The Great Outdoors

Unexplored Scotland has been featured at the March 2016 edition of The Great Outdoors Magazine. This hasn't been the first time that we have given the magazine some expert advise.

This time it has been a feature they have used for the first time called "My Gear". It it I have given the TGO a comprehensive list of clothing and gear I take with me when I go walking in Winter in the Scottish Highlands. How many can say that they have been pictured in an outdoor magazine, drinking tea?

For more information go to The Great Outdoors.

Winter skills course- avalanche awareness

Winter Skills Course 26-27 March 2016

Winter skills course - summit of Cairn GormThe weather for the weekend didn't look very promising with a lot of (up to 100mph on Cairngorm summit forecast for the evening) and heavy rain. After we met at in Aviemore and sorted out the equipment we headed up to the Cairngorm car park. There it became very quickly clear that we would get pretty wet. And so we did!

First we worked a little on kicking steps just to get ourselves around on the snow and then moved on to ice axe arrests. We worked on all ways of ice axe arresting (legs first on front, bum sliding, head first on front and the infamous head first on back). After that we had a look on how to self-arrest without ice axes and point out the limitations and dangers. Since it was such a wet day of we decided to dry out quickly and head to a cafe in Aviemore to work on the theory of avalanche awareness, planning and a little navigation. As it turned out, Saturday was with 24.4mm rain at Cairngorm the wettest day of the year so far.

Winter skills course - ice axe arrest Ice axe arrest[/caption]On the Sunday the prospects of having a good day out was much better. We cheated and headed straight up Cairngorm with the Funicular. Since the snow was proper névé we had a look how far we can go with just kicking steps with our boots and found quickly that it was a bit too hard for comfort. We then had a look at cutting steps with our ice axes and found it much easier. But having a look at how far we could actually do this and how much we would have to go we decided very quickly to put on crampons.

While we were on the slopes between the Ptarmigan station and Cairngorm summit we encountered several groups attempting and struggling up the icy slope towards the summit. I had to talk to most of them and ask them to turn around as they are ill equipped and will put themselves into harm if they attempted to continue. None of these groups had any ice axes, crampons or even stiff boots and would have no way to stop, if they would start sliding down the hill.

We then went up to the summit and then, after a wee break navigated towards Fiacaill a’ Choire Chais and to the Wall for some more steep ground skills, avalanche awareness and ice axe arresting. It started getting late and we headed down the hill.

Kayaking in Cyprus

I have spent 7 weeks on and off since November at Dhekelia in Cyprus to train soldiers from 1 SCOTS in kayaking. The regiment is currently spending its last few weeks, of a 6 month posting, at Nicosia as part of the UN peacekeepers on the island. As part of their time in Cyprus the soldiers are going throu adventerous training with a choice of mountain biking, climbing and kayaking.

I had the privilage to work with them for 4 weeks in November, 2 weeks in February and now spending another 2 weeks here. The isleand has been proven to bee a fantastic place for watersport. The coastline between Dhekelia and Cape Greco is particularly beautiful, with many lime stone cliffs and caves. Since the soldiers were free to choose the activity they were mostly very keen to learn new skills and have a bit of a "down" time for a week. They also walked away with a K2F (Kayak 2 Star Foundation) qualification.

I would love to come back to work for other units on Cyprus. However, the word is that the british part of the UN mission in Cyprus is probably coming to an end soon. This would be a bit of a shame, not just for me but also for the squaddies posted out here.

What to Carry when Winter Mountaineering

Just a follow up to the recent blog on what to wear when winter mountaineering. It is just as important what you would put inside your rucksack.

Rucksack

Let’s start with the bag. You should have a larger and sturdier rucksack than what you would use in summer. The recommended size would be between 45 and 60 litres. It sounds like a lot but it isn’t and it’s always best to have a too large bag than too small. The more basic it is the better. All the bag needs is a large main compartment, a lid with another small compartment, compression straps and small but sturdy pockets below the compression straps. Try not to go for rucksacks with meshed side pockets. Neat idea to keep the weight down but they rip in no time. Ice axe looks are not necessary if you have to compression straps and I would actually advise not to use them if you have the loops. Instead use the compression straps and the side pocket to store your ice axe. This is safer for anyone walking behind your and the axe is easier to access.
Additionally I would advise a dry bag liner for your dry kit. This way you can create a dry zone and a wet zone in your bag and keep the dry kit dry.

