Caisteal Abhail

Lucy writes: Yesterday dawned bright and beautiful again!  I met up with Charlotte and Electra for their final day out with me this week and we headed to North Glen Sannox. We'd left this day until last as I knew that there would be lots of old snow lingering under Caisteal Abhail and wanted to give it as long as possible to melt and soften in the warm weather. It was a good call, as by sunday,  it was only the final part of the North Ridge that was holding any quantity of snow. In the shade of summit buttress we found a little that was quite firm and needed care to traverse. Happily we'd carried ice axes in preparation for this short section.

It was a fun day out with incredible views and fanatstic clients...  and a fitting finale to Electra's birthday celebrations. Happy Birthday Electra!

The Eagles are Coming

Lucy writes: Today was another beautiful day on Arran and I was out with Charlotte and Electra again, on a wildlife watching Hotspot Safari. They'd been lucky enough to see otters earlier in the week, and so were happy to focus on other species today.  With the dry weather and excellent thermals, there was lots of bird of prey activity. We began the day with a hen harrier spot, and ended the day with lovely views of a pair of harriers.  However, most of the day seemed to be spent watching golden eagles, soaring in the skies above Arran's big glens. The highlight was watching a male eagle deliver a dead rabbit to his mate, who swooped down from on high when he called her to devour it.

Western Hills of Arran

Lucy writes:  Wally and I are back on Arran after an enjoyable couple of months working in the Fort William area.  I hit the ground running with a hill day today. Charlotte and Electra are looking to explore the less well trodden parts of Arran and so we headed to the Western Hills. This also had the benefit that we could avoid much of the recent snow, amongst lower, rounded hills that face the afternoon sun.

It was wonderful to feel the warm spring sunshine on our faces.  We didn't see a soul all day, but were treated to lots of wildlife including ravens and golden eagles enjoying the thermals above the summits.

North Ridge of Stob Ban

Lucy:  I was working for West Highland College UHI with the 3rd year students on the Adventure Tourism Management degree today. This was a revision day for them, looking at a range of winter skills and risk management in preparation for an expedition later this month. The team led me and each other up through steep ground on the North Ridge of Stob Ban. We enjoyed fun scrambling, and a chance to look at movement techniques and discuss how you would protect less confident people on the steeper sections.  The descent to the bealach above Coire a Mhusgain was also fairly steep with wet slippery snowpack that needed careful footwork to descend safely. We saw lots of avalanche debris on NE facing slopes and big cornices on north facing aspects.

Living the dream

Great views from below the cloudbase on Ben nevis.

Great views from below the cloudbase on Ben nevis.

Lucy writes: Since Thursday I've been immersed in a dense little block of freelance work of the type that is the standard bread and butter stuff of the jobbing Winter ML.  On Thursday and Saturday, I was working on the "tourist path" of Ben Nevis for West Coast Mountain Guides and yesterday it was the Ptarmigan Ridge of Ben Lomond for Abacus Mountain Guides. Both companies are well respected and highly professional outfits operating out of Fort William, led by super experienced local guides, and I'm very pleased to be on their books as a freelancer.

Getting to the point where I am using my Winter ML Award in this way has not always been straightforward. I was warned when I began the qualification years ago that there isn't much work out there. It took me a while to get my foot in the door with a few companies, and I've had to gamble quite a bit, laying out for accommodation in the Highlands with no guarantee of work. This winter, chracterised by poor conditions and lack of snow,  it's been hard at times to keep the faith. However, when it comes, it is definitely the most rewarding and satisfying work that I do.

Deep snow on the upper slopes of Ben Nevis.

Deep snow on the upper slopes of Ben Nevis.

Both Ben Nevis and Ben Lomond attract a wide range of visitors, from experienced Munro baggers to folk out on their first ever mountain walk, and some might even consider these peaks a little dull. However, in winter, they can be serious undertakings.  On Ben Nevis this week I've encountered the "Full Scottish" platter of strong winds, blizzards, and visibility so bad that even the summit marker cairns are hard to find without a compass. On Thursday I broke trail almost from the snowline to the summit. I used all my navigation skills even though I was on a summit plateau that I know like the back of my hand. The sense of achievement of a job well done at the end of a day like that is immense.  I was back on that same plateau on Saturday, the vis only marginally better, but thanks to two determined clients, keen to lap up as much winter experience and knowledge as possible, I did not feel at all jaded in my work. I love meeting people who are just beginning to fall in love with winter, and am honoured to have a part to play in their journey.

