Thursday, 4 March 2010

'Outdoors Magic/Kendal Mountaineering Services' Winter navigation and Snowhole course

After spending two days wandering around the hills of Cromdale while practising using my new shovel and practising some winter skills I picked up at last years OM /KMS course I was ready on Monday morning for my two days on the edge of the Cairngorms plateau brushing up on winter navigation skills and learning how to dig snowholes as a temporary or emergency shelter.

We picked up our "poo pots" from the ranger station at Coire Cas and began working out our double paces on the flat for 100m before we started off through the deep snow across the piste and followed the ski tows up to the top of the run and then on to the ridge of Fiacaill a Choire Chais.

To give you an idea of how much snow had fallen up there recently see if you can guess what that is sticking out of the snow!

Group photo at the foot of the piste before setting off

About to get onto the ridge of Fiacaill a Choire Chais

Once on the ridge we started doing exercises to practise picking out features on the landscape and matching them to the the map and vice versa. The cloud cover began to drop and merge into the horizon as the ridge became very steep and defined. At point 1141 we stopped for a quick bite to eat and in gradually worsening conditions, took a bearing and then began to pace our descent into the wind scoured bealach below. It was around this point I stopped taking photo's as there wasn't much to see anyway. We were in an almost but not quite whiteout. There were more bearings and pacings as we began postholing through the knee deep snow up to Stob Coire an t-Sneachda.

By now it was very cold and our world had become an eerie and disorientating white completely devoid of any detail or direction including up or down. The only features I could see were my own footprints. We followed a bearing down into Coire Domhain looking for the slopes of the re-entrant where we would dig in for the night. The descent was particularly gruelling in deep powder and unconsolidated wind slab and seemed to go on forever. The whiteout could only now be worse if it were snowing and the temperature was dropping fast. Group morale was getting lower the further we trudged on through the endless and frozen white void. Eventually after what seemed an age Iain asked us to stop as we had found the Coire floor but weren't finding the slopes in which to dig in. He left us and headed off pacing out a measured distance 90 deg to our left then turned right 90 deg pacing and searching for the coire slopes. When he was about 100 metres away he drifted in and out of view as if to just illustrate how disorientating and confusing the environment around us had become.

Eventually the shout to follow his footprints came and the snow bank appeared out of the fog. He had found a snow hole but it was already occupied by two medical student's whose name's I never caught (if either of you ever read this I was extremely grateful for the hot sugary tea that was passed around shortly after we started digging). The wind was strengthening and the temp still dropping. We had to get out of the elements fast.

We split into 3 groups. Iain and Kirstin. Myself, Stephen and Maria. Matt, Phil and Kate. With Iain and Kirstin digging in to our right and Matt, Phil and Kate to our left we began to dig our snow hole in the perishing conditions. It was hard but thankfully hot work. It was a relief to my aching muscles when it was someone else's turn to dig but that meant the cold immediately took effect. Quickly our efforts got us in enough to get out of the wind but then progress slowed as we hit a layer of neve then hard ice that got thicker to our left side. We managed just to get through the ice with a combination of ice saw and ice axe pick/adze to smash chop and lever chunks off.

Our progress was slow but not as bad as Matt, Phil and Kate's who eventually had to give up on their partially dug hole and start a new one on Iain and Kirstin's right. I'm not sure of the details as we were still frantically digging our own snowhole but I gather Iain was giving them a hand with snowhole number 2 when the roof came in. By now things were getting a bit desperate and the decision was made for them to bunk in with the medical students we met when we arrived.

After 3 or 4 hours digging our hole was big enough (just) to be comfortable for the 3 of us. As soon as we stopped digging the cold began it's insidious invasion as I struggled to get some water to the boil for some desperately needed calories. After getting a hot meal and fluids replaced, then being enveloped in soft snuggly down there was a still a cheery mood with high spirits in our snowhole in stark contrast to the horror outside. There seems to me to be a special sort of personality that despite battling the elements and demanding terrain, despite being frozen to the core and having all their energy spent remains upbeat, optimistic and never gives in. These sorts are invariably drawn to the mountains and such like. I had the pleasure of sharing my snowhole with two of them that night.

