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.
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.
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.
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!