  • 45-60 litre rucksack
  • Large dry bag

Navigation

navigationJust like in summer it’s good to have your navigation gear with you. The obvious ones are Compass and map. You should always have a map of the area you walk in with you. In winter the best choice are 1:50k OS Landranger maps. The 1:25k maps tent to have too much detail and are more confusing than helping. Since the terrain is usually covered in snow, all you need is the contour lines, distances, rivers and lochs (or lakes south of the border). To protect the map you should always put it inside a map case. Over years I have seen many different types of map cases but the only ones that really cut it are from Ortlieb and any other, that are of similar design. Cheaper ones don’t last nearly as long and for a few quid more you get a much better lasting map case. In winter I would also advise the A5 size and not the full map case. This makes it a smaller pack size and will easily hide, ready to use inside your jacket pocket. To get back to the compass, you should always have a functional compass with roamer scale and measuring scales. Best choices to do the job are the Silva Expedition (with clinometer and magnetic variation) or Silva Expedition Type 4. However you get now similar from other manufacturers. I would also advise to have 2 compasses with you. They are pretty bomb proof but what do you do if one decides to depolarise while stored next to your mobile or camera? Last not least you should have a stop watch to time your legs and another good aid are spring toggles attached to the rucksack strap to count 100m (like seen on the photo).

  • Compass
  • 1:50k map
  • Waterproof map case

Spare clothing

spare clothingNow spare clothing can help you stay warm when you stop. Pretty good are belay jackets. They are very light, have good insulation and tend to work even when wet (unlike down jackets). Also some hats and a balaclava to keep your head warm. The human body loses more heat through the head than any other part. Also have plenty of gloves. In the photo you see 2 pair of thin gloves for nicer conditions and 2 pair of thick leather gloves. Rather have too many than not enough. Getting cold usually starts at the extremities. Also but not on the photo you should have ski goggles and sunglasses in the bag.

  • Belay jacket
  • Hat
  • Balaclava
  • 2 pair thick gloves
  • 2 pair thin gloves
  • Ski goggles
  • Sun glasses

Ice axe and Crampons

ice axe and cramponsThose are the obvious winter tools, your ice axe being the number one tool. In the past ice axes where picked by measuring the distance from your hand, the top of the boots. This is nowadays to be considered too long by professionals. However it is still a personal choice. I would advise a length of 45-60cm depending on your height. Having a shorter ice axe allows you to use it on steeper ground in a comfortable position while when they are too long the arm could be too far up the slope and stretched out.
With crampons it all depends on what footwear you choose. I tend to advise people on stiffer B2 or B3 boots. I have seen B1 boots to bend when walking on harder snow. Below is a table for fitting crampons on boots. The easiest to fit tend to be C2 and C3.

 

    Crampons
    C1 C2 C3
Boots B1    
B2  
B3

 

  • B2 or B3 Boots
  • Fitting crampons

Safety and group equipment

Often overlooked are safety and group equipment. When walking in the mountains in winter it can get pretty cold and windy. By having a group shelter (red bag in photo) you can hide from the elements. The first aid kit goes without saying and so does the head torch. The helmet is a personal choice. But think about that, most fatal injuries in the mountains are head injuries!
The snow shovel, avalanche probe and snow saw are in case you need to rescue someone from an avalanche. The shovel can also help you to build a quick shelter too.winter safety equipment

  • Group shelter
  • First aid kit
  • Head torch
  • Climbing helmet
  • Snow shovel
  • Avalanche probe
  • Snow saw

Food and drink

Last not least, you have to take some food and drink with you. Essential is a thermos flask with a hot drink. Think about what you put in there. Coffee has no nutritional value at all but something like hot Ribina can give you a bit of a sugar boost. Food should be slow release energy, complex carbs. So something like bananas, sandwiches and for a boost choccie bar.

  • Hot drink
  • Nutritional food
  • Chocolate bar
Winter Skills Course - Avalanche awareness

Winter Skills Course 27-28 February 2016

Winter Skills Course - cutting steps Saturday morning started very well with glorious sunshine and no wind. We met up in Aviemore and after introduction got into sorting out the equipment. Crampons set up for the boots and off we drove up to the Cairngorm car park.

Winter Skills Course  The avalanche conditions were quite favourable to. Considerable at Northeast to Southeast slopes and everything else lower. Since we were going to spend all day on westerly slope we shouldn’t have any problems with that aspect.

