Thursday, 4 March 2010

OM Winter Skills Weekend 2010

The Scottish Highlands and the north eastern side of Scotland in particular had just had one of its biggest snowfalls for some years. Twitters from Aviemore were not sounding promising for our journey up, one said it had been snowing constantly for thirty hours, the BBC weather pages said that there was 42cm of lying snow in Aviemore and it was cut off. Worse though was the road travel news, the A9 trunk road over the Drumochter Pass was closed and the A80 between Stirling and Perth closed too.

Snowy Aviemore

When it comes to planning weekends away with weather and travel I always say you have to be prepared for the worst which we certainly were as always and be aware of the situation and have a backup plan which we did. However all that said I do believe you should never cancel your plans until you know for certain that it won't work out, otherwise why make the effort to get prepared and have a backup plan. Plus to be honest blocked trunk roads don't stay blocked for long and quite often then weather forecasters can get it all wrong. We never give up and make our own fate by being positive and prepared to change if need be, so we set off!

We had a surprisingly easy journey through the north of England, no snow just a bit lingering around Shap. We went by Halfords as we left home to see if they had any snow chains, they do stock them but had none in so as we got towards Glasgow I pulled myself away from Buzzard spotting and phoned the Halfords in Hamilton just off the M74. They had some in so we nipped in and get them. As we left Glasgow and headed east the clag we'd had all day started to lift, and as we rounded a bend near the end of the M73 we saw white! Snow on the Ochil Hills in the distance. As we passed through the usual jams and contraflows at Cumbernauld, which seem to have been going on for decades, snow started to appear at road level too. There was a surprisingly deep amount of snow on the A9 between Stirling and Perth, with three foot deep snow ploughed up on either side of the road making for hairy times passing big lorries.

We kept in communication with Matt and Kate who were 'bombing' up the motorway about an hour or two behind us, getting helpful travel news from Elaina, browsing mobile versions of travel websites and listening to the car radios traffic updates. The A9 was open! The news we had been waiting to hear all day. We got to the Drumochter Pass before it went dark which was great as hundreds of Red Deer had come down off the hills to try and find food in the valley. The job that the ploughs had done to clear the pass was incredible. The only time we had any trouble was near the top of the pass where snow had been blown back onto the road, these sections were quite scary and you could see how in a matter of minutes snow could easily be blown back over the road in deep drifts. We made it to Aviemore where an alpine like scene greeted us. We needed a few bits so parked up in the Tesco car park which was half filled with huge mounds of snow. Nethy Bridge where the bunkhouse is was a good fifteen miles from Aviemore on smaller roads. We navigated our way down some treacherous roads but soon found what we thought was the bunkhouse.

Nethy Station Bunkhouse

We parked up and approached the bunkhouse to be told it was actually a little further down the road at the Nethy Station Bunkhouse. We set off again and ended up stuck in a foot of snow down the wrong track. Eventually we did find the right track and parked up and unpacked after meeting everyone that had already arrived. As we got there quite early we managed to bag a nice little secluded hobbit room with a hobbit door which on the last night I smacked my head into much to Kate's delight! We were just about settled in and then got a call from Elaina who told us that Sandy was stuck down a road in the village. We ran out to find him and on our way also found the Irish lads stuck on the track we'd attempted earlier. We found Sandy stuck down a field track and put a lot of muscle power into getting him out. We used his new purple Black Diamond shovel to dig him out which he was fine with until he saw the mess of it that Nicky had made scraping it on the asphalt! Hee Hee!

Kate had bagsied the telly as the Wales rugby match was on so she sat shouting in good manner from time to time at the TV in the corner of the bunkhouse dining area. We watched in envy as Kelvin and Rob stuffed their faces with the biggest curry ever, while Kate told us about her fetish for black rugby players legs. After meeting everyone new we had a quick run through from Iain then got off to bed for an early night as we had to be up at 7:30am for breakfast. When we got up Iain and Kirstin made us all a very satisfying cooked breakfast then we all finalised the packing. We had a slight dilemma as we had to somehow fit 18 people in Alan and Iain's two cars. Luckily I had bought my snow chains so could chance it in my car. The night before Iain and Alan went out to test some of the local roads in Al's 4x4 coach to see where we could get to and came up with a plan to take advantage of the A939's close proximity to the Hills of Cromdale. Iain had brought snow chains with him and could get several in his car and Alan with his 4x4 could cram several people in his too, this left another five to go in my car with snow chains I had never fitted or used before.

Kitting up and splitting into two groups

We reached the point at which the unploughed A939 left the A95. Here a slight incline in snow saw Iain and Myself come to a sudden stop. Iain installed his chains with ease and went on, leaving Alan to try and figure mine out. We got them on eventually and set off, we got about two kilometres down the road and all of a sudden a thud and grinding noise, yep one of them had completely broken. We were stuck in the middle of a road with a few feet of snow on either side so started using spades and shovels to dig out a space for my car as we would have to abandon it and come back for it later. As we started to dig and manoeuvre the car a rather unfriendly local vet decided to get impatient, he pulled up in his Range Rover with personalised VET registration and told us "You shouldn't even be here" and "I'm a vet you know I do have to earn a living". How this complete tw@t didn't end up with an ixe axe in his windscreen I'll never know! Alan dropped off one group and then came back for us after we'd got my car safely off the road.

