Monthly Archives: February 2014

Another Brush with Bad Weather

Blair skinning up Aonach Mor. Photo - Calum Muskett

Blair skinning up Aonach Mor. Photo – Calum Muskett

Having returned from Patagonia I felt like a bit of respite from bad weather was needed – unfortunately though, I was heading straight up to Scotland. Although I’ve been fortunate enough to have spent parts of very sunny summer holidays in Scotland in the past I have only ever experienced heavy rain and snow in the winter time and spent a considerable amount of time shivering in howling winds. Several months ago I booked onto my winter mountain leader assessment with Plas y Brenin who are based up in Alltshellach during their winter season. For this reason I decided to travel up five days early and get up into the hills prior to my assessment.

Blair digging an avalanche pit to check out the snow pack. Photo - Calum Muskett

Blair digging an avalanche pit to check out the snow pack. Photo – Calum Muskett


Making tea Scottish style. Photo - Calum Muskett

Making tea Scottish style. Photo – Calum Muskett

The one positive part of the bad weather was that the snow was brilliant for skiing on. Great soft powder on top of a good base level of snow meant that all the rocks were covered and conditions were prime for ski touring. On my first day out I headed into the Grey Corries from just above Spean Bridge for an excellent ski tour but one that was also marred by bad weather. I learnt that skiing in a whiteout is difficult and that navigating whilst skiing in a whiteout is even more difficult. I had another couple of days on my skis and then headed out with Dr Snow (aka Blair Fyffe) to learn a little bit more about avalanches.

Blair works for the Scottish Avalanche Information Service (SAIS) and heads out most days to check out snow conditions and give an avalanche forecast for Lochaber or Glen Coe. It was interesting looking at what information Blair used to help him understand the avalanche risks, especially given that this winter the quantity of snow that has accumulated above 700 metres is outrageous. The CIC hut on Ben Nevis is virtually buried!

After a few days of playing about in the bad weather I started my assessment with Plas y Brenin. It’s funny doing an assessment or training with PYB as I know most of the instructors so well. I worked for the domestic team of PYB at Capel Curig for almost five years whilst at school as well as for a while afterwards and often go out climbing with the instructors and guides who live nearby. The good thing with courses delivered by PYB is that you’ll always get up to date instruction and carefully considered feedback delivered by some very enthusiastic climbers or paddlers.

The first couple of days look at the more technical components of the winter mountain leader award such as the teaching of simple and safe winter hill walking skills as well as looking at how to self arrest and emergency ropework to get out of sticky situations. The final three days of the assessment comprises of a three day expedition which involves lots of navigation and a couple of nights in a snow-hole.

A rare break in the clouds on Stob Coire nan Lochan. Photo - Calum Muskett

A rare break in the clouds on Stob Coire nan Lochan. Photo – Calum Muskett


Building the perfect snowman - an important element of the winter mountain leader syllabus. Photo - Calum Muskett

Building the perfect snowman – an important element of the winter mountain leader syllabus. Photo – Calum Muskett

The first part of the assessment went very smoothly, some poor weather but nothing out of the ordinary for Scotland at this time of year. On the third day we headed into the hills above Bridge of Orchy and dug a fairly large snow-hole which we were quite happy to spend plenty of time in. Unfortunatley by this point the weather had begun to worsen, it was beginning to blizzard outside and snow was being blown into our hole. Our night navigation exercise was cut short after the situation got a little too ‘real’ to be much fun and when we got back to the snow hole the entrance had to be completely dug out. My alarm was set for every couple of hours and we had a rota set up so that somebody would wake up and dig snow out of the entrance. Unfortunately it had been snowing more than we’d expected and there was eventually somebody out digging every 45 minutes and even between those intervals we were being sealed in by the snow. At 3.30am a large cornice began to build up over the entrance of our hole and the ceiling of our hole seemed to be a few inches lower, presumably because of the extra weight above. We evacuated our snow-hole and headed down to the train station at Bridge of Orchy for a couple of hours kip.

The snow-hole. Photo - Calum Muskett

The snow-hole. Photo – Calum Muskett

After another bleary eyed day of navigating and hill walking we were back at Alltshellach for our final course de-brief. We’d both passed our assessment which meant that our horrendous night in a snow-hole wasn’t a total waste of time and I can now try and avoid any more bad weather at home until Spring brings with it some sunshine!

Reflections

Lost in Patagonia. Photo - Calum Muskett

Lost in Patagonia. Photo – Calum Muskett

Looking back over two months spent in Patagonia I realise that I haven’t covered as much ground as I might usually on a long climbing trip. In fact, most of the ground I did cover was probably between the cafes and restaurants in El Chalten. I didn’t make it up any major Patagonian summits, didn’t repeat a single route in the area and snatched defeat from the jaws of victory on two fairly significant first ascents. Yet, despite receiving a good kicking from the Patagonian weather, I still had a great time and would return at the drop of a hat given the opportunity.

Patagonia is a truly wonderful area. Around the mountains of Fitzroy and Paine is some of the best trekking I’ve ever come across. Old woodlands, bright blue lakes as well as a wild and remote feel despite their relative popularity. The wildlife is also unique and fascinating – Pink Flamingos, Skunks, Condors, Guanacos and Woodpeckers. For climbers, these are all packed into the approach to some of the best alpine climbing on the planet. Despite the popularity of this area amongst alpinists there is still so much yet to be done. Some summits remain unclimbed, many rock faces await first ascents and hundreds of brilliant routes are still waiting to be free climbed.

Thumbs down to Patagonian weather. Photo - Calum Muskett

Thumbs down to Patagonian weather. Photo – Calum Muskett

Our recent trip ended in slight disappointment. After another long approach and careful preparations for climbing, the weather decided that it didn’t want to follow the forecast. A heavy snowfall lasted until late morning and spindrift was pouring down our objective for the day – a second attempt at the unclimbed icy gully system on the East face of the Mermoz. All we could do was turn round and soak up the Patagonian environment one last time before our long journey home.

Ally heading up to the East face of the Mermoz. Photo - Calum Muskett

Ally heading up to the East face of the Mermoz. Photo – Calum Muskett

We didn’t get the chance to try the Compressor Route up Cerro Torre, or to complete a second new mixed route, but we now know the potential of the area and that, given a little bit of good weather, the rewards you can take home could be huge. Patagonia I’ll be back – but next time, please can I have a little more sunshine!

Dave seconding one of the crux pitches on our new route on Aguja Guillaumet. Photo - Calum Muskett

Dave seconding one of the crux pitches on our new route on Aguja Guillaumet. Photo – Calum Muskett


Twid hanging out on the South Tower of Paine, another area to return to. Photo - Calum Muskett

Twid hanging out on the South Tower of Paine, another area to return to. Photo – Calum Muskett