Winter Skills, 16th and 17th February 2002

After a very long journey on the Friday night we arrived at our accommodation (no camping for us for this weekend!) in the early hours of the morning. A few hours later we managed to struggle out of bed for a cooked breakfast. We soon found ourselves in the local mountaineering shop where we met our guides for the weekend, and hired the boots and crampons needed for walking in the snow.

The weather wasn’t brilliant, so we had to do Sunday’s walk instead, and leave the winter skills part until the next day. We drove along the valley, and part way up a mountain track and gathered all our equipment together before setting off on the ascent of Beinn a’ Chaorainn (1050m), a Munroe to the north-east of Fort William.

We had with us two very experienced mountain guides, and we split straight away into two groups of four (walking at the pace of the slowest, of course). The first part of the walk was along a track, and then we started to climb the grassy slopes to get to the ridge. Walking in plastic mountain boots is surprisingly difficult (and so is walking with crampons, as I found out later).

When we were part way up the ridge, we finally got to some snow, so on went the crampons, harnesses and helmets, and out came the ice axes. As we got higher up the ridge we used the rope to move together as a group. When we reached the summit, we had the chance to practice some navigation by using some compass work and pacing to find the ridge for our decent. Arriving back at the bus it was time for some food, and also to see who had the newest crampons by checking the size of the rips in people’s trousers (I think Dan won)!

The evening consisted of showering, eating a very hot chilli prepared by Jules, and drinking a selection of poor beers in the pub!

Sunday saw another early start and a cable car ride up to the Ben Nevis ski range to learn some winter skills. This involved learning various self-arrest techniques (throwing yourself down an icy slope with only an ice axe to stop yourself), different techniques for walking up a slope wearing crampons (British, French and American, if I remember rightly), and some rope work. The rope work was fun, and involved building a hole in the snow and then sitting in it to belay your partner while they climbing up the slope and dug their own hole. It was a bit cold sitting in the snow though. We also had a go at testing the avalanche risk (which was only 2/5 on that day).

All that remained was to thank the instructors, return our equipment, and set off on the 8 hour journey home keeping a watchful eye for a Burger King (we did drove past the first, and the second was closed, so not very successful).

It was a long way to go for a weekend, but it was well worth it. I learnt a lot of new skills, and can’t wait to return to Scotland next winter (or even the Alps in the summer?) !

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