Winter skills

Having decided we (especially Pata) could do with learning some winter skills, what with how much we like walking in wintery conditions, Pato went about finding us an instructor. We love Scotland, and it provided the perfect environment for practicing winter skills in harsh, snowy conditions without leaving the country. We found Jonathan Preston a British mountaineering guide and soon the course was booked!

We headed off in a newly insulated Bluey. Using a group on Facebook to find a decent spot to stop for the night half way up the country. The spot was perfect in the forest of Bowland. The roads to get there however were a nightmare!! It was Saturday night and sections of the M6 were closed which resulted in long detours. The actual spot was around twenty minutes off the motorway, but worth it. It was a very quiet road with nice parking spots sheltered by hilly terrain.

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Wild overnight parking spot

The moon shone brightly and the sky was full of stars but it was 2am by the time we arrived and straight to bed for us! With the insulation added, the bulk head open and the heating having been blasted to warm it up while we were on the way. It was a comfortable temperature for most of the night. Although the bed leaves a lot to be desired comfort wise!! So we did wake up stiff!

We got up and set off on the second leg of the journey up to Aviemore. We decided to take a longer more scenic route via Loch Lomond which was worth it! We stopped for a picnic lunch at a car park near Stuckgowan overlooking Loch Lomond and then carried on. The closer we got the more snow there was, that’s when the excitement set in.

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Loch Lomond

We got to Aviemore and headed out of the town to find a secluded spot. Scotland is more campervan friendly than England. Unless a car park says no overnight parking you can park! Using iOverlander (a pretty decent app that people log overnight parking spots on worldwide) we found Allt Mor car park just ten minutes out of Aviemore and it was perfect! An off the road wooded car park with lots of different little sections. £2 for the day. Well worth it. If you need to use your phone use it in Aviemore because there is none at the car park. Neither are there any facilities.

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Allt Mor car park

 

 

Day 1-

Jonathan (our winter course instructor) met us at Allt Mor car park the next morning and we headed up to the Cairngorms ski centre to park. Before setting off Jonathan explained how to read and understand the avalanche forecast, then with all our gear on (see kit list here) we set off in the beautiful snow. Conditions were good but cold/windy. He lead us to Coire an t-Sneachda demonstrating how to find our bearings with a map and compass on the way. That is where we did our first set of skills. It was very cold and soon neither of us could feel our feet!!

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Cairngorms’ ski centre

We practiced different fall arrests using the ice axe, this was very useful. The conditions were cold and windy which added to the authenticity of what we may potentially have to do one day. Having spent some time learning about ice axe use we had a quick bite to eat and then headed off in our crampons to learn crampon techniques. Having used crampons on a few occasions it was insightful to finally learn how to actually use them and to see the extent at which they could be useful on very steep terrain! At this point we also learnt about how to understand the snow pack. It was amazing how fast the day went by. It was a good hours walk to get to Coire an t- Sneachda and a further hour to get back to the ski centre at the end of the day. We headed up to Fiacaill a’Choirs Chais ridge on the way back down, passing pre dug out snow holes. It was quite tricky walking in the deep snow. Especially for Pata who had brand new winter boots and heavy crampons! Luckily for us we had booked a hotel for the next couple of nights.

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Pato practicing ice climbing skills

We got back to the ski centre and headed off to find warmth. Staying at the Hilton Coylumbridge it was a comfortable, warm hotel and the bed was very comfy compared to the van. Hot showers were delicious as was dinner, and we settled for a good nights sleep.

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Descending to ski centre car park

The following day Pata with a pre-exisiting injury felt too sore to cope with day two out on the snow and decided to save herself for day 3. So she went and explored around the hotel while Pato went off with Jonathan.

Day 2-

Pata’s day-

It was a 40 minute walk from the Hilton Coylumbridge to Aviemore centre. There were good pavements all the way and some walking/cycling paths that avoid the busier roads. It felt very pedestrian friendly. Along the way you could branch off into the woods along different marked paths. I had a pleasant stroll in the woods and then headed into town. Although Aviemore is small it has all you need. There’s certainly plenty of activities to do in the area from clay pigeon shooting to fishing to bike hire etc. We were sad we weren’t staying longer.

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Path from Hilton hotel to Aviemore

Pato’s day-

A little sad without Pata I headed off to meet Jonathan. However less experienced Pata not being there enabled us to do some more technical climbing rather than another day of skills. We drove up and started at the ski centre again. During the night there had been heavy snow fall and all the paths were covered. This meant that we had to wade through the snow creating a new path. This time we walked to the base of Fiacaill ridge where we got all our climbing gear on ready to face a grade 1-2 mixed climb on Twin Ribs.

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Jonathan leading on Twins Ribs

We got to the top in four pitches and then moving together we made our way to the crest of the ridge. Just before getting to the summit there was some more climbing to do. As we got to the top we could feel the wind picking up and Jonathan suggested heading over to some snow holes he knew about for lunch. Inside the snow hole was cramped but sheltered and it was only when we left the snow hole that we discovered how much the weather had deteriorated thus reducing the visibility considerably. At this point we worked out our bearings and headed down.

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Snow hole at Coire Domhain

Day 3-

Day 3 was the coldest of them all! This time we started at the ski centres lower car park that was only just passable. There were snowplow’s out working hard to clear the previous nights snow. We headed up an easier ridge to an area with steep enough hillside to consolidate the ice axe and crampon techniques that we’d learnt. We also practiced different techniques for belaying and creating anchor points on the snow/ice. It amazed us how strong a snow bollard can be without digging down that deeply! It was all very useful stuff.

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Pata practising front point climb

We had our break next to an igloo that had been built days before, it was a real surprise to feel how warm it was once all three of us were inside. While at the igloo we had a surprise visit from a very curious, hungry and not at all shy shrew. It ran around us looking for crumbs. I guess so many days with such large quantities of snow makes it difficult to forage for food!

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Shrew eating bread

To finish the day we went and did a grade 1 mixed climb. This was an exhilarating experience especially for Pata since it was her first real climb outdoors! Half way up Ciste crag the wind hit hard throwing snow in our faces as we climbed.

What an amazing break in Scotland not just having fun, but learning some very important skills to keep us safe on the mountains in winter. This opens up a new range of activities to try; more winter walks, easy winter climbs, joining big expeditions… etc. All this wise knowledge we owe to Jonathan Preston, our guide over these three days who shared with us his specialist knowledge while keeping us safe. A great guide and person, part of the mountain rescue team in Aviemore that we cannot recommend enough.

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Patos with Jonathan Preston


Kit list:

  • Stiff soled winter boots (crampon compatible)
  • Warm socks
  • Gaiters
  • Warm, waterproof and windproof clothing
  • Winter gloves and spares
  • Winter hat
  • Harness
  • Helmet
  • Crampons
  • Ice axe
  • Goggles
  • 40l rucksack
  • Walking poles
  • Headtorch and spare batteries
  • Map and compass
  • Slinge, carabines and belay plate.
  • Water & packed lunch/snacks

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