From the layby we could now see above us two small yet perfectly formed and steep sided hills that make up Sgor Gaoithe, the western most point of the Hills of Cromdale. It was the perfect spot and covered in a metre and more of decent snow. We split into two groups, myself, Nicky, Kelvin, Rob, Maria, Damo, Dave and Chris all went with instructor Alan and the rest went off with Iain and Kirstin. The first day we covered mainly axe work, practising ice axe arrests from many different starts, my favourite being the downhill on my back head first. We also learned how to walk on varying terrain in crampons and various ways of making steps which was tough work on a steep icy slope. Alan was a true professional until he had to hold his axe and explain the "shaft" to us, at this point some little Beavis & Butthead childlike side of him kicked in and he started giggling! The day ended with a fantastic sunset as we descended the hill as you will see on the photos.

Stunning sun rays on the descent from Sgor Gaoithe

We retrieved my car which was much easier as the ploughs had been down the road and cleared most of the new and older snow. The journey back to the bunk house was made better by having Damo and Dave in the back of the car making us laugh. Once back at the bunkhouse it was a fight for the showers, then Kirstin... not Iain! ;-) made us a lovely Chilli Con Carne. I got an early night as I was rather knackered and Nicky stayed up sat on the naughty table with the Irish contingent laughing at some of the most wrong jokes I've heard in a long time! The next day we got up early again, especially for a Sunday, to find blue skies and blazing sunshine. After another breakfast we all set off again for the same hill as yesterday, it was just such a perfect spot that it seemed daft to go anywhere else especially as we knew the ploughs had cleared the road. We got up the road with no problems, parked up, split into our groups again and set off up Sgor Gaoithe in brilliant conditions.

Alan's second day plan was to do rope work, learning knots, various belaying techniques and a little abseiling down steep slopes. This was probably my favourite part of the weekend, learning basic belays and testing them properly was ace. The highlight of the day was undoubtedly Damo's Elvis dance which you will find by clicking here. For the last few hours of the day we were shown how to build emergency snow shelters. We only had two snow shovels for this and I didn't get the use of one so had to dig out my man sized upwards tunnel using just my ice axe. This was hard work and as I type this several days later my arms and moobs are still hurting! As we packed up for the day the weather took a quick turn for the worse and took away any visibility we had. Rather stupidly we didn't bother to take a compass bearing which we probably should have done at this moment. We descended what we though was the west ridge, watching Hares the size of dogs running around on the slopes above us. We soon realised our mistake as we got to the road and realised we had gone south and ended up a good kilometre further down the road. A tricky fence crossing which saw me on my backside and we were back on the road heading to the cars. Another great day but I was well and truly knackered.When we got back to the bunkhouse I received a few texts to let me know that United had won the cup final so I was very happy about that.

Snow Ballard Belay

Nicky and myself went off to Aviemore for a meal on Sunday night. The whole weekend a few feet of snow lay everywhere and Sunday night was a real treat as it was a clear sky and almost full moon, you could easily have done a full days walk in this light it was fantastic. As Nicky drove the car to Aviemore as my arms were hurting so much, I gazed out of the window at the sight of moonlight fields. The fields were covered in animal tracks of Red Deer, Cattle, Grouse, Hare, Rabbits and many more I'm sure. We got back to the bunkhouse and Mr Lightweight here went off to bed. In the morning we said our goodbyes as the rest of those also leaving got off and those staying on for the snow holing and navigation course were preparing their kit. The weather as we left was perfect so the snow holing group must have had a great time, chilly though as it was minus eight degrees Celsius when we left the bunkhouse at ten the next morning. The journey home was depressing as it always is when coming back home from Scotland but made easier by views of blue skies and white snowy mountains. It was a great weekend, I'm sure there is plenty I have forgotten to mention but finding time to write a post of a long weekend is hard at the moment so I've tried my best.

If you are interested in polishing up your own mountain and hill walking skills then I would highly recommend Iain Gallagher of Kendal Mountaineering Services. The above Winter Skills weekend is an annual event, if you are interested in joining in next year then contact Iain or look out for next years thread on Outdoor Magic.

Report from Sandy of the Snow Holing adventures after we left here.

I have uploaded the photos from the weekend here.

Route Map...


  1. LOL at you Mr Lightweight ;-)

    Great be-brief on the weekend. Brings my memories flooding back of our course back in 2006.

    I think I need to meet the Irish contingent if their jokes were even more wrong than your usuals - did you meet your match ;-)

  2. Glad to hear that you had a great time and that Abernethy Bunkhouses - Nethy Station was a good place to retreat to. I think you had the best of the weather as it is now 'drizzling!Iain and the rearguard have just left!Ski Heil!Ok! Crampon Heil! In your case! Richard and Patricia

  3. Elaina, I more than met my match, I was completely out numbered by very funny and likeable Irish fellas! I wasn't myself really either as I was just knackered all the time.

    Richard, the bunkhouse was great! As people kept arriving on Friday night we wondered how we would cope but it swallowed us all and bags of gear up as it is a great conversion. The dry room was a real bonus!

  4. Getting out and learning new skills for the hills is great. Kick on to bigger adventures now for you then?

  5. Aye had to learn everything I've known from friends on using the web until these days as I'm finally dent free and can afford courses now. Was a real eye opener doing the rope work and belaying. Don't think I'll ever turn into a climber as I have no desire for it really but I may well play about with it. Off to do Striding Edge in winter conditions tomorrow with Steve and Elaina.