Stephen and Maria

Myself and Stephen


After about 3 hours unbroken sleep I woke desperate for a pee. I could hear a rumbling and then the tinkle of ice crystals in the doorway. I heard it again. Trying not to panic I woke Stephen and Maria up. To me it sounded like snow shifting above us. I pulled on my boots and went out into the blasting wind. My headtorch beam cut through the dark mist and showed only hard packed windslab above us. No sign of movement. The wind had shifted a few degrees and was catching our doorway, that was all. I had my pee and and returned to the safety of the snow hole. After some conversation we all drifted back into an uneasy sleep which for me was again unbroken until around 6 am.

The landscape outside was still in the grip of arctic temps coupled with a vicious wind but it was stunningly beautiful as was the sunrise. To experience these moments is special and to be lucky enough to do it over and over when I escape to the hills I am truly thankful for.

Looking in the entrance of our overnight home

Pure magic!

Stephen chatting to the Medical Students before they set off for Ben Macdui

After an unusual breakfast that consisted of many "Ch's" Chicken, Cheese, Chocolate and Cappuccino (ok that last one's not a proper "Ch" but it works in my head!) we set of up through the deep snow again to the ring contour at NH 992 020 where there was more navigation exercises. The cloud was lifting and dropping and although cold the conditions were pleasant. The rest of the day was spent consolidating what we learned the day before as we paced our way to Cairn Lochan where we saw some impressive looking cornices and then made our way down the north western slopes off the plateau and followed the buried path back to the car park at Coire Cas.

Taking bearings

Pace counting towards Cairn Lochan

Iain inspecting some impressive looking cornices

Navigational skills are obviously improving as we found contour height 1170m exactly where it should be!

Once again, going out with Iain and Kirstin from Kendal Mountaineering Services has been great value for money. I've learnt loads, gained more confidence and had a great time doing so. You can find their link on the right hand side of this page and if you fancy increasing your hill skills or just want an adventure with the safety of an instructor I wouldn't hesitate to recommend them.


  1. Now that looks like a proper adventure, lucky sod

    Would love to think I could do that but know I would really struggle with the cold. Maybe those down troos should be purchased......

  2. BRILLIANT! That is fantastic, sat gripped to the TFT at work reading that, phone in the background ringing away but I don't care! Those two med students what stars, Nicky and myself were talking on our way home about the personality of those of us who go outdoors.

    Yet another excuse to hand some money over to PHD eh Elaina?

  3. Mike and Anika were fab - there was true outdoors spirit up there. I struggled like heck with the cold before getting into the snowhole, but wouldn't have missed it for the world.
    Love that dawn photo, Sandy, it was such a beautiful landscape, but almost alien.

  4. What a great post and photos, Sandy.

    I agree with all the sentiments expressed above; it was an incredible experience and I'm really glad I was able to share it with such a lovely bunch of people.

  5. Glad you all had fun and brings back memories of my wsc in 2008...
    Kate actually survived the cold...well done girl....
    Im on next years 2011 wsc with Iain again with mrs diddy so if any of you are there i will see you then..


  6. Sense of comradeship and shared adventure there. Amazing snow cover. Cant see that all gone by the TGO Challenge. Many will need an ice axe it looks like on the Challenge this year.

  7. Great Blog post Sandy. Kirstin & I finally landed back home last night so I'll be putting my own blog version up soon. We went on to have a few good days of winter climbing until calling it a day on Friday and heading to Glen Lyon to relax with friends for a few days.

    Thanks to all of you who took part in what appeared to be a very successful week. All the best, Iain.

  8. thats a great Trip report Sandy :-) The pics are very good

  9. You're all very kind re: the comments above. It was a great trip and I'll remember the "Comradeship and shared adventure" long after I've forgotten what the sunrise looked like.

    I'm looking forward to the next one now seeing as I'll probably drag Louise along to the winter skills 2011.


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