First we had a look at pacing. Counted out a 100m and then set off on the east side of Coire na Ciste. We broke down the legs to more manageable lengths from 180m to 400m. This meant we could talk a bit more about navigation and snow condition. We also had a look at features which are hidden on maps, missing contour lines and detailed map reading. After a wee break we headed over to easy gully and started working first on kicking steps, how to walk uphill and downhill with using the ice axe just for support. Then we moved on to cutting steps. First we shaved little steps into the snow to cut little steps and then we made bigger ones by pre-cutting the steps with the pick of the ice axes. Afterwards we stuck on our crampons and walked down easy gully, John Wayne style.

5On the way we also had a look at avalanche risks and dug a few snow pits to see if there are some weak layers. Most of it was pretty stable. After that we walked out and went for a coffee at the mountain café with a chat about avalanche risks, navigation and planning.

Winter Skills Course - avalanche awareness On the Sunday we met up in the morning again and headed up to Coire na Ciste car park. Near the car park we worked on ice axe arrests, self-arrest without ice axes and later dug a snow shelter to see how you could survive a night in a blizzard.

All in all it was a fantastic weekend with stunning weather. I would say the best weather we had so far this year.

Winter Mountaineering Course

What to Wear when Winter Mountaineering

It is pretty important to know what to wear when you go walking in the winter mountains in Scotland. You don't want to get cold when you stand around for a few minutes and you don't want to be too warm so you would sweat too easily and therefore cool down more when you rest.

Let’s start nearest too the skin.

  • Synthetic or wool base layer
  • Synthetic or wool underwear or long johns

winter clothingIt is very important to what you wear close to your skin. You should always wear something that transports any sweat away from you and that keeps you warm. Synthetic material is usually best in transporting any moisture away to the next layer but the material is known to smell pretty bad after a day in the hills. Wool will keep you warmer and will still transport the moisture away from you but not as efficiently as synthetic material. The big advantage is that you don’t tend to smell as badly though.

  • Thick fleece jacket
  • Thick or thermal mountain trousers
  • Waterproof jacket
  • Waterproof trousers

On top of all this you should wear your insulating and waterproof layers. The fleece jacket is important as it again can transport any moisture away from your body and keep the warmth in. The waterproof jacket will keep wind and precipitation out. Best will be a high end jacket 3 layer waterproofing with big pockets. You should be able to stow your map case and compass in one of the pockets. Again the trousers are there to keep you warm and should be tough synthetics. The waterproof trousers should also be tough material. Best is to wear them straight away because over trousers can be a bit of a faff to get on with big boots and crampons. They also keep the wind out.

  • Thick winter socks
  • B2 or B3 boots

What you wear on your feet is just as important. You should only wear thick winter walking socks or even waterproof winter socks like the ones you get from Sealkinz. The boots are your number one tool in the winter. I recommend B2 (they have a small step at the heel to fit C2 crampons) or B3 (same heel as B2 plus a small slot at the toes for C3 crampons) boots as they tend to be much stiffer than B1 boots. With the stiffer boots you will find it easier to walk in snow and kick steps if need be. B0 (3 season boots) and B1 can bounce off on harder snow at times.

  • Think glove liners
  • Windproof gloves
  • 2 pair of thick gloves

The last thing you want in the mountains is to get cold hands. You should have glove liners and windproof gloves for those days when it is not as cold but you still want to cover your skin with something. This will give you more dexterity as well. For when the weather is colder and windier you need something thicker. I find the best gloves are leather with good insulation. They don’t need to be gore-tex as the leather is already waterproof and can be treated with wax. I find that Black Diamond Dirt Bag and Kingpin gloves are some of the best and they don’t cost the world. Some spare gloves should be stored at the top pocket of your rucksack.

  • Fleece hat
  • Fleece balaclava
  • Buff
  • Sunglasses
  • Ski goggles

winter navigation Last not least, keeping your head and neck warm is just as important as the rest of your body. The buff keeps the wind away from your neck and can also be pulled up over the lower part of your face. A standard buff will do. Use a fleece hat or balaclava depending on weather conditions. You should always store them in the top pocket of your rucksack if you don’t need it. This will give you easy and quick access. When it is sunny in winter you can get some intensive glare off the snow. So best to always have shades with you so you don’t squint at every photo, and of course to protect your eyes. The goggles are important if you get any spin drift. This will protect the cornea of your eyes and keeps the last bit of exposed skin warm. Best are yellow or red ski goggles because you can still use them in darkness, while darker and reflective goggles can be too dark.