Ptarmigan Ridge of Ben Lomond

Ptarmigan Ridge of Ben Lomond

Yesterday on Ben Lomond, the conditions were a little quieter, but on the steep Ptarmigan ridge,  crampons and ice axe were essential for safe progression.  My clients were super keen, super psyched, but with no winter walking experience.  It was brilliant fun teaching them how to use the kit,  seeing their big grins as they stomped and kicked their way up the snowy ridge. At the top, a cloud inversion, and that rare sight, a brockenspectre, an angel in a rainbow, waiting for us. The delight in these things is as real as happiness can ever be. All three of us, clients and leader, feeling alive and filled with joy at a day in the mountains well spent.

Ben Lomond brockenspectre

Ben Lomond brockenspectre

I began this season on a training course in the Alps, and it seemed a far cry from the wild weather and unreliable conditions of Scotland in winter.  I wondered if I was missing a trick by spending my time fighting spindrift and gales, rather than swishing through Euro powder. Now, as the first signs of spring are creeping in to the glens, I'm sure that there is nowhere I would rather be working than the West Coast of Scotland.  Here, in a typical day, even when I'm repeatedly doing the same routes, I'm using every skill in the box, to coach, inspire, and take care of people in some of the most challenging and exciting conditions out there. Its a massive cliche, but I absolutely love my job.

A day of two halves....

Lucy writes: I didn't take any photos on the first part of my day with Phil, Nigel and Mark in the Mamores. Heavy rain and strong winds were forecast and the weather delivered. We banked on the weather calming down around midday and started later than usual from Achriabhach with a plan to climb Mullach nan Coirean. When we set out the Nevis was in phenomenal spate, and the little burns coming off the hills were wild torrents.

Our day didn't go entirely to plan, but the summit is optional. With mixed experience and fitness levels in the team, we took a leisurely pace, and explored the (soggy) snowpack, discussed mountain hazards, navigation and enjoyed the improving views as the weather cleared.  We didn't make the true summit, but for at least one of the lads this was his first Scottish mountain, and a baptism of fire. A good effort by all.

The high temperatures and heavy rain have stripped a lot of snow and saturated the snowpack.  Cooling temperatures should bring some stability and more snow is forecast.  A good week is potentially in prospect.

A busy weekend...

Lucy writes: Its been a busy three days for us!  It began on Friday, with me working in the East on the first day of a winter skills workshop for Nineonesix Guiding in partnership with the SYHA. This great wee course was supposed to have been delivered in torridon, where the stunning scenery and remote location ensure an special and unique experience.  Sadly our reluctant winter has put paid to that, and the course was relocated to the Cairngorms, where more reliable coonditions ensured a quality outdoor classroom was available.  We had a great day, covering some navigation (despite the good vis) and avalanche avoidance,  as well as movement skills with and without crampons.

Meanwhile....Wally was having some fun with a personal solo day out on the East Ridge of Beinn A Chaorainn, a grade I winter climb and a fine easy mountaineering route.

Saturday saw Wally doing a CPD Avalanche Avoidance refresher on Aonach Mor with the Scottish Avalanche Information Service, and generously supported by the Chris Walker Memorial Trust. Like first aid training, keeping these skills up to date and fresh is an important part of staying current as a winter leader, and so we grab every opportunity we can to learn from experts in this field. Worth remembering though that whilst its easy to get geeky about snow, the basics are simple- knowledge of weather, snowpack, terrain and human factors form the basis of good planning and decision making, supported by forecasts from the SAIS avalanche if available.  Meanwhile, on the mountain next door, I was working for West Coast Mountain Guides, helping to guide a team of seven intrepid lads to the summit of Ben Nevis as part of a winter Three Peaks Challenge.

Finally, yesterday Wally and I were working together, this time for Reach The Peak, on an introductory winter skills day on Ben Vorlich, near Loch Earn. Our team of ten intrepid hillwalkers certainly experienced the "Full Scottish", with spindrift, high winds, and deep snow. We managed to get lots of learning in depsite the weather!