And it did. The hard rain, that is. I was in Fort William for two 1-day training courses with a winter element. The Mountain Leaders Training Association (MLTA), of which I am a member, has just introduced a Continuing Personal Development policy in which members maintain, develop and enhance their skills and knowledge in leading people in mountaineering activities. The two courses were a good chance to brush up on my skills and have a bit of fun.
It had been about fifteen years since I had done any Avalanche Avoidance training, and these are the kind of skills that it’s useful to keep up to date. Since I was travelling over 300 miles to get to Fort William for the course, I decided to do an extra day on a course entitled Winter Mountaineering – The Grey Area. An intriguing title, which had me hooked.
The main problem with the Avalanche Avoidance day was the weather. There had been snow, right enough, but the Sunday of the course brought gale force winds and rain. The original plan to get to the snow by using the Nevis Range ski lift was abandoned due to the gondola not running in the high winds. So, it was a case of ‘packs on and leg it’ up the Allt a’ Mhuilinn to the CIC hut below Coire na Ciste
We arrived at the hut after three stream crossings, accompanied by driving rain and wind. A quick brew and we were ready to head up into the Coire. Tim Blakemore, the course instructor, had given us a useful theory session in the warm before setting out, and now we had the chance to put things into practice.
Ironically, the rain had consolidated any unstable snow lower down, by bonding it all together, but we found the unmistakable signs of an avalanche below No.5 Gully. Here we amused ourselves for a while digging snow pits to assess the snow-pack. The other game was hunt the transceiver. These are radio devices used in avalanche conditions, which transmit a signal that can be traced using a second device. A couple of transceivers were buried in the avalanche debris, then we all had a go at finding them. And just as well we did find them at £200 each!
The next day dawned finer. The wind had dropped, and it was colder, so no rain. Our planned group of six was now down to four, as we set off for the Nevis Range gondola. At the top station we set off for the east side of Aonach Mor, the aim being to practice safeguarding clients on easier ground, without using ‘full-on’ belaying techniques.
The main technique used was moving together and ‘short-roping’ over ground that, whilst easy, had the potential to be dangerous in the case of a slip. We weaved back and forth and up and down on Grade 1+ snow and rock, taking turns to be client and leader. After a bite to eat we went on to lowering clients from improvised ice-axe belays, before finishing up on the ridge above
Earlier in the day, Tim had pointed out potential avalanche prone slopes lower down the hill. When we reached the crest of the broad ridge we found more indicators of future avalanche danger developing, all of which was a useful revision of the points learned the day before. At the end of a great hill day, an easy walk off took us to the gondola top station for the ride down to the valley.
Thanks are due to Tim Blakemore, mountain guide and instructor, who gave us two great days out, despite the changeable conditions. Tim spends his summers guiding clients in the alps, but leaves the warmth behind each winter to run winter courses in Scotland. As well as bringing his expertise he is also a friendly, laid-back guy who will leave you with a big smile on your face. Contact Tim for further details of his guiding and courses.
Thanks also to Dave McGrath Wilkinson for some of the photographs. Dave offers a range of courses in the outdoors including climbing, walking, camping, survival skills and scrambling. Contact Dave for more information.
Text and images © Paul Shorrock