A Week in the Mountains: Winter Skills by Shaun Johnson
On the 4th of January of this year I travelled up to Scotland to attend a Winter Skills course run by Rob Johnson, you may have seen my blog diary of this course for Simply Hike. I have been on three of Rob’s courses before, Six Day Mountain Craft Course, Advanced Scrambling Course and an Advanced Navigation Course. So when the awesome guys at Simply Hike enrolled me on his Winter Skills Course I was like a kid at Christmas! The course was set over five days in the stunning Ben Nevis region, with us being based at Fort William. There were six “clients” (as Rob would call us) and two leaders, Rob and Charlie. Under their guidance we all improved our winter skills over the week and due to their experience they gave us a better understanding of the mountains in the winter. To give you an idea of our routine we would all meet at 8:30 am every morning and religiously check two weather sites Met Office mountain weather and the MWIS, we compared the two sites to give us a clear picture of the weather for the day. We then checked the Scottish Avalanche report which is referred to as SAIS (Scottish Avalanche Information Service) to see if there were any risks of an avalanche, this would determine where we would be hiking on that day and which route to take. One day we made the SAIS Lochaber Blog which is a pretty cool achievement! The reason we wouldn’t pick a trail until the morning was purely based on the weather. Even in summer time the weather in the mountains can change dramatically and considerably more so in winter. Also it can be dangerous to pick a certain trail for a specific day because sometimes a person can be blind sighted by this, so if the weather is bad but they are determined to get to that summit it will no doubt end in trouble. Rob programmed us to check the weather and avalanche forecast everyday so near the end he didn't need to go through it as much because we had already checked (which was great because it meant we could set off earlier to the mountains). Another routine we had was when we started descending a mountain we would always practice self-arrest, learning new techniques every day. At the end of the week we had all nailed this vital everyday survival skill. We also practiced this technique on different types of snow and ice to really fine tune our self-arrest skills. So on day one it was mainly about the eight of us getting to know one another but most importantly getting to know our equipment. A lot of us had very little or no experience walking on the mountains in the winter time (hence why we were on the course). The first thing Rob introduced to us was the trusty ice axe. He showed us the best way of holding the axe when walking on the mountains, when you need to start using it, and most importantly how to use the ice axe as an aid to get you across steep or sketchy sections on the mountain. After a couple of hours getting used to the ice axe we came to a section where we needed to use our crampons. Rob made us put them on with our gloves still on and also standing up or kneeling. At first this was really annoying, it felt like it took hours just putting one on, but by the end of the week we had mastered it! When I put the crampons on I was expecting it to feel very different to walking with your normal walking boots, but to be honest it didn’t. The true test with crampons is the first time you come across ice, your gut instinct is to brace yourself because you might slip but of course, you don’t. The crampons just dig into the ice and give you amazing grip! Testing our new skills out on day two we headed over to Glencoe to summit Stob Dubh along Buachaille Etive Beag, then we hiked to the top of Stob Coire Raineach. Technically we summited three Munro’s in one day! Using the skills we had learnt on day one we were on top form in reaching each summit! But a new element to us was the wind! On day one it wasn’t really that windy but on day two on the summits it was reaching 55-60 MPH! At one point we had to put our goggles on because the sheer power of the wind picking up the resting snow and slamming into us was unbelievable. But the experience was amazing, we were all glad to have such “hardcore” weather that day! The weather had changed on day three, overnight it had become much milder which means rather than snowing it was raining and the snow/ice that had fallen the previous two days had turned into mush or was gone completely! Because of this there was a high avalanche risk everywhere we went! After looking at the weather and avalanche reports we found a nice spot in the Cairngorms. Because of the weather we couldn’t summit any tops so we kept it low land. Rob used this day to teach us avalanche skills, so we got a master class on how to use avalanche equipment. Then we spent the day role playing and finding our rucksacks under a metre and a half of snow (luckily my pack was bright green so it stood out after a couple of digs). We then learnt how to “rope up” for winter hiking, a skill that we would be using the next day. Day four we headed for Aonach Mor and Aonach Beag. Because of the heavy snow fall the ski centre was closed (but the gondola was still working). We used this to our advantage to reach the summit quicker, giving us more time to reach other summits! The weather forecast was fine until the later afternoon when high winds and more snow was predicted. This was not the case though. We reached Aonach Mor’s summit at around 1pm and it was already hitting 60 MPH winds. We had to ditch the idea of carrying on to Aonach Beag, this is because while we would have been able to get to the summit, getting back would have proven tricky. Also at this time the temperature was – 3 degrees, and when you add the wind chill it was more like -20 degrees. All our gloves had frozen over….. it was time to come down, better to be safe than sorry. Once we had reached a point where the wind chill was pretty much next to nothing we found ourselves on a ski red run! We roped up and I was sent to check the side of the run. Once I had reached the curve point in the snow I then had to jump up and down to see if it would avalanche… it didn’t and I survived! We then started to build snow shelters! Rob gave us half an hour to see what we could come up with. At the end mine looked pretty much just like an ice coffin because I had hit the ground a lot quicker than expected so I had to dig in rather than down! The winds, snow, sleet and rain carried on throughout the night. So when it came to day five we were pretty stuck, the winds were reaching 110 MPH in the valleys and on mountain summits it's normally double that! So summits and even low level hiking was out of the question. We headed over to the Ice Factor in Kinlochleven. They have the biggest indoor ice climbing wall in the UK! So technically we were still learning winter skills, it just went from hiking to climbing, but to be honest it was great to do something a little different. We warmed up on the climbing wall for just over an hour then headed into the ice wall room! We were in there for well over two hours climbing the ice (which at first is a weird feeling), and even though it was about -5 degrees none of us felt the cold because we were having too much fun! If you are looking to improve your winter skills or want to experience what winter walking really feels like with the guidance of professionals then I would highly recommend this course.