I hope that this list is quite helpful for anyone who is winter mountaineering in Scotland.

The Great Outdoors Magazine

I'm proud to anounce that Unexplored Scotland has been featured in the March 2015 edition of The Great Outdoors. I was asked for expert advise on climbing Ben Nevis in the winter and about some top tips on what to do. Unexplored Scotland also got mentioned later on about winter walking in the Assynt area.

More will follow in 2016 with some more expert advise. Watch this space.

Climbing Technology Nuptse Crampons Review

There seems to be a new player for climbing equipment on the market. Climbing Technology a company based in Italy has started throwing inexpensive climbing equipment on the market now making the big players almost look silly with their massive inflations. We thought of buying 2 pair of CT Nuptse Semi-Auto Crampons for this season and see how we get on with them.

First of all the price seems too good to be true. The RRP is £85 is already quite good but we got them for £65. If you compare that with Grivel, it would be only one pair of G12 for £135 RRP then. With the CT Nuptse crampons you also get a crampon bag which is another tenner or so for all other brands. Now money is not everything and you may think that they would fall apart like some of those crampons from Eastern Europe. Well, that's not really true, they have to comply with UIAA standards just like every other manufacturer or otherwise you wouldn't be able to buy them in shops in this country.

At first look they look a bit more funky with grey and orange, than the usual black and yellow. The material is certainly a bit cheaper than their rivals and the finish is not as slick. For example; Grivel crampons have antiball plates with riveted loops and hooks to fit them on crampons. The CT crampons have very basic plates with moulded loops for fitting. Even though they haven't come off yet it seems to me a slight flaw, which may come undone quicker than the more expensive type. However, this design of crampons doesn’t ball up as much as some of the steep ice technical crampons.

Fitting them on my old Scarpa Manta was a doddle which I would expect from Semi-Autos (C2) crampons. They fitted nice and snug and the adjustments are very similar to what you expect from Grivel crampons. Walking with them on neve snow is just as secure as with any other crampons. They hold up nicely on French, American, downhill and front pointing. The slightly shorted secondary front points mean that front-pointing on ice is a bit harder but then their main function is to just balance your crampons at the right position. The side points are good and adequate for any hillwalking and up to Grade II/III mixed climbing. Not once they were getting loose or shifted in position.

To take them off was very easy again. Just like all crampons now with double rings they have a wee strong to pull on to take them off.

Our verdict is most certainly, a thumbs up for the Climbing Technology Nuptse. They do everything you would expect from C2 Crampons. The 12 point design holds up to the standard and all the metal work is of good quality. The cost cutting can be seen in the antiball plate and the finish of some parts. The price certainly makes it a very inexpensive alternative to the usual suspects. They are more comparable with Grivel AirTec than G12 in design and use. We will certainly stick with them in future. They are more than adequate for client use and hillwalking in Scotland.

Winter Mountaineering Repair Kit

It can be quite handy to have a winter mountaineering repair kit or crampon repair kit. Just imagine you walk along on hard packed nevee snow and suddenly your crampons fall apart. What do you do now? Cry like a baby because you have to cut steps for the rest of the day or pull out a repair kit and fix it. I'm not trying to say that a repair kit can fix any proble with crampons. Once a Friend kicked a step with his crampons and hit a rock with the secondary front point, which in return just broke off. For some crampons it's no problem but they were C3 with the front bar attached to the breakage. The whole crampon fell off and dangled off his ankle. The only way he could continue the climb was by straping a sling around the crampon.

Here is the list of things you can carry with you for basic repairs on crampons.

  • 2.5mm allen key
  • 3mm allen key
  • 6mm spanner
  • Slection of cable ties
  • Selection of nuts and bolts (a lot of crampons come with spare nuts and bolts so use them)

River Kayaking Repair Kit

After years of paddling down river and figuring out what to have in your repair kit I started to get a good ballance (I think) of what you should have with you on the river to sort out most issues.

Here are all the bits listed in my kit starting at the top left and going clock-wise:

  • 900ml food container
  • Compact bike repair tool
  • Small pliers with pouch
  • Cable ties
  • Pocket blow torch
  • Cork
  • Penciles
  • Flash bang
  • Stanley knife
  • Ductape
  • Some hot glue sticks
  • Pruning saw

Somewhat more compact than a sea kayaking repair kit. The pruning saw and the ductape are not going into the box but into the dry bag. It certainly helps if you have a creek boat with a back hatch.