in all, a great trip, with the chance to experience the full range of Scottish winter conditions, from clear skies and bright sunshine to a windy whiteout and dreich sleety rain. It was a pity that Chris had been unable to join us, as Thursday in particular was a landscape photographer’s dream, but on the bright side, at least it means I have an excuse for another trip if the snow hangs around for a bit longer!

…And Then There Were Three

The origins of yesterday’s outing began at Cat’s office Christmas party, where a group of her colleagues rashly allowed themselves to be lured into agreeing to a weekend in Glencoe by the more outdoorsy members of the group. A combination of illness, injury, and the harsh reality of what a ‘weekend in Glencoe’ in February actually meant in terms of human suffering, meant that group numbers slowly dwindled until, at one stage, I was faced with the prospect of having to spend a weekend with my wife, and making her pay for the privilege. Fortunately, Michael, who had been laid low with the ‘lurgie’ earlier in the week, recovered sufficiently by Saturday to join us and add an air of respectability to the group size.

The weather forecast wasn’t particularly inspiring anywhere, but marginally lower windspeed towards the east encouraged us to switch from Glencoe to a location further east. After a bit of discussion, we decided to head up Ben Vorlich, with the option of carrying on to Stuc a Chroin if conditions merited.

It was fairly dreich at the side of Loch Earn, with a steady drizzle beginning soon after we left the cars, which progressively turned to sleet, then snow as we headed up the hill track. With last weekend’s snow having been stripped off again by ‘Henry’ at the beginning of the week, there’s little in the way of a solid base, and the overnight snow which was lying from around 500m was nothing much more than powdery window dressing over the underlying rock and heather. The path takes a route up the north ridge of Ben Vorlich, finally cresting the ridge at about the 700m mark and exposing us to a stronger than expected wind which was blowing spindrift round the hillside from the SE and making progress fairly unpleasant. On our way up, we passed a couple who had called it quits a little higher up and, after passing me without comment, stopped to warn Cat, who was dressed in almost identical kit to me, that she should turn round because it was too dangerous higher up! I can’t make up my mind if it was an interesting little insight into ‘everyday sexism’ on the hillside, or just that I don’t look like I’m worth saving…

The summit was a fairly inhospitable location on this occasion and, after a quick group discussion, we opted to forego the scramble up Stuc a Chroin in favour of a visit to the more civilised surroundings of the Mhor tearoom in Callander for a chat about kit, climbing and future plans.

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!

Those magnificent men, and women, in their flying machines

A wee day out on Ben Vorlich

I’ve been doing a lot of fairly low level, low intensity work recently; lots of fun, but it’s left me champing at the bit to get out and do something a bit more strenuous. The recent run of minging weather has made getting out on the hills a tricky matter requiring good judgement, and a degree of self-restraint, so a forecast suggesting 36 hours of settled, dry weather was too good to miss this Saturday. Cat was keen to get out as well, although she needed to be back in time to pack for a trip to Barcelona, meaning that we had to be a bit circumspect in terms of objectives. The upshot was that we opted for a trip up to Loch Earn and a visit to Ben Vorlich; we’ve been up it a few times already this year, but it’s a great hill, with the option of carrying on to Stuc a Chroin if you got up early enough and you’re feeling fit. Given we didn’t really fit either category today, we restricted ourselves to an out and back trip from Ardvorlich.

We were slightly perturbed to see three young lads heading off just ahead of us wearing nothing but Vans trainers; I’m not a big fan of commenting on the kit choices of other people out on the hill, but wearing smooth soled skate shoes onto a hill you can clearly see is covered in snow from your car, is a pretty high risk strategy. They made it down safe and sound despite a fair bit of slipping and sliding; it would be comforting to think that the lack of any serious consequences didn’t in any way affirmed poor decision making on their part, but it’s a common ‘heuristic trap’ for people to ‘get away’ with bad choices, and draw the conclusion that they took a good option. If you’re a winter walker and you haven’t come across the concept of heuristic traps before, it’s worth reading up on them; this article is a good starting point.

There was a fair number of people making their way up and down the hill, and from the passing chat, they were clearly enjoying the good weather as well. The high level cloud was burning off as the day went off , and the Ben Lawers range to the north was bathed in sunshine. The walk up Ben Vorlich is pretty straightforward, with a well maintained path leading up to the final little steep section where there was a fair bit of ice around, requiring either careful footwork or a set of crampons. We opted for the former and picked our way up the scoured areas of the path.

Up on the summit, we were rewarded with atmospheric views, with Stuc a Chroin’s snow-mantled northern crags looking a much more serious proposition than they had when I’d been there with a group back in September. I was trying out a couple of bits of new kit, so we spend a little while on the summit soaking up the views and photographing some of the new stuff for upcoming reviews. Catriona was keen for me to ‘work the camera’ – you can see the results below!

After the photography based hilarity was over, we set off back down hill and soon encountered a group of lads who were having even more fun than us as they attempted to bike downhill through the snow. There was a fair bit of laughing and carrying on, as they repeatedly got hung up in the drifts and spat over the bars into the soft fluffy mounds.

We got back to the car as the light began to fade; not our most energetic day on the hills by a long stretch, but it was good to have been out letting nature do it’s thing to sort out mind and body, and of course justifying a stop in Callander to check how Mhor Fish was getting on; I’m pleased to say that expectations were fulfilled!